Duffy on a mission to make up for lost time
Everton defender determined to show true worth after long road back from horror injury
All Shane Duffy can remember is the two minutes after the collision. The shuddering back-first connection with the Gannon Park turf and the feeling of being unable to breathe as concerned team-mates and then medical staff crowded around him.
He presumed he was just winded and waited for the sensation to pass. But as an oxygen mask was produced, the 18-year-old slowly began to drift into unconsciousness.
When he woke in the Mater Hospital the next day, he'd no idea of the drama that had ensued in a frantic 14 hours where he had slipped into intensive care and almost died of a lacerated liver. The scar from the surgeon's work was the visual reminder.
"That could have been it for me," says Duffy matter-of-factly last week as he rested in a chair at the Irish team hotel in Portmarnock fresh from a training session at the scene of his accident.
The life-changing incident was fresh on his mind because a Twitter user had reminded him the previous day that the four-year anniversary had passed.
"I can remember it like yesterday," he sighs, adding his disbelief that the landmark has come around already. "Although it's only when I'm asked about it. I don't think about it any more."
That process was a slow one for the big Everton centre-half, far slower than he previously admitted in public. He finds significance in the anniversary because it represents just how long it has taken him to return to where he was.
The match where he was struck down was a friendly between the Ireland senior side and the country's best amateur players. Giovanni Trapattoni had promised the rookie he would make his Ireland debut in a friendly with Paraguay that followed. But his accidental clash with the opposition goalkeeper as they contested a set-piece put paid to that.
Duffy, a convert from Northern Ireland, is still waiting for that first cap, with the call into Martin O'Neill's squad for this gathering perhaps offering that opportunity. Placed in the context of the breakthrough he missed, the sense of impatience is understandable.
He knows he was lucky to survive so he can't really go on about luck. Nevertheless, he might have progressed along the football path quicker were it not for that jarring episode on a sunny summer's evening where the confidence of the relatively raw youth was a feature of the early minutes of that match as he barked instructions to older pros.
On paper, he recovered remarkably quickly. Just 13 weeks after the surgery, he lined out in a friendly against Sligo Rovers. "The first free-kick I think I was saying, don't put it on the 'keeper," he smiles. But while he tried to convince himself that he was fine, he accepts now it was flawed and it's only this season, where he played almost the entirety of the campaign on-loan at Yeovil, that he felt he was back to his old self.
"I didn't ever want to say it," he confesses. "But I just wasn't the same player when I first came back. I can't quite put my finger on it but I was just doing things differently."
Some 20 months after lying on the Malahide turf, David Moyes, a mentor whom he was sad to lose from Goodison Park, gave the youngster a brief taste of Premier League football with three starts and two substitute appearances in a month-long spell that came off the back of a temporary stay at Scunthorpe.
It earned him a call into another Irish squad for a Euro 2012 warm-up against the Czech Republic but, ultimately, he was still at the recuperation stage in terms of accruing match experience.
After a substitute appearance against Chelsea on February 11, 2012, he didn't line out at senior level again until August 12 in the League Cup, at the beginning of a campaign where he only made three outings.
"When I was getting back into it, I wasn't really playing football," he explains. "I was always on the bench and never progressing and that slowed me down another year. This season, I feel like I'm progressing again but it's like I've missed two years again. I don't feel like I am where I should be as a 22-year-old."
The Yeovil experience was a positive, even though it ended in relegation. Duffy says that he benefited from getting out of Liverpool for a while and spending eight months with the modest Somerset outfit that were punching above their weight in the second tier.
After growing up around a Premier League environment, the step back allowed him to appreciate what he is striving towards.
"I was able to get out of the big city and focus on football," he continues. "Having been around the Premier League and the players and that lifestyle, you sort of get into it. When you're away from it, you see a different kind of life and it makes you grateful to be where you are at Everton.
"You go to Yeovil and there's nothing really there – I don't mean any disrespect by that – but they know the kind of club they are and how they've overachieved.
"It was tough, but a great experience. You're doing twice, treble the amount of work you should be doing as a centre half and as a young player, you kind of buzz off it. I enjoyed it."
Naturally, the results are a regret. Deep down, he doesn't feel they were amongst the worst three teams and thinks they fell because their squad lacked the depth to cope with injuries.
The games where they gave away leads in the latter stages also stung. "There was about 10 of them," he says, shaking his head. "At Leicester, the goalkeeper – Kasper Schmeichel – came up and scored."
Despite the lows, Duffy departed with his head held high and feels that he acquitted himself reasonably well against the division's better operators.
"I had a few bad games here and there," he accepts. "But I know my level and I think I was comfortable at that level in a bad team so hopefully I can step it up."
The dream is to progress again at Goodison Park. He met with Roberto Martinez before coming away on Ireland duty and the message was positive.
"Roberto told me that pre-season was my chance to shine and he's said to me that if I am where he thinks I am – from what he's seen of me this season – then I'm going to be involved. And if I'm not, we'll see at the end of pre-season what we're going to do. It's a big summer for me, it's up to me."
Understandably, he is desperate to get involved with a team on an upward curve. Martinez is respected by the players. Duffy, Aiden McGeady and Seamus Coleman have been talking about his meticulousness, his hands-on day-to-day input in every aspect of a player's training.
"It's just the amount of planning, every stat, every little thing," Duffy says. "I can see him going higher, but hopefully he stays at Everton."
Coleman, a good friend to Duffy, is already ascending to another level under the Spaniard's tutelage and the Derryman would love to advance in the same way. Martinez wants his centre halves to defend the basics, but also step out, be comfortable on the ball and become available as an extra man.
"Seeing Seamus progress is brilliant for me because he's such a hard worker and it's a reward for how he lives," Duffy continues. "And he's very good to me, he says, 'If I can do it, you can do it' so we'll see what happens."
Over the past six days in Malahide, the former Ireland U-21 skipper has met up with a new management team. He met Roy Keane as a teenager on a trial at Sunderland but he's not sure if the Corkman remembers it. He chose Everton, anyway.
O'Neill, a fellow countyman, offered feedback on his Yeovil displays. "He's told me to enjoy it, that he'd been to watch me and I'd done some good stuff and some bad stuff. He hasn't promised me anything, so hopefully I'll do alright."
His past has taught him it would be unwise to take anything for granted. Yet he can't allow the injury scare to shape his future.
"It's great to be here and able to look back and talk about it, but I can't be thinking about it either," he asserts. "The kind of player I am, I have to go and attack stuff. I've clattered into a few 'keepers this year and it's been no problem."
In the mission to make up for lost time, nobody will be allowed to stand in Duffy's way.