Derry heirs to the throne
THE two young men from Derry who have added intrigue to the first Irish international week of 2012 have already travelled an eventful journey. A Lansdowne Road outing tomorrow night will be a reward for their courage through adversity.
James McClean and Shane Duffy are 22 and 20 respectively so, from an outside perspective, they are in line for senior Irish recognition at a relatively early stage of their football career.
But there is more to these lads than the cliched tale of an overnight sensation. The good friends have taken a circuitous route from their first meeting over five years ago to the hotel room they are sharing in Portmarnock ahead of tomorrow night's showdown with the Czech Republic.
Those who believe in the 'sliding door' theory will find plenty of currency in this story. Never mind the obvious fact that if it wasn't for a change in FIFA's eligibility rules the ex-Northern Ireland underage internationals could have been preparing for a match in Windsor Park tomorrow.
What if Lincoln hadn't agreed to abort McClean's contract when the collapse of Derry City forced the homebird to consider life in England's lower leagues before he was developed? Irish football history is littered with tales of players who moved before they were ready and sunk without trace.
"He went over and he wasn't happy," recalled his old Derry boss Stephen Kenny. "It didn't feel right for him. I rang and said I was making the decision to stay with Derry and start from scratch (with a reformed club) and he said, 'Well, if you're staying on, I want to come home and give it a go.' His father rang Chris Sutton (then Lincoln boss) and, to be fair to them, they were understanding, and ripped his contract up."
In Duffy's case, the 'what if' scenario is far more straightforward. Quite simply, he is lucky to be alive. On Sunday afternoon, he visited Gannon Park in Malahide for the first time since he was carried away from there on a stretcher in May 2010, unaware that his life was at risk. Giovanni Trapattoni was so keen to have a look at the high-profile recruit from Northern Ireland that he summoned him for a training camp that included a friendly match with the Irish amateur side.
An accidental collision with the opposing 'keeper lacerated Duffy's liver, and he lost so much blood on the frantic journey to the Mater hospital that medics feared he would die in the ambulance. He made it, but only just.
"It was a bit weird being back again," admitted Duffy on Sunday night. "It seems like such a long time ago. I didn't know how serious it was until I opened the paper a few days later in hospital. The doctor didn't tell me because he didn't really want me to know."
In many respects, the towering centre-half was back to square one. Unlike McClean, his talent was noticed early. His progression through the Everton ranks was swift, with a Europa League appearance against AEK Athens in December 2009 flagging his ability. Duffy was just 17 years old.
The Malahide incident six months later threw his football career into doubt. In a position where hard knocks are par for the course, the recovery process was as much about mental strength as the physical obstacles.
His comeback was a friendly against Sligo at the Showgrounds, arranged as part of Seamus Coleman's move to Goodison Park. When a set-piece was awarded, Duffy felt temporary apprehension.
"I remember thinking, 'this is my first one'," he said. "But when it was gone, I never looked back. I don't think about what happened. I can't really. It's in the past. The way I play, I have to be brave and have courage."
A loan stint at Scunthorpe earlier this year strengthened his character, similar to the manner in which McClean matured in the League of Ireland with Derry. After a full season in the unglamorous world of the First Division ended in promotion, his profile soared when a young side Derry side flew out of the blocks in the top flight. The scouts flocked to the Brandywell, unaware that McClean's insatiable appetite for improvement had almost halted his progress.
Like most League of Ireland players, McClean went unpaid in the off-season and as a teetotaller, he channelled his energies into getting fitter.
"We had to keep the reins on him," recalled Kenny. "At the start of last season, he injured himself. We'd given them a programme for the off-season, but he decided to hire his own personal trainer for £25 an hour and he ended up doing stuff that wasn't on our programme and he got injured.
"He missed the first four games because he was so hungry. He'd be out running on the roads too, so you had to try and calm him down," added Kenny, who also recalled McClean travelling on the bus with the reserves to an away game on his day off just to keep himself occupied.
Duffy always knew that McClean had talent, but admits to being taken aback by the speed to which he has adapted to Premier League life.
"He was a good player when I was growing up with him and he's a few years older than me, but I still think that he's surprised everyone.
"When you see him now, you couldn't believe that he's come from Derry and the League of Ireland. It's all credit to him. He's a top lad."
Duffy probably wasn't too enamoured with McClean yesterday when he learned that his room-mate had posted an unflattering picture on Twitter of the defender enjoying a mid-afternoon nap, but the banter is harmless compared to some of the flak they've taken on the social media site from an unhappy minority of Northern Ireland fans.
"They want to put you down because you have left their country," said Duffy. "I was young when I got called up by Northern Ireland.
"When you get the call, you're like 'I got the call' but in my mind I always wanted to play for Ireland. I'm Irish and my whole family is. I don't mind the abuse. They are not doing any harm to me by saying it. It's my decision and my life. They can say they want."
McClean, who has also received similar abuse, would concur with those sentiments.
They've dealt with bigger challenges than keyboard warriors. The target now is put their faces on the plane to Poland.