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Ireland's long European Championship dream was worth the wait - Damien Duff's face says it all

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Damien Duff celebrates Euro qualification at the Aviva

The look on Damien Duff’s face said it all, but not for the first time, his actions were louder than any words as Ireland’s football team belted out their national anthem on a Tuesday night in our fairest city.

Years ago, when Lansdowne Road was Lansdowne Road, the Irish Tricolor flew alongside the UEFA or FIFA flag and that of the opposition at the South Terrace end of the Dublin 4 stadium that is still home to our rugby and football teams.

In those days, the footballers in green would always turn to that side of the ground for the national anthem and give “A Soldier’s Song” the respect it deserves.

Today, Lansdowne Road is called the Aviva Stadium as part of a multi-million pound naming rights deal between the FAI, the IRFU and an insurance company about to make a thousand Irish workers redundant -- par for the course on this island right now by the way.
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----------------The name of the stadium changed with the look. The old Lansdowne Road is gone forever, and in its place stands a space age building full of new fangled glass and steel but so many old memories.

Those memories came flooding back for so many of us on Tuesday night of last week, Duffer included, as Team Ireland prepared to qualify for the European Championship finals and our first appearance at a major tournament in a decade.

Duff was just 22 or so when he went to the World Cup finals in 2002. He missed the qualifying night in Iran due to injury and watched it from his house in Blackburn as injury restricted him to couch potato duties while others sealed the deal in Tehran.

In the decade since then, Duffer has won a few medals and made a lot of money in a journey that has taken him to Chelsea, Newcastle and now Fulham.

Along the way he scored in that World Cup, against Saudi Arabia if you remember, and enthralled the Japanese with his courteous bow in celebration.

He has played for Mick McCarthy, Brian Kerr, Steve Staunton and now Giovanni Trapattoni in the green and white of Ireland since 2002, and he has waited for more international success. And waited.

The long wait finally proved worthwhile when Ireland went to Tallinn for the first leg of the Euro playoffs two Fridays ago and Duffer helped his team to a 4-0 win, shipping a heavy knock along the way after an accidental clash with teammate Glenn Whelan.
Watching Duffer limp through the mixed zone in Estonia that night, it was impossible to believe that he would start the second leg back in Dublin the following Tuesday. But he did.

He was so pumped up for the match -- and Euro qualification -- that he told us afterwards he was prepared to be carried onto the pitch and stood up in time for the anthems.

As it happened, Duffer managed to run onto the pitch with the rest of his teammates. He also turned south when the band began to play his “Soldier’s Song,” turned to face the same end he had faced so many times on such occasions in his 94 international caps.

With his eyes closed and his voice belting out “Amhrann na bhFiann,” Duffer was oblivious to everything else going on around him, including the fact that the rest of his teammates had turned to face the Irish flag in its new home, high above the East stand to Duff’s left.

They didn’t disturb him -- I doubt they could have distracted him from the job in hand -- but they did rib him about it afterwards.

“I’ll probably never live it down,” said the Dubliner after the dust had settled on Ireland’s qualification.
“But I don’t care. Everything about tonight was worth it, even the pain-killing injections,” he added, deep beneath the new West Stand.

Duff’s respect for his anthem pre-Estonia was matched only by his enthusiasm to qualify, and his determination to give everything to the Ireland cause last week.

He may have more money than he ever needs. His life may be more complete now that he has a wife and young baby waiting for him when he goes home from club action with Fulham these days.

But playing for Ireland still means so much to Damien Duff, as it does for fellow golden oldies like Robbie Keane, Shay Given and Richard Dunne.

They were the first onto the pitch against Estonia and the last out of the stadium last week as Ireland finally partied like it was 1988 all over again.
For them, qualification meant everything. They won’t play in another European Championship and they know it. Only for the performances home and away to Estonia, they might never have played in a European Championships.

Duffer summed it up in words echoed by his captain Robbie Keane. “When you’re young you think you are going to qualify for every tournament,” he said.

“But it hasn’t worked like that. We haven’t got anywhere in 10 years so I am going to enjoy every minute of it now.”

So should the rest of us. Thanks to Duffer and co. we finally have reasons to be both cheerful and Irish in this country once again.

For that, we should be grateful. And we shouldn’t care what way Duffer faces for the anthem in Poland or the Ukraine next summer – at least the Tricolor will be flying high in Europe once again. Bring it on.
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----------------Sideline Views

SOCCER: Ireland are fourth seeds for the Euro finals next year. England are second seeds. What money we get the old enemy again, just like we did in 1988? Poland and the Ukraine are top seeds by the way and would be welcome opponents, but we could end up in a group with Spain, Germany and Portugal. The top seeds incidentally are Poland, Holland, Spain and Ukraine. England are joined in Pot Two by Germany, Italy and Russia, while Portugal, Greece, Sweden and Croatia are third seeds with Ireland in with Denmark, France and the Czech Republic in the fourth group. A dream draw? Poland, Russia and Greece. Start praying.


SOCCER: Some big names are under pressure to make the Euro 2012 squad, with Giovanni Trapattoni restricted to just 23 players in Poland and the Ukraine next summer. Trap has been naming 26 and even 27 players in his Ireland squads of late, so someone is going to be disappointed. For what it’s worth, I reckon Leon Best, Paddy Kenny and Kevin Kilbane have no chance, while Darron Gibson, Seamus Coleman and James McCarthy will have to really fight for their right to party. And Andy Reid will only get to the Euros if he brings his guitar and goes busking!


SOCCER: Joxer’s road trip to Stuttgart in 1988, as made famous by the great Christy Moore, is big news again as we look forward to only our second European Championships. So you might like to know that a good friend has a website at www.skins.ie where you can buy a skin for your iPhone with words from the great song. How do I know this? Because I’ve had that skin on my iPhone for some months now. And I do know where to get the jump leads for the van.


SOCCER: Nice touch from Robbie Keane last week, who made sure to name-check Steve Staunton before the home leg of the Euro playoffs with Estonia. Stan may be persona non grata in many circles, but Robbie, his former teammate, introduced many of those who will play in Euro 2012 to international football, and he was keen to acknowledge as much before the Dublin match.

SOCCER: It didn’t take long for the politicians to spot the Euro 2012 bandwagon. Junior Sports Minister Michael Ring got in on the act this week when he appealed to the airlines not to rip Irish fans off when they put their prices up for Poland and the Ukraine next summer. As if they would!

HEROES OF THE WEEK

DUBLIN hasn’t had a party like it in quite some time, so well done to everyone concerned with Ireland’s Euro 2012 qualification as the Irish Voice went to press last week. The hard work was done in Tallinn, the confirmation was delivered at the Aviva and now a country bereft of good news on any front for so long can finally look forward with hope and confidence. Our football team won’t cure the country’s many ills, but they will make us feel a whole lot better about ourselves. For that alone we should all be grateful to those heroes in green and their gaffer, the one and only Giovanni Trapattoni.


IDIOT OF THE WEEK

NOT for the first time Sepp Blatter has defied human decency with a comment, this time in relation to racism on the football field. The man who rules world football with an iron fist believes racists should shake hands with their victims at the end of a game and all will be forgotten and forgiven. Thankfully the real football world -- and real footballers like our own Robbie Keane -- has slammed the FIFA president for his latest outrage. The sooner he leaves our game, the better.
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