Tom Maher/INPHO Damien Duff speaking to RTÉ's Tony O'Donoghue.
Opening Night

'I’m sure other managers are going ‘f*****g Duffer, getting the spotlight.' I don’t want it'

A look back at Damien Duff’s debut as Shelbourne manager, which ended with a 3-0 defeat to St Patrick’s Athletic.

GLANCE AT THE 3-0 scoreline and you’d assume you would know why Damien Duff said he was glad the night was all over, but you’d be wrong. 

“I’m glad it’s over and we can move on with the rest of the season”, Duff told RTÉ after Shelbourne were beaten by St Patrick’s Athletic, and he elaborated slightly in a huddle with journalists. His side were comprehensively beaten but he was proud of the performance and revelled in the atmosphere.

The problem was the focus on him. 

“I’m glad it’s over. I don’t like the spotlight. I’m sure other managers are going ‘fucking Duffer getting it’. I don’t want it, so they can fucking have it, alright?” 

His tone was lighter than his words read on a page. 

Duff may be slightly bemused by all of the attention but his status and personality are a magnet for it, and he is the most high-profile managerial appointment in the League of Ireland since John Giles at Shamrock Rovers.

Hence the contradiction: a media-shy man who can’t help accumulating greater attention with virtually every word he says. But there’s a parallel paradox in the competition, too.

This is a league in desperate need of mainstream coverage while often betraying a deep scepticism toward exactly that. When George Byrne said on RTÉ’s coverage of USA ’94 that the League of Ireland was a “minority sport”, you got the sense it was a lament leavened with the slightest hint of pride; the punky, subversive alternative to a sport now gone fully mainstream. 

The attention on Duff’s opening game was such that most journalists turned up 90 minutes ahead of kick off to guarantee a seat. (Duff meant added competition, with The Athletic among those struggling to find parking around Richmond Road.) 

A unique constellation of events meant the pre-game atmosphere at Tolka Park was roiling. First Shels returned to the top-flight, then they appointed Duff, and then earlier that very day they took a big step to securing the feature of their historic ground as it was announced the club submitted a proposal to buy the ground from Dublin City Council. 

The Council have bought it and Dalymount Park with a view to demolishing Tolka and housing both clubs at a refurbished Dalymount. This was met by opposition among Shels supporters and there were lots of ‘Save Tolka Park’ banners on show among fans on Friday night, though they were flown as much in celebration as defiance. 

a-view-of-a-save-tolka-park-banner-before-the-game Ben Whitley / INPHO One of several Save Tolka Park banners on display. Ben Whitley / INPHO / INPHO

Duff described Friday night as “the biggest day in his football life”, and he walked across the pitch ahead of kick-off wearing the stolid expression of a man who meant what he said. He was eventually moved to acknowledge the rapturous applause that rolled from the stands in his direction. 

Those features had uncoiled in joy within 90 seconds of kick-off, as striker Daniel Carr bundled home from close range from a set-piece. Carr did the celebratory backflip made familiar by his time at Shamrock Rovers before an offside flag ruined all the fun. 

Duff conducted his team’s enthusiasm from the off, constantly waving them forward, beseeching them to press. It nearly worked when Mark Coyle dispossessed centre-back Joe Redmond and fed the impressive young Jack Moylan, who dragged his shot wide. 

Moylan is just 20 and joined from Bohemians’, and while he faded as the game wore on and flitted around its edges, everything good about Shelbourne in the opening half came through him. 

“Jack Moylan will score a lot of goals this season”, said Duff. When asked how he would offer his playmaker encouragement, Duff gave the whole spectrum of options. “Jack’s a man so he can take criticism, he can take love, everything. Listen, the lads know we’re there for them 24/7. They get love, a kick up the arse, whatever it may be.” 

Shelbourne’s exuberant, busy start ultimately came to nothing as they didn’t have the quality of the night’s support act. Shelbourne’s other No.10, Daniel Hawkins, made two mistakes: the first was giving the ball away, the second was the fact he gave it to Darragh Burns. 

Burns then chopped inside and picked out the top corner with a gorgeous sweep of his left foot. Burns has recently switched allegiance from Northern Ireland, and he made Ireland assistant boss Keith Andrews’ visit to Tolka Park worthwhile. 

You’re getting sacked in the morning, sang the travelling Pat’s fans with glee. 

Duff’s Shels play a 3-4-2-1, with two wing backs and a pair of No.10s, a similar system as to the one employed with great success by Stephen Bradley at Shamrock Rovers. They threaded together some very neat attacking moves in the early stages of the second-half but lacked the conviction in the finish, a problem that didn’t afflict Pat’s.

Mark Doyle punished a second give-away in midfield on the hour mark, while Jason McClelland scored a third in the closing stages to give the scoreline a slightly unair sheen. 

Largely forgotten in the night’s shadows was Pat’s manager Tim Clancy, who was making his league bow in charge of Pat’s having been appointed after the acrimony of Stephen O’Donnell’s move to Dundalk. He accentuated his team’s quality after the game, and Friday night showcased it. Burns turned the game before a regal Chris Forrester ran it, while Mark and Eoin Doyle were constantly threatening and James Abankwah gave the impression he would be ready to play in Serie A tomorrow night. Perhaps only squad depth will prevent Pat’s pushing Shamrock Rovers to the final weeks of the season. 

Duff’s ambitions will be trained toward the table’s lower reaches, and avoiding a return to the First Division will be a successful debut season. The level of churn in the off-season was mildly daft: Duff has effectively built an entirely new squad. His team lacked guile when Moylan faded and before Jordan McEneff – on loan from Arsenal and the younger brother of former Rovers midfielder Aaron – was introduced from the bench. 

Duff tweaked his approach and told McEneff to stay more central – “Don’t go wandering” – and his shot from the top of the D was as close as Shels came to scoring. 

That stoked renewed belief in the home crowd that Shels could claw their way back into the game, but the opening night had no fairytale ending as Pat’s – led by a magisterial Forrester – killed the game with the third goal in the final minutes. 

“They’re all gutted because I think we’ve built a special group already”, said Duff. 

“At half-time I got rather animated because I wanted them to know that, yeah, we went 1-0 down, but I thought it was good for them to know that they belong here – they absolutely belong here – and to believe and go back out and give more if possible because we’re fit enough to do it.

“Look, it’s awfully disappointing, they know what they’ve signed up for, they’re a close-knit group but we’ll pick them up and we’ll go again.

“It might sound bizarre – we’ve lost 3-0 – but I think tonight gives them an awful lot of belief.” 

Among those in the crowd was Duff’s mentor Brian Kerr, though he was here to support Pat’s rather than one of the greatest players he has coached. He was one of the last to amble down the steep steps in front of the press box, and as he did so, he looked over and said something to the effect that Pat’s had just shown they had moved on from Stephen O’Donnell.

It struck this writer as that subplot had barely registered. This was Duff’s night.

Next up for Shelbourne is a trip to Drogheda next Friday, as the gears are pulled on the cut and thrust of the 36-game season, arguably the most arduous domestic competition in Irish sport. 

So how does he reflect on opening night?

“It was still a massive night in my life and I know for the players, it was probably the biggest night some of them played in.

“I’m awfully disappointed, I guess, but I’ll go home, have a glass of red and sleep well. I’m very, very pleased and proud of them. I said to them before the game that I was the proudest man in Ireland walking the squad and the staff out on the pitch because that’s how proud I am of them all. They’re just fantastic guys.

“We’re close-knit. We’ll move on.” 

Wherever he moves, the cameras will follow.  

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