Wednesday 18 September 2019

Dundalk's Duffy still targeting Ireland call-up despite departure of Martin O'Neill

Michael Duffy hasn’t given up on his dream of playing for the Republic of Ireland under new manager Mick McCarthy. Photo: Kyran O’Brien
Michael Duffy hasn’t given up on his dream of playing for the Republic of Ireland under new manager Mick McCarthy. Photo: Kyran O’Brien

Marie Crowe

It's a funny old game. It's only last month when Martin O'Neill, as Republic of Ireland manger, heaped praise on 24-year-old Dundalk player Michael Duffy.

"Young Duffy is as skilful as any player you are likely to see playing in the League of Ireland - really good ability," said O'Neill of the young Northern Ireland man who was in the process of declaring for the Republic. "So it would be nice to see the paperwork coming through and incorporating him. Hopefully he can do it and I think he's got a chance. He's chosen to play for us which I think is great and I think he is an exceptionally talented player."

Now, just a short time later, O'Neill is gone, to be quickly replaced by Mick McCarthy, who in turn will be replaced by Stephen Kenny after the European Championships in two years' time.

"As soon as I heard Martin was gone I thought, that's my chances gone with him," says Duffy. "But I think that was just my first thought because I was hoping so much that I would be in the next squad. He had spoken about me a lot and planned to bring me in. Then I realised that it's up to me again now. There will be a new manager in so when the start of the season comes around I have to play well and get him to look at me and want to pick me. It's just a waiting a game now, I have to be ready."

Duffy was a star player in the League of Ireland last season. He was instrumental in Dundalk's success and was named the PFAI Player of the Year. At underage level, he lined out for both the Republic and the North, featuring for the latter more recently.

The paperwork O'Neill was referring to is almost through but the man who called him up and asked him to play for the Republic of Ireland is no longer at the helm.

McCarthy was given the job just over a week ago and, in an added twist to an already dramatic tale, the FAI also revealed that Kenny would look after the under-21 team and then succeed McCarthy after the European Championships. That meant Dundalk had lost a manager. A double blow for Duffy, who thrived under Kenny.

When the news broke last weekend, several of the Dundalk players were attending team-mate Stephen O'Donnell's wedding in Co Clare.

"When Martin left it was in the back of my mind that maybe Stephen would end up leaving Dundalk. It was still a bit of a shock to hear it though. It was disappointing for us but great for him, he deserves it. He rang me yesterday and said thanks for last year and explained his situation. It was just a normal conversation, he said if I ever need any advice to give him a call but we didn't speak about my chances of playing for Ireland."

Not only have Dundalk lost their manager but so many players have lost a mentor. Kenny has a reputation for rehabilitating players who return to Ireland after unsuccessful stints across the water. He has reignited the careers of several players, including Pat Hoban, Patrick McEleney and Duffy, who was at Celtic.

"He's really brought the best out of me, he gets the best out of attacking players. He gives me confidence and lets me play with freedom, he's made me enjoy my football again by believing in me.

"It's hard to explain how he does it but he just makes you feel really good, by the way he trains you and what he says to you before games, by telling me what he wants from you and always encouraging you.

"He gradually made me more confident, without putting me under pressure. Everybody wants to do well for him as well, everyone cares because you know how much it means to him and how much he cares."

Duffy played for Foyle Harps in Derry as a kid and then signed for Derry City when he was 18. A trial for Celtic a year later yielded a transfer and a chance to make his dreams come true. However, like so many young Irish players there was no fairytale ending in Scotland.

"When it happened it took a while for it to sink in that I'd signed for Celtic and I was over there playing with them. It was hard to leave home and move over. I was in a hotel for the first two months so took a while to settle in.

"For six months I trained with the development squad and I was in and out with the first team. Then I went back for pre-season, did a couple of weeks of it with the first team and I was told I was going out on loan to Alloa Athletic. It was a part-time loan as I was still training with Celtic but I wasn't part of it either. I was training but I was like an extra body. It was tough because I had it in my head that I've signed for Celtic and I want to play for them now and then it started to slip away.

"I tried not to let it get to me too much because the biggest thing was that I was playing with the team I went out on loan with every week. But if I did a hard training with Celtic and then I had to go to training again that night with Alloa, it didn't matter what I'd already done - I still had to do it."

Duffy admits that he probably gave up on himself too soon and as a result his confidence dropped.

"At the time I didn't think it affected me but looking back it probably did. I wasn't down or anything but it probably annoyed me in the back of my head. It was frustrating. Looking back, I should have believed in myself a bit more, pushed myself a bit more. If I was to go back over again I'd know that."

After Alloa he went to Dundee on loan and although it started brightly things didn't go to plan and for long periods he wasn't playing. A chat with his friend Patrick McEleney about Dundalk opened his mind to a move home, but again it was a tough decision to make.

"You sign for Celtic, everyone thinks you will play for Celtic and then two years later I'm back. I was thinking that people would say I failed but I fitted in so well at Dundalk that I forgot about that pretty quickly. I liked the team and I was playing too and enjoying my football."

Duffy has signed a new contract with Dundalk that will keep him at Oriel Park until 2020. It's a time of change but Duffy isn't fazed - he's ready for whatever comes his way.

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