EVERTON prospect Shane Duffy admits that he is closing in on an unwanted record as Ireland's U21 side try to keep their European Championship hopes alive today.
Noel King's outfit take on Montenegro in Tallaght Stadium (3pm) knowing that anything less than a win will rule them out of contention for a place in the play-offs for the finals, hosted by the Czech Republic next year.
Germany are six points clear at the top of the group and are certain to progress to the play-offs – the group winners at U21 level do not automatically qualify but instead the top two in each group go into the play-offs – but Ireland and Montenegro both harbour hopes of finishing second, with Romania (who play the Faroe Islands today) also in contention.
Coach King has a batch of uncapped players (six, including Wolves prospect Liam McAlinden) in his panel for today's game, but he will look to the men who already have some senior international experience, like Jeff Hendrick (four senior caps) and Shane Duffy for leadership.
The Montenegro game is a landmark for Derry lad Duffy as he will win his 20th cap at this level, putting him within distance of the all-time U21 caps record of 24, held by Graham Barrett.
Aware that some of our best-ever players rarely played for the U21s (just five caps at this level for Shay Given) or never played (Robbie Keane and Damien Duff went straight into the seniors), he is unsure about the honour.
"It is an achievement to get 20 caps, but I don't really know if it's good or bad to have been in the U21 squad for that long as I feel like I am a man now," said Duffy, currently on loan to Yeovil from Everton.
"In an ideal world, you wouldn't have 20 U21 caps, you would be in the senior squad by then, I think I'd prefer to have none than to have 20.
"But I wasn't getting games at club level when I was at Everton, so I wasn't able to show what I was capable of. And I can't say that I should have been in the senior squad by now as my club form wasn't worthy of that, so I stayed with the U21s and the caps just added up over the years."
But the U21 side captain is aware of how important this game is, with manager King admitting that the group will be "over" if Ireland draw and, even with a victory, the Irish side will need to travel to Germany in September for the last qualifier and get a result.
"We are up against it in the group and we have to win this game today, no matter what," said Duffy, who was drafted into the Irish senior squad for training by Giovanni Trapattoni.
"We have been struggling for goals, apart from the Faroe Islands games we haven't scored and that's not good, though we have come up against some very good defenders in the group – Germany were top class.
"We did play well in a lot of the games,but just couldn't put the ball in the net. Hopefully we can get a few today and then go to Germany and see how we do."
For Duffy, progression to the senior panel is one of the items on his agenda, something he feels is more possible with a change in management.
"I think the door is more open now and you do feel that someone from the Ireland set-up is watching you," he said. "If they are coming to games in the Championship, it is better for everyone, I don't think Trapattoni came to the games or even knew what the Championship was. There is a bit of a shop window and it means that the manager will pick a player based on what he sees, not on what someone else has said."
For today's game, manager King is without the injured trio of Samir Carruthers, Callum Reilly and Michael Harriman, while defender Derrick Williams is suspended. But the return to U21 duties of Hendrick after an 18-month absence is a major boost.