Tuesday 15 October 2019

Roy Curtis: 'Paul McGrath and Richard Dunne have company - Shane Duffy is Ireland's latest centre back hero'

Shane Duffy of Republic of Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's goal during the UEFA EURO2020 Qualifier Group D match between Denmark and Republic of Ireland at Telia Parken in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Shane Duffy of Republic of Ireland celebrates after scoring his side's goal during the UEFA EURO2020 Qualifier Group D match between Denmark and Republic of Ireland at Telia Parken in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Roy Curtis

IT was entirely fitting for Mick McCarthy that his saviour came from the hard-nosed central defensive ghetto the Irish manager once patrolled with such belligerent, unbending authority.

On a night when the McCarthy revolution found another uplifting gear, when Celtic spirit trumped Viking technique, Shane Duffy added his name to the list of towering centre-back performances.

Even before his immense 84th minute equaliser, the Derryman's heroic display evoked memories of that defiant Moscow masterclass from Richard Dunne.

Duffy, then a pre-school two-year-old, will hardly recall an eternal New Jersey afternoon when Paul McGrath, Ireland's luminous Black Pearl, repeatedly thwarted Roberto Baggio and Italy.

But 11 days before the 25th anniversary of that timeless afternoon of USA '94, Duffy delivered a 90-minute performance that was a fitting tribute to that day of East Coast American thunder.

Resolute and unbreakable in defence, then striding forward to bail his team from trouble.

Ireland were far from perfect, but Duffy personified their refusal to bow. He was the embodiment of the new spirit McCarthy has injected into a team that looked jaded and clueless under Martin O'Neill.

With one murderous Danish flourish, yielding a goal 15 minutes from deliverance, all the optimism McCarthy had presented, gift-wrapped, to Irish football, could have been buried in quicklime. 

But, though Ireland's second half performance was a cause for concern, a flotilla of Danish chances threatening mayhem, the response of Duffy and his lieutenants was immense.

McCarthy's initial offering on his Irish second coming in March amounted to high-fibre manna for a famished and malnourished audience. Here was the seed capital of hope.

Taken in isolation, that single goal victory over Georgia – currently squatting at a lowly 94 in FIFA’s world ranking – hardly represented a salsa to the highest ground.

But, given the oppressive darkness that went before, it felt redemptive, like forgotten sunlight. A velvet revolution.

A team intent on keeping possession, unafraid of showcasing a little ambition, electrified the Aviva three months ago.

After the rising damp and crumbling foundations of late-era O'Neill’s house of horrors, here at least was a hint of restoration, a required jolt of warming insulation.

The task for McCarthy in Copenhagen was to climb to the next rung, to convert optimism of March into something close to substantial summer achievement.

It was hardly necessary to hack the FAI’s email to anticipate the manager’s intention to reward the Georgian heroes.

Yet a first unchanged Irish XI in three years spoke of the renewed windstorms of hope.

The principal difference between that last mind-numbingly unambitious visit to the Danish capital and this was philosophical.

Ireland unveiled a new sense of adventure in possession and pressed high when their opponents seized the ball. The contrast with O’Neill’s dispiritingly passive retreat to the edge of his own box was stark.

It wasn’t that McCarthy’s team had morphed into a freestyle football version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Glenn Whelan, who has built a fine career from his no-frill, bacon and cabbage capabilities, patrolled the midfield like a night club doorman intent on refusing entry to all.

It was an enormously physical contest, brute and beastly.

But there was composure, an authentic desire to pass the ball that contrasted with the nihilistic chaos and suffocating conservatism that became O’Neill’s calling card.

Denmark, as expected from a team with a playmaker arrived straight from the Champions League final, were the more menacing and inventive side.

Over the first 45 minutes Ireland, impressively composed in defence, rarely showed any urge to lunge for the nearest emergency chord.

Duffy, in particular, was a towering presence, a wall of resistance, unafraid to pursue the delicate, high degree of difficulty option out of defence.                                                                  

Later, as the night threatened to slip through McCarthy's fingers, the Brighton defender powered into the box to deliver a beautiful, unstoppable trademark header.

And, some 25 years on from the Giants Stadium, Ireland put down their prayer mat and gave thanks for their Foyleside Beckenbauer.

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