Damien Duff coaching with Shamrock Rovers. Morgan Treacy/INPHO

'He shot the lights out' - What to expect from Damien Duff as Ireland's latest assistant coach

He has criticised pushy parents and said he was probably ‘too tough’ on his U15s, but Duff is a lot more than just an old-school coach.

A GROUP OF qualified Irish coaches recently gathered at a Continuous Development Programme run by the FAI, necessary to maintain their coaching badges.

A few recognisable names were on hand to demonstrate how they run a training session, and, given communication’s vital role, all were to be mic’d up. 

The technology didn’t quite work, however, and Terry Connor gave his session to an audience of straining ears. Then Damien Duff took to the field, and as soon as he started to bark his instructions, it was clear to all in the crowd that no microphones were needed. 

A warning to the senior international players Duff will be working with alongside Stephen Kenny: don’t expect a leisurely time. 

There is an impression that Duff is an old-school coach, something which Duff himself fed in an interview back in 2017 when talking about coaching Shamrock Rovers’ U15s, notable for their pitiless, weekly 6.30am training sessions before school.

“I was always told how shit I was or I needed to do something better:that was the way I was brought up so that’s the way I’m doing it”, he told the Irish Mirror.

“A few parents have tried the ‘My little Johnny is this or that’…. piss off really. I try to treat them like adults. I put on adult sessions that I got in the Premier League for 20 years and that’s the way I treat them. I’m probably too tough on them, they probably hate me, but that’s the way I was brought up, in home life, at Blackburn. I was scared of Alan Irvine! He was our youth-team manager but was probably the best coach I’ve ever worked under.”

Duff is a very demanding coach, but his style is not a redundant kind of photocopy of the hectoring, abrasive coaches of yesteryear.

“He is very enthusiastic and very driven”, says Niall O’Regan, Head of Coach Education at the FAI.

“He is almost a different person when he crosses the white line. He is also very detailed and very precise: he puts a lot of time into planning, preparing and identifying exactly what objective he wants to achieve in a training session. He is extremely efficient in terms of IT and performance analysis, too.

“I would describe him as the best-case example of a modern coach.”

Kenny, meanwhile, described Duff this week as “quite a creative and inventive training ground coach with great preparation, attention to detail and a high work ethic.”

Duff is deeply attentive to the tactical side of the game, and his obsessiveness showed when he was presenting to A-Licence candidates as part of his Pro Licence course.

(If you consider the Pro Licence as the Leaving Cert, call the A-Licence the Junior Cert.)

During the presentation, Duff picked out a young coach in the crowd, James Toner, whom he recognised from a past U15s game between Carlow/Kilkenny and his Rovers side.

Duff recited the score, the game’s key incidents and how both teams were set up from memory.

Andrew Foley, now coaching in Abu Dhabi, was among the crowd.

“As soon as he started speaking, everyone in the room sat up. The passion, the intensity: everything that came out of his mouth was incredible. He shot the lights out.”

He also put on a session that day, and Foley describes Duff as being almost as tired as the players were by the time it was over. According to a number of people familiar with Duff’s approach, he sinks everything he can into a session as he expects the same in return.

He also offered an insight into some of his more nuanced tactical ideas, which he had implemented with Rovers’ U15s.

He shares Pep Guardiola’s desire to win the ball back quickly, and whereas Guardiola set his Barcelona players a six-second time limit to win the ball back, Duff uses simple trigger words to instantly remind his players to refocus and press as soon as they have lost the ball.

damien-duff Duff in his Rovers' days. Tom Beary / INPHO Tom Beary / INPHO / INPHO

“Fire” is the trigger when the ball is lost and has to be won back; “Ice” is used when they have won it back and need to calmly use it. These trigger words weren’t being yelled by Duff on the sideline: the players were reminding each other.

In terms of attacking structure, Duff shares a trait with Kenny in the desire to create overloads in wide areas, an idea that is probably most closely associated with Ajax.
Duff had his U15s drilled to take specific positions in attacks: if the left-winger darted inside to allow the left-back overlap, the ‘six’ (the deep-lying midfielder in a 4-3-3) moved into a “half-space” between the centre of the pitch and the left-wing, as a passing option to change the point of attack.

It’s not a revolutionary approach, but shows there are finer details to Duff’s coaching.
According to people familiar with his approach, Duff doesn’t often invoke his playing career, and he has been determined to take his coaching career slowly.

It is ironic, then, that things have happened so quickly for him: Duff went from coaching Rovers’ U15s to Celtic’s first team in less than three years, with Brendan Rodgers’ departure and Neil Lennon’s return accelerating his step-up from the club’s reserves.

Kenny is impressed with Duff’s work at Celtic, where he has been tasked with coaching a side shifting between different approaches.

Domestically, Celtic usually confront sides happy to sit deep against them, whereas they spend much longer under the cosh in Europe. Kenny, of course, faced similar challenges at times with Dundalk.

Foley describes Duff and Kenny as a “match made in heaven”, and while both had wildly different coaching careers, as coaches they share a happy depth – there is more to both than first meets the eye. 

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