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'I'm 100% committed to Ireland... you should want to play for only one country'

Former Everton striker Courtney Duffus has taken the League of Ireland by storm so far this season.

IT DIDN’T TAKE long for Waterford fans to realise that their club had signed a thoroughbred after Cheltenham-born striker Courtney Duffus arrived in February.

Just over two months into a loan deal that is due to expire at the end of June, Duffus has left many in the League of Ireland community wondering why Oldham Athletic allowed him to leave in the first place — albeit temporarily.

INPHO:Laszlo Geczo Waterford striker Courtney Duffus. Source: INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Nevertheless, it has been a convenient arrangement thus far for Duffus, who had to be patient in his pursuit of regular first-team football in England.

Along with younger brother Tyrone, he was signed by Everton from Cheltenham Town in 2012. He made good progress at Goodison Park and earned some senior experience during a brief loan spell with Bury, which began on his 19th birthday.

A few months after returning to Everton from the League Two club, manager Roberto Martinez included him in his matchday squad for a first-leg game away to Swiss side Young Boys in the Europa League’s round of 32. Duffus couldn’t have come much closer to realising his dream of an Everton debut that night

A goal from Seamus Coleman and a Romelu Lukaku hat-trick had the Toffees cruising at 0-4 early in the second half, at which point Duffus was instructed to get ready. While he was doing so, however, John Stones was shown a red card, the home side pulled a goal back, and Martinez subsequently abandoned his plan to blood a young striker.

“I was told I was going to come on but obviously then John Stones got sent off and that changed things from the manager’s point of view,” Duffus recalls. “It would have been amazing to play but it was just one of those things.”

Duffus has plenty of fond memories of his time at Everton, including U18 and U23 Premier League title wins. He also feels he benefitted substantially from rubbing shoulders daily with players of the calibre of Lukaku and Coleman.

“[Lukaku] is a few years older than me but I watched him closely and we interacted a lot,” he says. “His finishing was just unbelievable. Seamus Coleman is the kind of guy who makes time for everyone, no matter who they are. Everyone there thinks so highly of him. Absolutely no ego and one of the happiest people you could meet. A top bloke.”

Everton Training and Press Conference Duffus with Romelu Lukaku, who's now at Manchester United, during their time together at Everton. Source: Tony McArdle - Everton FC

Duffus was rewarded with a contract extension by the Premier League outfit last summer, but just a fortnight later he left the club for good. After Oldham offered Everton an undisclosed fee, Duffus was enthused by the prospect of finally playing competitive football on a regular basis following five years of youth and reserve games.

“I just got to an age — I was going on 22 — where I needed to play first-team football instead of sitting in the U23 team, waiting for the opportunity,” he says. “At that stage I had to go out and get games under my belt every week.”

Duffus, who was brought to Oldham by former Ireland international John Sheridan, scored twice in pre-season for his new club. He then featured in each of the League One side’s first three competitive games of the 2017-18 campaign, before being sidelined by a complex illness.

By the time he recovered, Sheridan had departed and opportunities were scarce under new manager Richie Wellens. When the chance to spend a few months in the League of Ireland arose in February, his appetite for games convinced him that it was the right move.

“I had something called pleural effusion and pneumonia, which was basically a build-up of fluid in my lung,” he explains. “That kept me out for a couple of months, but after that I wasn’t really getting a chance. When I heard about Waterford coming in, it just meant that I could get out and play, which was all I wanted.”

Duffus, who has scored seven times in his 11 appearances for Waterford, adds: “It’s been a while since I enjoyed actually playing football. Playing this regularly and scoring goals, it’s great to get an opportunity like this which has been so hard to come by. I’ve taken it with two hands.”

While things have certainly gone according to plan for Duffus in Waterford this year, he had already experienced a couple of significant moments in his career at the RSC before he arrived at the club.

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inpho_01114447 Duffus celebrates after scoring for the Ireland U21s against Serbia in October 2016. Source: INPHO/Donall Farmer

In September 2016, he wore the Ireland jersey there for the first time when he made his U21 debut in a European Championship qualifier against Slovenia. Five weeks later, his first international goal followed against Serbia.

Duffus is also eligible to represent England and Jamaica — from where his father hails — while the Irish connection is provided by his maternal grandmother, who was born in Limerick. Until he plays a competitive game at senior level, he remains free to change his allegiance. However, he insists that won’t be the case.

“We would have gone to my grandparents’ house when I was younger but unfortunately my grandma passed away when I was a boy,” says Duffus. “The decision to play for Ireland wasn’t that difficult at all. I remember my mum telling me when I was about 16 how much my grandma would have loved to have seen me and my brother play for Ireland.

“It was in my mind for a long time. She definitely would have been proud to see me playing in the green shirt, 100%. Although she probably would have given me a good clip on the ear for scoring against Limerick recently!”

He adds: “I’m 100% committed to Ireland. I think you should want to play for only one country. Going on to play for the senior team is now my ambition.”

The weekend ahead is significant for Duffus for a couple of reasons. Tomorrow night he’s set to lead the line for Waterford in their Premier Division at home to leaders Dundalk. He’ll then be keeping a close eye on the updates from Sixfields on Saturday, when Oldham may need a win against Northampton Town to avoid relegation to League Two.

Although he’s currently still scheduled to return to Oldham at the end of next month, Duffus admits that there will be mixed emotions about doing so, particularly if he has to turn his back on a title challenge with Waterford, who are just three points off the top.

He says: “I go back to England in the summer. We’ll see what happens from there. Obviously there will be a part of me that will be gutted to go back. I won’t be able to thank the Waterford players, the management and the fans enough. But in the meantime we’re doing well and I’m still here, so we just need to keep winning games. That’s all I’m thinking of at the minute.”

Duffus missed the defeat to Dundalk at Oriel Park earlier in the season — when the teams were only separated by a 94th-minute own goal — as playing on artificial surfaces causes problems for his knee. He suffered a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament at Everton in 2015.

“These are the big games you want to play in,” he says ahead of the meeting with Stephen Kenny’s side, who regained top spot on Monday courtesy of a 5-0 trouncing of St Patrick’s Athletic. “It’s in games like this, especially as a striker, where you want to stick your chest out, score goals and pick up important points for the team.”

Waterford have impressed in their first season back in the Premier Division after a decade-long absence from the top tier of Irish football. Manager Alan Reynolds has played down the club’s prospects of challenging for a first league title in 45 years, but they’re currently just three points off the pace in third place.

“Come the end of the season, I’ll be surprised if Waterford are not up there challenging at the top,” Duffus says. “There’s so much quality and togetherness in the team, I don’t think there’s any reason why they shouldn’t be.”

They’ll encounter another sizeable hurdle when Dundalk visit the south-east tomorrow night, but having already set a promising pace, Courtney Duffus believes — whether he’s still on board or not — that this Waterford side is capable of lasting the course.

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