MICHAEL Duff always knew Jay Rodriguez was destined to hit the highs in football, even if his vocals hit a few bum notes.
It was on a pre-season tour of Austria in 2007 – Rodriguez’s first trip abroad with the team after earning a professional contract – that the shy young striker made his mark on his new peers.
It wasn’t always for the right reasons. Should Rodriguez ever give up the day job it won’t be for a career in music.
But it was through his initiation solo as a squad newcomer that Duff knew the then teenager would be able to tackle anything in football.
“I remember it vividly. He said, ‘I’m going to do Lighthouse Family – ‘Igh,’ in his Burnley accent,” said Duff, who after 10 years as a Claret has got the local twang off to tee, complete with the silent ‘H’.
“That’s how bad it was, I actually still remember it.
“The lads clapped him off after 30 seconds because he was terrible!
“But that’s why we make them do it, the singing, as it’s not an easy thing to do and Jay said, ‘No, I’m going to finish it.’ “He got through it all, which told me something about him and his character.”
On the pitch, Rodriguez had already made an impression on defender Duff even before he was handed a senior contract by former boss Steve Cotterill.
“He came up from the youth team to train with us a few times,” said the Northern Ireland international, who rather than teach the youngster a few tough lessons said: “Jay was the one trying to break you.
“It happens a lot with young lads. You want training to be intense but you don’t want to be smashing people.
“They want to lay a marker down, they don’t want to be sheepish, and him and Alex MacDonald used to be a nightmare for smashing people.
“I used to take them to one side and tell them, but it was good he backed himself to do that.”
Such determined spirit has stood the Burnley-born forward in good stead during his progression through the Turf Moor ranks, to a record £7million sale to promoted Southampton in the summer of 2012 and on to a full England cap in November last year, with the chance to push for a place in the World Cup 2014 squad.
Duff believes he can make it.
“If his progression curve keeps going the way it is, he’s got every chance and I don’t see how he can’t be in with a shout for the World Cup,” said the 36-year-old, who says Rodriguez will learn and benefit from coming into the Three Lions camp at a tough time, and a 2-0 defeat by Chile at Wembley.
“To judge him on a poor performance by England – when he virtually played left-back for the first half because they had that much defending to do against Chile – would be harsh.
“Not everyone can have a Rickie Lambert debut.
“But he’s the third highest English goalscorer in the Premier League this season behind (Wayne) Rooney and (Daniel) Sturridge so I don’t see how he wouldn’t have a chance.
“From the outside looking in I think he’s got as good a chance as maybe three or four others going for a couple of spots that are up grabs.”
But the FA Cup is first up for Rodriguez, and a reunion with his beloved Clarets in the third round.
Duff knows what to expect if the striker is granted his wish to play against his old club.
“He’ll be desperate to play and he’ll be desperate to score,” he said.
“I used to enjoy my little battles with Jay in training. You can see in his little movements that he would be a good player.
“Jay would be aggressive on the pitch and selfish as centre forwards need to be but you couldn’t find a quieter lad off the field.
“That comes from a good family background and they won’t let him change.
“You see players go for big money and earn a lot of money then they’re back where they were two or three years later as they’ve taken their eye off the ball.
“That won’t happen with Jay. I spoke to him about six weeks ago when he got me a signed Southampton shirt for my neighbour, who was 40.
“Again, that tells you something about him. He could have just not answered my calls.”
But Duff says the 24-year-old is not the type to grow too big for his goalscoring boots.
“Jay’s not going to start rocking around in Ferrari and start revving it at 20,000 revs just so people can hear him. He might have a Ferrari but I’m sure he wouldn’t drive it like that.”
But Duff feels the striker can shift through a few more gears in his career.
“The England cap tops off what a good move it’s been and with Jay. I don’t think he’s finished at that level, I think he can go higher and higher in the Premier League.
“With all due respect to Southampton, I think he can go to a bigger club than them again.
“If his progression curve keeps going the way it is he’s got every chance.”
But Duff and the rest of the Clarets are out to stop the Saints’ chances of FA Cup progress and secure a Premier League scalp.
“It’s a free hit for us and a good chance to test ourselves against a Premier League team that are doing very well,” added Duff.
“They’ve spent a lot of money and it shows how well they’ve been doing in the last few months in the fact they’ve got three or four England players now.
“It will be a tough game but we’ll go there with nothing to lose.
“We’ve had teams coming to our place in the last few weeks who have had that mentality and they’ve been hard to beat so hopefully we can go there and give a good account of ourselves.
“No-one’s expecting us to win, but that’s the way it’s sort of been all season really.”