Duff’s 100th Ireland cap is bittersweet occasion

With Ireland already eliminated after two weak defeats in the

European Championship, Damien Duff’s 100th appearance for his

country will be something of an anticlimax.

That’s a shame for the 33-year-old winger, who will take the

captain’s armband against Italy on Monday in recognition of the

sterling service he has given the Irish for more than 14 years.

But it’s also a reminder of how a talented group of players

including Duff, striker Robbie Keane, goalkeeper Shay Given, and

defenders Richard Dunne and John O’Shea has failed to shine as

brightly as once hoped.

Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni paid tribute to Duff’s

international career ahead of the Italy match.

”(He is) not only an excellent player but a role model who is

important for the future generation,” the Italian said.

Trapattoni said Keane, the team’s regular captain, had asked to

pass the honor to Duff as a show of respect. Keane and Duff made

their Ireland debuts together in 1998 against Czech Republic.

”He’s been an absolute credit to his country and one of the

best players we have ever produced,” said Keane, who is 31 and

will win his 120th cap on Monday.

But while Duff and those few other big names in the squad will

be remembered fondly for their contribution, the dearth of players

of similar quality has undone Ireland at this tournament.

Less of a golden generation, more like a golden handful.

Never a fan of the limelight, Duff underlined the

meaninglessness of individual landmarks when the team falters.

”It’s obviously an awfully proud moment, but I’d take three

points … over 100 caps,” he said. ”I know it’s a feat but at

the moment I just want to get a good performance and a good

result.”

Unfortunately, performances and results are exactly the elements

that have eluded Ireland at Euro 2012, the country’s first major

tournament in 10 years.

Sloppy goals conceded at inopportune moments led to the opening

3-1 defeat against Croatia before a humbling 4-0 drubbing by Spain

sealed an early exit with a game still to play.

That has led to soul-searching in the Ireland camp, with several

of the older heads seeming to recognize the gap in quality to the

better sides.

”We are playing against teams that are better than us and it’s

hard to accept that our best at the moment isn’t good enough,”

reflected the 32-year-old Dunne.

Trapattoni has also defended his team’s performances by

reminding journalists how little experience his players have of

top-level club and international football, being drawn mostly from

lower-level Premier League teams and the English second tier.

That wasn’t expected to be a problem when Ireland won the

European under-18 tournament in 1998. That success proved to be a

mirage, however, with Keane and Dunne the only players to make an

impact in the upper echelons of the professional game.

Duff said Sunday he had already made a decision about whether to

continue playing for Ireland after Euro 2012 but won’t be making an

announcement until the final match is out of the way.

Given, 36, has also said he will consider whether to call time

on his international career after winning a 125th cap against

Italy. ”There will probably be a few players who will retire,” he

said in the wake of the Spain defeat.

Only Keane has confirmed he will play on.

Trapattoni, contracted to the 2014 World Cup, has been reluctant

to use younger players such as 23-year-old winger James McClean,

24-year-old midfielder Darron Gibson and 25-year-old striker Shane

Long.

Before too long, he may not have a choice.

Mark Walsh can be reached at http://twitter.com/MAWalsh40