Saturday 17 February 2018

Higher-level progress proves quite an education for Duffy

Brighton star taking every lesson on board as he continues to impress on Ireland duty

‘Shane Duffy’s sudden selection for the Italy game wasn’t so much a classic case of young player thrown in as a classic piece of abrupt O’Neill leadership’ Pic: Sportsfile
‘Shane Duffy’s sudden selection for the Italy game wasn’t so much a classic case of young player thrown in as a classic piece of abrupt O’Neill leadership’ Pic: Sportsfile

Miguel Delaney

Shane Duffy had a decision to make, in the space of a split-second. The extra problem was that there was already a few months of mental baggage complicating it.

It was the 45th minute of Ireland's last qualifying match, away to Moldova, and the centre-back's step up the pitch had suddenly let Igor Bugaiov through on goal. Duffy raced back, and a thought raced through his brain.

Duffy will miss Wales game
Duffy will miss Wales game

'I'm going to clip him here.'

"It came in my mind when I was running back, because he ran across," the 24-year-old explains. "But I thought, 'Not after France, I'll get killed'."

The moment Duffy is referring to is the move that ultimately killed off Ireland's Euro 2016 campaign, as he opted to take down a rampant Antoine Griezmann in the last-16 match, and take the red card in an eventual 2-1 defeat. Further layering it was the fact he was at that point still adjusting to life at Brighton and Hove Albion after a handful of high-profile errors had coloured his August move from Blackburn Rovers with acrimony.

So, Duffy stayed on his feet, and stayed on the pitch, even if Ireland had a bit more of a battle as Bugaiov equalised.

"I think it would have been a tougher game with 10 men than one each," Duffy rationalises. "I think we were good enough to go on and beat them anyway.

"But yeah, that five seconds to run back. He was the quickest player on the team, so the wrong person to run through to, but as long as you make a mistake and you win, you don't mind. It's when you lose, that's the problem."

And that was the difference. Ireland won 3-1. His slip was discussed afterwards, but not as much as the three points were. Duffy's mistake didn't matter. His overall performance did.

It almost sums up his last few months. Sure, there have been the odd moments of chaos from a young defender, but they have come amid spells of impressive progress, when he has got his career to the point he wanted at this age.

What is also noticeable about Duffy when you sit down with him at Brighton's Premier League-level training ground is he so clearly thinks about his game, how these issues can be improved, what lessons can be taken on. The very thought process for the moment in Moldova only emphasises that.

He also reflects on how, for the competitive international debut that catapulted his career forward, he ironically didn't have much time to think at all. Duffy had only made three friendly appearances for Ireland before Martin O'Neill threw him in to the crucial third Euro 2016 match against Italy. And the manager didn't actually tell the young defender until he was also telling the whole squad. Duffy was sitting on the bench in the Lille dressing room as O'Neill quickly went through his starting line-up, and had to turn around to James McClean to ask if his name had actually been read out.

Given that there was so much talk in the build-up about how O'Neill would drastically change the team, surely he had some inkling he'd be included?

"No, not at all. I thought I was just fourth-choice centre-half in case of injuries. From the moment I woke up, I didn't think I was playing, so I just thought I want us to get through. Got to the stadium, still didn't think I was going to play . . . then he names the team so quick. He goes bang, bang, bang, bang, 'get ready'. That's it. I just looked at James and said, 'I'm playing?' So I didn't have time to think about it."

The management didn't give him much to think about either.

'Enjoy it, go out and win,' they told Duffy.

"That's it. [O'Neill] keeps it so simple, but effective. 'Go out and win your headers and tackles, try and get a goal' . . . Probably still the best night I've had in football."

Duffy was one of the best players on the pitch in that 1-0 win, instantly establishing a new battle-hardened reputation for himself. That performance level continued into the ferocious first 45 minutes against France in the last 16, as it seemed something sensational was possible. Then, a sensational player nipped ahead of him, as Griezmann scored and then forced the red card. Duffy immediately fronted up after the game, insisting he would learn from it, and that seems the case from how he talks about it. If it is a shame his arrival as an Irish international was coloured by his departure from the French game, it might be beneficial in the long run. So how does he see the summer?

"I felt good in the France game. I was concentrating. Maybe I was trying to over-think it in the game, trying to be too clever and get in a different position, where I should have just stayed and I wouldn't have been in the situation to take Griezmann down, but it's a second where you do a different step back and they're in.

"The [first] goal probably disappoints me more than the sending-off, because I'm there to win the headers. I just couldn't get there . . . I don't know. I enjoyed it. I came out afterwards and said I've to learn from it."

Duffy has evidently dwelt a lot on how and why he has made mistakes like that, especially after what happened with Blackburn. His decision to reject a new contract amid interest from clubs like Brighton had already brought disgruntlement from fans, but that turned to derision as he scored three own goals and received a red card across two of his last matches. It meant he didn't get the fondest of farewells.

"It was difficult. I didn't know if I was going to stay at Blackburn, so I wanted to do as well as I could for them. It didn't work out that way. It shouldn't affect you on the pitch. It's still the club you're playing for, and I owe a lot to Blackburn, obviously for what they have done for me. The way it ended wasn't nice."

Duffy also had his own go back on Twitter. "That's what it's there for, isn't it," he smiles, even if he is more conciliatory now.

The reality is he is now at a calmer and more upwardly-mobile club. Brighton are second in the Championship after a series of clean sheets under Chris Hughton, and that has helped Duffy hone his defending. He reckons some of the high-profile errors come because of his high-energy style of challenging, where he always looks to get on the front foot. It just looks worse on the occasions it doesn't come off.

"It can look horrible, yeah . . . I think the last game, Moldova, where I've tried to be clever and read the game, and the guys got lucky with the bounce. I thought he was going to head it inside, and that's what I mean. The situation means it's different. If I come out with the ball . . . In a way, I don't need to do it. Hopefully, the more I can play, I don't have to get into those situations."

Duffy admits O'Neill gave him "honest advice" after the Moldova match, and that starkness is still something so striking about the Irish management team. His sudden selection for the Italy game wasn't so much a classic case of young player thrown in as a classic piece of abrupt O'Neill leadership. It is what this Irish regime has been built on: sharp messages, and wall-shaking motivation.

"That's it," Duffy says. "With Martin, when he speaks, everyone in the room listens. Everyone's switched on."

And it's easy to take on because it's very stripped down, especially to the defenders.

"He says, 'You're there to defend, and head the ball, get rid . . . and let the talented ones go and score.' It's so simple, but effective.

"He's only got three days, he can't really do a lot on the football pitch with it, so he just gets it across in the meetings and the changing room. It's good and I think the main thing when everyone goes away with Ireland is they all know their job. He gets it across to the players. You're in the team for this, so you do it. If you don't do it, you won't play."

Ireland weren't doing enough of anything O'Neill wanted in the first halves against Georgia and Moldova, and he let them know.

"He was aggressive. Only because we weren't playing well. Moldova, I don't think he would have come in like that if we didn't concede. Georgia was a tough game. We just couldn't get going, were defending a lot. He just wanted us to get more confident on the ball and try and play it, that was it. He just said, 'Raise your games'. So nothing major, but he wasn't happy of course. None of the players were happy."

Despite that, McClean wasn't happy with media criticism after the game, and made a point of publicly addressing it. It seems like it has been a common feeling within the squad, because Duffy echoes the winger. One talking point has been that the team hasn't carried through the encouraging new intensity from Euro 2016, and have been that bit flatter, but the defender doesn't buy it.

"You have to remember you're at a major tournament you want to get to your whole career, so everyone automatically raises your game.

"It's football. What do you want us to do? Go out and play like Germany, but lose? Or go out and play like Ireland, win and get to the World Cup? It's debatable. For me, as a player, I want to go out and win. Obviously, we'd like to play a bit better, more entertainment but, if you ask me, I'd rather take the three points."

But there have been those encouragingly infrequent moments where the team have taken three points, but also taken the game to the opposition?

"Yeah, but that's football. It's difficult at this level. You come up against some very good players, like Georgia, very technical, keep the ball from you. We put that much energy into trying to win it back that when we get it we're not [as lively]. That's the next part where we've just got to keep it for the next few passes, and Roy is on it to keep the ball a lot better for us, even from the back, and coming through midfield . . . we're working on it."

It's worth remembering, too, that Duffy has not just worked his way back from bad form to get here. Around the Italy game, the freak injury that nearly killed him in 2010 was regularly brought up to indicate his revival. Does he still think about it? Did he think about it in Lille?

"No, I was just on a buzz," Duffy says. "It was at the start where, maybe the way I was playing, it affected me. As I was saying, I'm quite aggressive, and maybe I wasn't for a year or two, where I thought, 'Oof, I don't really want to go in there', but I got over it. I did look at it different. Obviously, I couldn't have been here. I might have been dead.

"Now, it never comes into my head, unless someone asks."

Is it in his head that he is finally a first-choice centre-half for Ireland?

"Not all. I've only played seven games for Ireland, and every game I go in, you've no idea. Especially after the last game, you never know what they're thinking!"

They can rest assured that Duffy is one of those players always thinking about how he can improve.

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