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a new hoop Duffy halts slide after crisis of confidence led to career low at Celtic

Faith of Kenny and Potter has helped the defender bounce back to his best

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Back on track: Shane Duffy. Credit: Sportsfile

Back on track: Shane Duffy. Credit: Sportsfile

Back on track: Shane Duffy. Credit: Sportsfile

John Egan will bear the duty of wearing the captain’s armband when Ireland face off against Azerbaijan in Baku tomorrow. It’s a deserved honour for Egan, but when Irish eyes scan the arena in Baku and search for their talisman, they find the person standing beside Egan. Since the days when Roy Keane led the side on and off the field, rarely has the Ireland team been as reliant on one man as Kenny’s outfit are now on Duffy, and his importance at both ends of the pitch.

It’s a time in their careers when the likes of Adam Idah, Aaron Connolly, Troy Parrott and Andrew Omobamidele are finding out just how tough it is to grow up on the big stage, desperately seeking Premier League minutes while simultaneously being asked to help the national team end a 13-game winless run in competitive games, with all the pressure those demands bring.

So the younger cohort can look to Duffy and see how a player has turned around a career, with club and country, which appeared to be in a nosedive.

Brighton’s presence at the top end of the Premier League table, and Duffy’s firm presence in their back-line, proves that writing off the man from Derry is a mistake, Duffy playing his own part in the restoration of a deteriorating career by making better choices in terms of off-field matters and friends. Not so long ago, Ireland and Kenny could leave him out, now the Ireland manager couldn’t manage without Duffy.

His job is to defend, something he has done well for his club this season. But for all the attacking threat posed by strikers, an Ireland goal is more likely to come from the head of Duffy: of the current squad, only James McClean has scored more times for Ireland than Duffy.

With five goals in 47 appearances, Duffy has scored more times for the national team than the entire six-strong midfield contingent and their 132 caps.

Once again in the last few days, Duffy’s strength of character has been tested by bereavement as he missed the first day of training with Ireland this week to attend the funeral of his grandmother.

In the space of 18 months, Duffy has lost his father and two grandparents, a tragic situation that should not fall to a man still in his 20s.

Tomorrow in Baku is a chance to benchmark just how far Duffy has come in a year, noting how far he’d fallen last year. Because it was right about this time 12 months ago when Duffy’s football world started to crumble.

October 2020 began well for Duffy, two wins and two clean sheets for Celtic, and he bounded into the Ireland camp for the Euro 2020 play-off in Slovakia with morale high, early signs that his loan spell at Parkhead was a route to paradise.

That October international window was a Covid-scarred disaster, defeat to Slovakia, a dull 0-0 draw with Wales and a dismal loss to Finland. Four days after that defeat to the Finns, Duffy entered the world of the Old Firm for the first time, a stage he’d relished from the moment he joined Celtic . . . and came away chastened, Duffy was booked and Celtic were beaten 2-0 at home by Rangers.

Duffy would go on to captain Ireland in the three-game series in November, where the honour of being the Irish skipper at Wembley was dimmed by the sight of that English side running up a 2-0 lead after half an hour, England scoring three in total but they could have scored more.

When the national team regrouped five months later, Duffy was clearly on the slide, demoted to the bench by Kenny as a result of confidence-shattering form with Celtic.

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Captain at Wembley one minute, left on the bench for a defeat at home to Luxembourg the next.

And yet here we are, Azerbaijan now a key game if the Kenny regime is to stay in place beyond his current contract, with Duffy at the core of it all. The man who scored the first goal of the Kenny era is likely to be needed once again.

Two men have played a big part in the revival of Shane Duffy – a story which could have had a very unhappy ending as, only six months ago, his career was going nowhere – Graham Potter and Stephen Kenny.

Kenny welcomed Duffy back to the Ireland fold after his Celtic loan spell had been put out of its misery, and a starting role in the June draw in Hungary, where Duffy and Ireland had to work hard for their clean sheet, gave him a fillip he needed to put a positive spin on a dismal season.

Dropping Duffy was no punishment, but good man-management, taking him out of the firing line, helped give him a new sense of self-worth.

The sale of Ben White to Arsenal opened up a door to the first team at Brighton, which Duffy took with relish and has since repaid Potter’s faith. Duffy also made changes in his own life.

“I let some people go who weren’t the best thing for me. I surrounded myself with good people, made better decisions off the pitch, and I can feel myself improving on the pitch,” he said.

Kenny labelled him an “immense presence” in the 0-0 draw in Hungary. Duffy has arrested his decline and made himself a talisman. The Derry Seagull has his wings again.


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