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Hard work is starting to pay off for Damien.

Byline: By ALAN OLIVER Chief Sports Writer

DAMIEN DUFF goes back to Fratton Park tomorrow happy to be still a Newcastle United player - but impatient to get back into Kevin Keegan's side.

The Republic of Ireland international fell with nobody near him in the defeat at Portsmouth exactly 12 months ago and was jeered by the home fans as he was helped off.

But his foot and ankle injury was so bad that his career was actually threatened - and it wasn't until two days before Christmas that he got back into the United picture when he came on as a substitute in the 2-2 draw with Derby County at St James's Park.

Now Duff has been out of the picture again and, after being one of several players to disappoint in the 3-0 defeat by Liverpool at Anfield, the 29-year-old winger has not started a game for more than a month.

However, Kevin Keegan used the fact that United were strolling in against Reading at St James's last Saturday to throw the former Blackburn Rovers and Chelsea left winger on for the last 15 minutes for Mark Viduka - and Duff looked as confident as he has been in a black-and-white shirt.

Keegan was not surprised, and said: "Damien has been champing at the bit and he has been absolutely outstanding in training.

"He is now over that bad injury he picked up at Portsmouth. That's all behind him, and he can look ahead with some optimism, because he's very fit.

"I think he'll need a few more games, and he's nearly there. Michael Owen needed 10 games on the trot to get back to his best, and Duffer will be a lot better with a preseason and some games.

"He's worked very, very hard, and I would have liked to have given him a bit longer against Reading, but that was the way it was."

The likes of Duff, Alan Smith, Emre and even James Milner when he is fit again, will all find it hard to get back into Keegan's starting line-up the way the team is playing at the moment.

And the best Smith and Duff can surely hope for at Fratton Park tomorrow is a place each on the substitutes' bench.

The United boss added: "When Duffer, James Milner and Alan Smith come back into this side, they will notice a big difference from the side they went out of, and it's all down to confidence.

"It's got nothing to do with them not being there, it's just the players have now got confidence and belief.

"But, at the moment, the guys in possession are saying: 'I want to keep this shirt', so I'm not going to mess around too much."
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Evening Chronicle (Newcastle, England)
Date:Apr 11, 2008
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