Brighton and Hove Albion's Shane Duffy during the Premier League match at Turf Moor. PA

Can Ireland's Shane Duffy maintain his status as a Premier League regular?

The defender returned to the Brighton team and produced a man-of-the-match display last week.

JUST THREE Irish players started for their clubs in the Premier League last weekend.

Seamus Coleman and Ciaran Clark lining out for Everton and Newcastle respectively did not raise any eyebrows, but Shane Duffy featuring for Brighton was somewhat of a surprise.

Many critics would have suspected the Derry native’s Seagulls career was over after he was sent on loan to Celtic last season, while the fact that he had a torrid time in Scotland would have reinforced this perception.

But against the odds, not only did Duffy start in the 2-1 win over Burnley, he won the man-of-the-match award for his performance, which was his first top-flight start for Brighton in over a year.

“I thought he was immense,” Potter told reporters afterwards.

“He has been fantastic since he came back [from Celtic]. His attitude and professionalism, his approach to the team and the group. He has been really good.”

The prospect of Duffy starring in the Premier League seemed very far away last season. As early as October, the Ireland international was drawing criticism for his performances at Celtic, with Neil Lennon hitting back at the media for their treatment of the player.

“Players getting singled out and abused, it is absolutely shocking,” the then-Hoops boss said. “If that’s the way of the modern world, I am glad I am not a player anymore.

“Shane needs to find his feet. He has had a bumpy week – nothing more, nothing less. It happens. I am not happy with the treatment he is getting from certain quarters of the media.

“I think it is hysterical. Comments that he is rank rotten and he is a bombscare. I find that ridiculous. He is a quality player. The personal, banging the drum with certain players is unacceptable.

“He made a mistake, he shouldn’t be hung out to dry for it. He has my full support, he has the team’s full support. I have seen millions of players come in here and take time to find their feet and then go on to have brilliant careers.”

Yet Duffy continued to struggle and was dropped after some below-par performances.

In December, the Ireland star spoke about the untimely death of his father the previous May and how it had affected him while praising Lennon for the support he showed.

“[Lennon] came around and he really cares about players and their emotions. He knows I was going through a tough time,” Duffy told The Daily Record.

“I’ve really never had a manager like that before who would come around and care – ‘How are you getting on in life? How are you handling it up here?’ It meant a lot to me and I’ll always respect him for that.

“I’ve had a tough year and no one really sees what goes on behind the scenes in people’s lives. Maybe I took things a little bit to heart and was trying too hard to do well here and not let everyone down.

“My dad was a massive part of my life. It’s hard as he was the one I’d speak to about everything in life. My two kids also live back in Derry and I’m up here alone. With the Covid restrictions, I can’t really interact with the team as much as I’d like.

“But listen, I’m big and ugly enough to understand I have got to do better on the park. That’s what I’m paid to do and it’s a job I love.”

Yet it was a tough season for Celtic in general, as their bid to win a 10th successive title fell short and they were ousted at the top by bitter rivals Rangers.

There was talk of Duffy’s loan spell being cut short in January, and while he stuck around at Parkhead, the centre-back was largely on the periphery of the team, with his last appearance coming in the 2-1 win over St Johnstone on 14 February.

The Irish international was clearly downbeat when the season came to an end, as a message on Instagram illustrated: “Grateful for the opportunity to get the chance to play for a club that many dream about doing. Thanks to the supporters and the players for helping me through a tough year on and off the field. Not many know what goes on behind the scenes.

“Time to hit [the] restart button and get myself sorted. Celtic Football Club will always have a place in my heart.”

Some people may have written off Duffy as a top-level player at that point, but Stephen Kenny continued to back him. 

“Shane Duffy has never let Ireland down,” the manager told reporters last March. “He has played when he’s been injured, he has played three games in six days and travelled twice within that, he puts everything on the line for Ireland continually, and we shouldn’t forget that just because he has had a tough time.” 

Duffy then went some way towards repaying Kenny’s faith amid the first signs of rejuvenation, winning the man-of-the-match award as Ireland drew 0-0 with Hungary back in June.

“I’ve got a great manager who trusts me,” he told RTÉ. “I’ve got no complaints about not playing in the team [previously]. I try to play my role, trying to help the younger lads when I haven’t been playing football. So I’ve total belief and thanks to the manager for giving me a game, first and foremost. I enjoyed it again. I sort of forgot what it felt like to play football. Hopefully, that’s the bad part over. Another rest and I’ll be ready to be back next season, kick on and show everyone how good I am again.”

While it is still early days for the defender, the signs are more promising now.

Duffy appears to have benefited from the break over the summer. In an interview with the Brighton website after the Burnley win, he revealed he had made some changes in his life of late.

“The club has been brilliant, even when they knew I was having a difficult spell both on and off the pitch at Celtic. They were always in contact and seeing how I was.

“When I came back after my loan it was a big weight off my shoulders. It was like I had come home and the comfort started to come back.

“When you hit rock bottom that is the reality check. A lot was going wrong off the field, which was difficult for me and I had to get through that and that was tough mentally.

“After the year I had I was in a really low place and thought the Premier League was probably over for me. But I have got good people around me and at the club; this club is so good for me and it feels like home.

“Everyone knows I had a tough year up at Celtic and off the pitch it was quite difficult for me. So I changed a few things in my life over the last few months and I have come back with a different mindset and approach to things.

“I did that from the first day of pre-season, but my expectations weren’t high and I just said to myself I would try to do the best I can and help the team in any way I can.

“The manager has been really honest and he has been great with me. With a little bit of luck here and there I thought I could end up playing on Saturday.

“That was my mindset and I was delighted to get a little bit of luck, but I also feel you earn your luck with a bit of hard work, how you are off the pitch and how you are around the lads. The manager is big on that.

“I feel like I can help the squad, even if at times I am not playing, and it was really nice to get back on the grass.”

Duffy now faces a crucial few months. With the emergence of several promising centre-backs including Nathan Collins and Andrew Omobamidele, he knows that as well as his spot in the Brighton team, his place in the Irish side could be at risk if he fails to kick on again this season.

On Saturday, Duffy played alongside Lewis Dunk and Adam Webster, the club captain and vice-captain, as part of a three-man defence.

Part of the reason there was a place for Duffy in the team was due to two other centre-backs being unavailable.

Dan Burn was missing with a knee injury while Joe Veltman was a close contact of someone who tested positive for Covid-19.

Graham Potter confirmed both players will again miss this weekend’s match with Watford, so Duffy is expected to feature once more.

But with stiff competition at centre-back, whether the 29-year-old can retain his starting spot in the long term is less certain.

At the very least though, the former Everton player, who has two years left on his Brighton contract, will look more attractive to potential suitors.

And he is not the only Irish player at the Seagulls facing an uncertain period.

Aaron Connolly is back in the squad this week after missing last Saturday’s match for “personal reasons,” according to Potter. The 21-year-old Galway native had a disappointing tally of two goals in 17 appearances last season and will need an improved campaign this year to ensure his long-term future at the club.

Meanwhile, Jayson Molumby’s days at the club could be numbered. After a spell on loan at Preston in the Championship last season, the 22-year-old appears to be no closer to the Brighton starting XI amid talk that he could move elsewhere ahead of the transfer window’s closure.

The talented trio of Duffy, Connolly and Molumby all have the potential to be big players for Ireland in the coming years, but how they fare at club level this season may well play a big part in determining whether that proves to be the case.

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