Colin Watt with A Celtic State of Mind – Allan MacDonald wanted Damien Duff, but we signed Eyal Berkovic instead.

What if? It’s the most repeated argument among football fans: “What if the referee hadn’t given England that crucial third goal in the 1966 World Cup final?” … ”What if the handball against Inverness Caley Thistle had been seen by one of the three officials within touching distance of it?” …

What if? It’s what starts arguments between friends and families in homes, pubs and workplaces all over the world. Such a simple question, “What if?” The last time we looked at this scenario, we focused on ACSOM’s interview with John Barnes and “What if Celtic hadn’t lost to Inverness in the Scottish Cup?”

Listen to ROGER MITCHELL with A Celtic State of Mind here:

Recently, Roger Mitchell joined Paul John Dykes on A Celtic State of Mind to discuss a multitude of topics. One interesting thought that caught my attention was that Celtic were interested in buying Damien Duff in 1999 whilst he was at Blackburn and once again that persistent question should be asked.

As Roger Mitchell said: “At some point in the evening, Allan MacDonald said to me, ‘We’re thinking of signing Damien Duff’. Now, I was a big fan of Football Manager, so I knew exactly who Damien Duff was, down to all the characteristics and I went through them all, and said, ‘It’s not for me to say, but I think he’s a good, good player’.”

Mitchell confirmed that Celtic instead signed Eyal Berkovic whilst Damien Duff remained at Blackburn Rovers before making a £17m move to Chelsea in 2003. At the time, Celtic’s left midfield position was taken up by Regi Blinker or Bobby Petta, it’s safe to say that even at the age of 20, Duff would have been an instant upgrade in that position. Because he offered more attacking options, would Celtic have created more chances, scored more goals?

Most people have since recognised that the glaring issue with the Celtic side under John Barnes was weakness at the back, and more centrally upfront due to Henrik’s injury. So, let’s agree that, while Duff would have been an upgrade to the midfield, the impact wouldn’t have been as significant under Barnes. That manager’s transfers (and lack of harmony in the changing room) cost him his role, not signing Eyal Berkovic over Damien Duff.

So, Celtic’s eye was clearly in the English market, as they looked for players who could improve the side, players from clubs in the lower half of the Premiership or top half of what was then the Football League Division One and, specifically looking at Blackburn, who was to say that Duff was the only player in the Blackburn side that Celtic were looking at? What if Celtic had improved the defence by signing someone like Martin Taylor? Would he have managed to build a partnership alongside Alan Stubbs or Johan Mjallby? Or perhaps what if Celtic were looking at someone else like Lee Carsley? A natural defensive-minded midfielder, Republic of Ireland international and a position where John Barnes knew Celtic needed to focus. Instead of moving Craig Burley into an unnatural position in front of the back-four, what if that was Carsley, a player who would go on to make 200 appearances in the Premier League for Everton in that same position? Martin O’Neill knew it was a position to strengthen when he joined, picking up Neil Lennon from his former club (Leicester) in December 2000. However, if we had signed Carsley, we might never have got Neil Lennon, who would go on to captain the side to multiple trophies and, as manager, guide them to many more … what if?

Back to Duff, though. What if he got through the John Barnes/Kenny Dalglish storm and saw the shining golden sky of the Martin O’Neill era? He would certainly have been the first choice in the left-midfield position. Martin O’Neill was famous for the 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation but that really didn’t come into play at first at Celtic. However, as seen from his days playing for Ireland and for Chelsea, Duff was more than capable of defending as well as attacking. So, a dominant Damien Duff in the side leaves no space for Alan Thompson, does it? Would Thompson have left being second choice at Villa to be second choice at Celtic? Would Duff (or anyone else) have been able to score from some of the free-kicks that Thompson became famous for? Thompson has arguably had the best left foot in the last three decades at Celtic; who would replace his time in the hoops if given the chance?

Football’s a funny game; Duff did get his chance to come to Celtic, but only after he retired, not through the want of trying though! He’s admitted himself that, through his agent, he contacted Celtic in 2009 to offer his services before his move to Fulham. The manager at the time? Tony Mowbray. What if Damien had signed then? Would he have been able to save Mowbray? He would certainly have been a better option than Niall McGinn and Zheng Zhi. Part of Mowbray’s issue was that when he turned to the bench, the options were limited. Part of this was addressed in the January window with the signings of Diomansy Kamara and Robbie Keane, but it was just too little too late for Mowbray. What if he had Duff to turn to when he needed an experienced head to break sides down?

We may never be able to re-write the past, but certainly we can think about it and ask ourselves that question – “What if?”

Colin Watt

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