Wednesday 13 December 2017

From the fringes of the squad to Ireland's man of the match in Cardiff - Shane Duffy's incredible rise

Shane Duffy of Republic of Ireland during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Wales and Republic of Ireland at Cardiff City Stadium on October 9, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)
Shane Duffy of Republic of Ireland during the FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier between Wales and Republic of Ireland at Cardiff City Stadium on October 9, 2017 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images)

Jack O'Toole

I climbed the steps of the Aviva Stadium's section 527 and made my way up the stairs and into the press area. The key in the press box at the Aviva is to try and find a seat with a television monitor.

For the heavy hitters of Irish football writing, this process is usually nothing more than an afterthought, as they're generally seated somewhere towards the front of the section where every seat has an accompanying monitor.

But when you're outside of that bubble you're generally placed somewhere in the nosebleeds where it's a bit of a free-for-all, and thus, if you want to give yourself a chance at a seat with a monitor you get out there early.

Early bird gets the worm as they say, and inevitably the cold too at the Aviva, but there I sat 45 minutes before Ireland were due to take on Switzerland in a pre-Euro 2016 friendly.

There's not a lot of things that you can point to that define the Martin O'Neill era of Irish football but surprise team selections is certainly one of them.

Against Switzerland in the first of three international friendlies, there was a lot of room for O'Neill to work with in this department and a lot of different combinations that he could put together.

Sitting there stirring a cup of coffee, I thought of the different players he could throw together and when ‎FAI Communications manager Gareth Maher handed out the teamsheets a short while later, inevitably there were some surprises.

David Meyler and Stephen Quinn had been named in the centre of midfield. Brentford's Alan Judge had been given a berth on the wing. Kevin Doyle had been recalled from the international wilderness and was handed his first Ireland start in 18 months.

And Blackburn Rovers defender Shane Duffy had been given just his second international start nearly two years after he had made his Ireland debut against Costa Rica in the summer of 2014.

The game flew by without any real moments of note, as a lot of Irish football friendlies at the Aviva tend to do, and today I couldn't really tell you a whole lot about the game other than Ciaran Clark scored and Kevin Doyle was cruelly withdrawn in the first-half with a knee injury.

But I do remember Duffy that day. From the opening few minutes of that game he was barking orders at his teammates and throwing himself into challenges.

He looked like a player that was captaining Ireland for the first time and not a guy who was essentially auditioning for a seat on the plane to France.

Duffy, Doyle, Judge, Meyler and Quinn were all called to the set that day to audition for a role in Ireland's summer blockbuster - O̶c̶e̶a̶n̶'̶s̶ O'Neill's 11 - but fast forward 18 months and their respective fates could not be any more different.

Firstly, Doyle has had to sadly retire from football due to a series of concussions. Judge, who was one of the most in-form players in the Championship that season, played four days later against Slovakia and hasn't played a game for Ireland since as he continues to recover from a broken leg.

Meyler and Quinn both withdrew after the hour mark that day following poor displays in midfield. Quinn played 20 minutes during this campaign. Meyler captained Ireland to a historic victory in Cardiff.

And Duffy, who had played just one game for the national team before that night, broke into the starting team against Italy at the Euro's, started and prematurely finished the second round tie against France, and then played in every game he was available for during the World Cup qualification campaign, including last night's Wales game in which he was awarded the man of the match.

But also consider this; the week before the Switzerland game, Duffy scored a late winner to give a 10-man Blackburn a 1-0 victory over Judge's Brentford at Griffin Park.

Duffy was tasked with defending current Danubio forward Leandro Rodriguez.

In his final game before this month's international break, the Ireland centre-back had to face Alexis Sanchez, Alexandre Lacazette and Arsenal in front of 59,378 people at the Emirates Stadium.

This season alone he has had to face Salomón Rondón, Jermain Defoe, Jamie Vardy, Andre Gray, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Agüero. Last night he faced Hal Robson-Kanu, a player with one goal in his last eight games for club and country.

It could have been two from eight had it not of been for the quick hands of Darren Randolph, but apart from Robson-Kanu's near post header in the second-half, Aaron Ramsey was the only other Welsh player to come close to troubling the Irish goal.

Wales had 17 shots compared to Ireland's eight on the night, but only four were on target. Inaccuracy is one reason for the poor strike rate, but 10 of Wales' attempts were taken from outside the box.

Only one of their shots on target was taken from inside the box, Robson-Kanu's header. In a game where route one football was fundamental, Ireland won 34 of the aerial challenges compared to Wales' 25. Duffy was responsible for eight of those wins, or 23.5%.

Daryl Murphy had nine wins while Ciaran Clark had seven. O'Neill has always been a fan of horses for courses, it's why Wes Hoolahan was left out of the starting lineup last night.

But 18 months ago against Switzerland he had a foal in Duffy, in Cardiff he had a stallion.

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