25th June, 1997; The tropical Malaysian weather did not make for the best of circumstances in which to play football, yet many of the world’s young stars and future legends came to play their part in the 11th edition of the FIFA World Youth Championship.
The roll call read like a who’s who in world football – reigning champions Argentina brought Juan Roman Riquelme and Pablo Aimar; while the French turned up with Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet in tow; England qualified with the likes of Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher.
The name Damien Duff should be added to that list. The Republic of Ireland player, who only made his senior football debut six weeks prior, may have been less heralded than his contemporaries, but that Wednesday night the Emerald Isle winger would achieve something none of them did.
It was the Round of 16 match against African champions Morocco. Ireland’s progress caught nearly everyone by surprise, including the opposition’s coach. “Frankly I am having problems because I have not seen the Irish play at all,” said Richard Taoussi. “I expect the Irish to adopt the typical British style.”
What the Irish did adopt was a counter attacking style that relied on their wingers. That placed Duff and his fellow wingman, Neil Inman, in the spotlight. Their remit – to supply forwards Desmond Baker and Neale Fenn with the ammunition to fire Brian Kerr’s young men forward.
Indeed, Fenn would put them in front in the 35th minute, finishing the good work of Stephen Murphy’s headed flick into the 18-yard box. They managed to score another goal through captain David Worrell, but this own goal, deflected from Mohamed Jabrane’s cross, meant that both teams were level at the break.
In the second half, the Irish defence stood tall against the African onslaught. “The Moroccans, for all their flair, struggled to find a route through the Irish defence which refused to unbutton itself,” wrote Dan Guen Chin for the New Straits Times. “It was a flawless defensive operation on the part of the Irish.”
This merely set the stage for Ireland’s number 11 perfectly. Duff had tantalised with his creativity and bag of tricks; by the tournament’s end he would have claimed four assists. However, until this match the 18 year-old had yet to score a goal to cement his growing reputation.
That would change in the 97th minute. Having received the ball from full back Robbie Ryan, he floated inside and evaded the Moroccan defenders. Duff found himself in the box with only the keeper, Tarik El-Jarmouni, to beat. He slipped it between the keeper’s legs to score the first golden goal in World Cup history.
That’s a claim that Anthony Carbone may wish to dispute. The Australian’s goal in the very same tournament two editions earlier was scored in identical circumstances. Fifa’s technical reports, however, identified it as a ‘sudden death’ goal instead, the popular term used at the time.
Ironically, the Australia youths themselves were knocked out by another golden goal in 1995. This time it was Portugal’s Joaquim Agostinho who delivered the fatal blow. Unfortunately, that ruling was not yet universal. This changed for Euro ’96, with which Germany’s Oliver Bierhoff won tournament. As such, Duff’s goal is still recognised as the official first in a Fifa World Cup tournament.
After defeating the Spaniards in the quarter finals, they faced the reigning champions Argentina. In addition to the aforementioned Riquelme and Aimar, their backline was marshalled by Walter Samuel, and shielded by Esteban Cambiasso. Jose Pekerman’s side would clearly be no walk in the park.
Not that anyone told Duff that. He nearly added Ireland’s name into the record books again, slaloming his way past three Argentinians from the middle of the pitch. However, his inch perfect pass was wasted by Alan Kirby as he shot straight at the goalkeeper, thwarting what would have been the 1,000th goal in this tournament’s history.
Instead, that honour fell to Bernardo Romeo as he scored the only goal of the match. Having dedicated each of his goals to his Juliet, Brenda, his fourth and final goal of the summer was one he dedicated to the people of Argentina instead. The Irish Times mourned with the headline “Romeo kills an Irish romance.”
Nevertheless, what Duff and his teammates did for the Irish was just as important, breaking down barriers along the way. Heretofore no Irish team had made it this far in a World Cup. “They proved that brawn was not the reason they made the semi-finals,” wrote Vijesh Rai, “and they delivered a sucker punch to those who thought it did.”
Fifa’s official report of the tournament confirmed much of the same, summing it up in fewer words:
The biggest overall upset of the tournament was provided by the Irish. Their reputation worldwide is for antiquated kick and rush football, but that had to be completely adjusted.
In the midst of all that confetti, there is still one more match to come. Most third place playoffs are treated as a dead rubber, but that’s not the case when a grudge match is on the cards. Having lost to Ghana in their opening match, the ‘young Boys in Green’ now have it all to do in the the battle for bronze.
That Ghana side is not to be taken lightly, many of them having graduated from the Under-17 world championship-winning side of 1995. They also boasted the likes of future captain Stephen Appiah and Peter Ofori-Quaye, who would become become the youngest goalscorer in Uefa Champions League history.
The Irish, however, had Damien Duff. He may have scored the historic goal two rounds earlier, but Duff saved his golden performance for last. The Irish had braved through food poisoning and fatigue to play through seven matches in less than three weeks, but they were not about to go quietly into the night.
It began with a roar two minutes in. Duff broke into the box, quickly chipping a cross. Baker, replacing the suspended Neale Fenn, justified his selection with a bullet header inside the six yard box. However, Baba Sule sullied the moment minutes later, equalising for ‘the Black Satellites’.
If anything, that fired up Duff even more. The evening drizzle drenched the locals and expat community turning out in force, as the 28,000 strong at the Shah Alam Stadium cheered the Irish on. Under such conditions are legends born, and at this iconic stadium, the winger would again spread his wings and fly high.
“He’s one of those lads who you could let him wander about and pick up the positions he wanted to pick up,” mused Jack Charlton many years later. “He was very good at making his way between players. You can never adjudicate on what he’s going to do next.”
His goal here was a perfect example of that. In the 33rd minute, the Ghanians pushed forward. Unfortunately for them, so did Duff. He came inside as Thomas Morgan split the opposition open with a pass from midfield. Duff ghosted between the last two defenders; three touches later, the ball nestled in the back of the net.
It was Ireland’s last goal of the tournament, but having ignited Duff’s ascent into stardom, Malaysia was not quite done with Duff just yet. Little did he know, but he would return to the country to once again begin a new stage of his career some years later. For that, the locals had one man to thank: Roman Abramovich.
Half a decade later, the Russian oligarch purchased Chelsea in 2003, and changed the footballing landscape forever. Seeking a marquee signing, he looked no further than Blackburn Rovers’ top scorer. The 17 million pounds paid made the Irishman the second most expensive player in the British game at the time.
And why not? After his exploits in Southeast Asia, Duff had grown to become a key player for Blackburn. Even through their relegation in 1999, his reputation remained on the up, accentuated by a dazzling World Cup in 2002. That year also saw him selected for Uefa’s Team of the Year.
Back in Malaysia, the summer of 2003 saw the first ever FA Premier League Asia Cup. A brainchild of Richard Scudamore, it was a forerunner to the Game 39 proposal, and featured Chelsea, Newcastle United and Birmingham City. The Malaysian national team, managed by Chelsea old boy Allan Harris, would also take part.
Indeed, Chelsea’s first match was against the host team. Duff’s late signing delayed his arrival in the country, and Claudio Ranieri started him on the bench. Frank Lampard’s opener on 36 minutes was matched by the host’s Hairuddin Omar, who evaded the attentions of John Terry to head home a corner kick.
Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for the home team. On the hour mark, Ranieri signalled to the bench, and the crowd paid close attention as Chelsea’s costliest signing prepared to make his entrance. He came on for Boudewijn Zenden in a like-for-like replacement, and made an instant impact.
Until that point Chelsea had struggled to break down the home team. Ranieri was keen to protect his star players, but he also wanted to impress the new man upstairs.
The humidity made it very difficult for us. I wanted to preserve my strikers but we needed the victory and the last half hour was good for us.
Fellow substitute Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink put Chelsea ahead with a powerful shot from outside the box, before Duff worked his magic. Beating two men, he crossed for Eidur Gudjohnsen, who couldn’t miss with his header. A minute later, Glen Johnson’s header wrapped up the match.
Having finished the previous season under restricted financial conditions, Ranieri was certainly happy with his new toy. “Damien Duff showed what we want from him. He was very quick, put in a good cross and there was a good link between him and the strikers.”
The final was against Newcastle, who had dispatched of Birmingham in the other match. The heat took its toll, and both teams were wary. After all, the new season would start in three weeks time; like Duff, Newcastle’s first choice strikeforce Alan Shearer and Craig Bellamy started on the bench.
Those who started on the pitch were keen to put their best foot forward for the 40,000 at the National Stadium. Hasselbaink and Gudjohnsen threatened, while Zenden had a shot well-saved by Shay Given. Newcastle remained toothless, even after bringing on their big guns for the second half.
By the time Ranieri was ready to remove the cotton wool from Duff, there was 11 minutes left on the clock. Again, he replaced Zenden. However, unlike the previous time, he could not affect a positive change as the match petered out to a penalty shootout.
As the ever-reliable Lampard scored Chelsea’s penalty, the usually-reliable Shearer surprisingly failed to hit the target. Duff, as the second penalty taker, could have given his a two-goal lead, but he saw his shot saved by international teammate Given.
It didn’t matter, though, as Jermaine Jenas’s cheeky chip cleared the crossbar. It handed Chelsea the match and the unique trophy, shaped by two traditional daggers known as the keris. Duff’s celebrations were more subdued than most, but he quietly enjoyed the third cup victory of his senior career.
Of course, he would go on to win so much more with Chelsea, Newcastle and Fulham, along with 100 caps for the national team. At the club level, he played nearly 500 games before calling time on his playing career with Shamrock Rovers at the tail end of 2015.
No doubt he would have many wonderful memories from these as he put his feet up in retirement. Many here certainly remember those nights with Ireland and Chelsea, warming the hearts of football fans in this little corner of the world as Damien Duff got started on the road to stardom in Malaysia not once, but twice.