Damien Duff departure an unwanted headache for Stephen Kenny and the FAI

Aidan Fitzmaurice

Just when he thought the noise had died down and he could focus on planning for the World Cup qualifiers in March, Stephen Kenny has been dealt an unwanted headache with the decision by Damien Duff to step away from his role as part of Kenny's backroom staff with the senior Ireland team.

Having endured, and survived, a very testing year in 2020, from his sudden elevation to the throne of Irish football in April to that run

of eight games without a win and the worst run of form for the Republic's senior side since 1971, Kenny had hoped to get a clear runat things to prepare for a trip to Belgrade in March, the first of many tests on the road to Qatar 2022.

It was far from an easy time for Kenny, and not just because Covid-related travel restrictions have made it almost impossible forhim to travel to the UK to watch his players in the flesh and spend time with them.

The poor run of results posed questions about where the team, a young side being rebuilt under his watch, was headed andthe publicity around the showing of a motivational video before the friendly against England in London last November dragged Kenny, and the entire setup, into a row that was most unwanted.

The FAI are still dealing with the aftermath of Videogate, with senior officials speaking on the record about the "outside forces" seeking to cause damage and that issue has yet to be truly put to bed, a topic which newly-installed CEO Jonathan Hill has not ignored, as to how the FAI issued a statement so quickly to claim that the Video matter was being investigated as a matter of urgency.

Duff, and the rest of the staff, were later debriefed by the FAI in a probe which would see them give Kenny their backing.

But the departure of Duff at this stage, with no clear reason for his exit and no job offer on the horizon to explain Duff's departure, willput an unwanted focus back on the senior squad.

Those close to the Irish camp raised eyebrows when Duff joined the senior team set-up last year.

Robbie Keane working with Mick McCarthy on his coaching ticket made sense as the pair had a long-established relationship, and it was also logical for Kenny to keep Alan Kelly on as goalkeeping coach.

And Keith Andrews was a good fit for Kenny as they'd collaborated well with the Ireland U-21 side.

But Duff had no previous relationship with Kenny. The job was initially a part-time one, until Duff severed his ties with Celtic and then moved to Ireland, and his FAI role, full-time.

But those who knew Duff and Kenny wondered if the pair would be a good mix.

There was also a real complication in that Robbie Keane, not only a former team-mate of Duff but a close friend, remained on the FAIpayroll but unwanted by Kenny, a PR disaster for the cash-strapped FAI to have Keane retained on his €250,000 a year salary without doing any actual work for the association since April.

What did Duff think? The Irish public never really got to know what Duff felt about his Ireland role as the former Chelsea player did no media in his time with the FAI, though he did speak on FAI issues when he worked as an analyst for RTE TV. He recently came out to bat for Kenny on the Videogate issue, saying the video matter was a "non-story" and criticised the "doom and gloom" surrounding the national side.

He also appeared to back Kenny's vision for the side.

"We have gone there and dominated them, playing football the right way, creating chances the right way, playing through them, not just playing more direct stuff that we have been known to do, not just crossing balls for the sake of crossing, playing attractive football the way people want it played," he said of the Euro 2020 playoff game in Slovakia, a game Ireland lost on penalties.

Some took that as a criticism of Kenny's immediate predecessor, as McCarthy repeatedly said on commentary duties for Sky Sports that the Kenny-era side were not getting in enough crosses, others felt it was a statement of fact from Duff.

It was also unclear what exactly Duff's role was in the Ireland set-up.

Speaking before that clash with Slovakia, Kenny said of his preparations that "Keith Andrews will present [information to thesquad] on Slovakia. Damien Duff of course is behind the scenes of course, too."

"Behind the scenes" may have been an off-the-cuff remark in a media briefing but it hinted at a lack of clarity of Duff's role.

Earlier, Kenny had said: "We have a clear idea in training what we want: Keith Andrews and Damian Duff have been working very hard to make sure that our messages are clear and consistent".

But Kenny is said to have relied heavily on Andrews for counsel and also listened to Ruaidhri Higgins, a long-time associate going back to the Derry City days, leaving Duff with an undefined voice.

And now Duff has gone, exposing an unwanted issue for Kenny and the FAI to deal with.

“I want to thank Stephen Kenny for the opportunity he gave me to coach with the senior Ireland team and I wish Stephen, Keith and the players all the very best of luck for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers," was Duff's comment in a statement issued by the FAIon Friday night.

But the timing of the exit, and the implications, lead to more questions.

"It won't last," was the comment by one former ex-international when Duff was added to the Kenny ticket last year.

They did last, but just nine months of a two-year contract and the void left by Duff leaves Kenny, and the FAI, with explaining to do.


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