Shelbourne's head coach Damien Duff celebrates Friday's win against Bohemians. Bryan Keane/INPHO
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'I give them everything 24/7, hugs, kisses, kicks up the arse, nights out'

Damien Duff has steadily built a reputatiion as one of Irish football’s most impressive managers.

WHEN DAMIEN DUFF became a League of Ireland coach a little over two years ago, it raised eyebrows.

The 100-cap Ireland international joining Shelbourne was among the most high-profile appointments the domestic game has ever seen — reminiscent of another Irish legend, John Giles, taking charge of Shamrock Rovers in 1977.

Duff’s decision felt significant for the league too. When someone of his stature is willing to embrace life in the Premier Division, others pay attention.

It would be an exaggeration to credit his star power with the recent increase in attendance across the Premier Division, but it undoubtedly helped matters.

And from a purely footballing perspective, Duff’s arrival was met with optimism. Despite not managing before, he had already established himself as a respected coach since finishing his playing career after a short stint with Shamrock Rovers in 2015.

There was scepticism in certain quarters too. The list of genuine ex-Premier League stars to try their hand in the League of Ireland is not long. Would Duff have the patience to deal with players who weren’t at the level he invariably played at?

Critics wondered whether he would last, citing previous coaching jobs with Ireland and Celtic — the latter ended after 18 months, and the former was less than a year.

But Duff addressed this criticism at his introductory press conference as Shels manager in November 2021.

“Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve dedicated my life to it. Longevity or impatient or always jumping ship — I don’t when you strip it back. I’m incredibly dedicated, I dedicate my life to players.”

Yet Duff also admitted to being apprehensive about becoming a senior manager.

“You can do anything in life, this is something I thought I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t be up to it but I have done it,” he said last year. “I have grown as a person on and off the pitch, I’d like to think, and it’s out of your comfort zone. A lot of people in life go motoring along but I did something I was scared of, and I am grateful for it.”

In football, interviews can sometimes seem bland and lacking substance. Managers and players are afraid to offend others with brutal honesty or give extra motivation to the opposition with provocative remarks.

On the other hand, Duff could rarely be accused of sitting on the fence. He is not necessarily under less pressure than others. But of course, he has the luxury of having earned significant sums as a player so he is not under the same type of pressure as others to put food on the table, which perhaps explains the uncommon freedom and stark honesty with which he often speaks.

The ex-Blackburn star has been described as a ‘throwback’ — akin to the days of Roddy Collins and Pat Dolan when League of Ireland managers were less inherently diplomatic.

Like Collins and Dolan, his passion is palpable. But more importantly, this sense of fearlessness appears to be translating to his players.

It is early days but the signs are promising. Shels sit on top of the table, taking 13 from a possible 15 points out of their opening five games.

Whether they can be long-term title contenders remains to be seen.

But at the very least, this exciting Tolka Park project remains on an upward curve.

In his first season, Duff guided his newly promoted team to seventh in the table and a place in the FAI Cup final.

Last year, they finished fourth and secured a European spot despite tension with the club’s owners in the background.

Shels’ progress under Duff has consequently earned him many admirers.

Though he might be glad to see the back of him in the Premier Division, Stephen Bradley recently suggested Duff was being unfairly overlooked in the Ireland managerial search.

“He didn’t have to take [the Shels job], he has a real hunger and desire to be a top coach and manager and has all the experience and work,” Bradley told reporters. “I don’t understand why we’re looking around the houses, I think it’s right there in front of us.”

Duff himself described the Irish manager search as “embarrassing” and said he turned down an informal approach to be considered.

“I was nowhere near the running. Just to be sure and clear, and I know you get headlines, I was never in the running. There was nothing ever real or concrete. I love my job here.”

Duff’s unapologetic openness is the type of characteristic that would attract plenty of criticism if results started to go awry.

Yet at the moment, his team are backing up the strong words with impressive performances.

mark-coyle-and-teammates-celebrate-after-the-game Shelbourne's Mark Coyle and teammates celebrate after the game. Bryan Keane / INPHO Bryan Keane / INPHO / INPHO

On Friday night, he said his team “controlled the first half in large parts”.

They didn’t control it by dominating possession or creating a hateful of chances but it is possible to control a game without the ball, and the latter trait is what the current Shels outfit specialises in.

In front of a packed crowd, Bohs struggled for much of the 90 minutes to create chances of note, and while the hosts weren’t exactly under the cosh at any point, the visitors were clinical when they needed to be.

It is a recurring theme of Duff’s tenure. They have conceded just two goals since the start of the season.

The 44 goals they scored last year constituted the lowest tally of the top-six sides. Yet with 27 goals conceded, Derry City were the only team that boasted a superior defensive record in 2023.

The Dubliner’s tendency to set up well-organised outfits that don’t give too many goals away has drawn comparisons to his old Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho.

Duff, however, played down these parallels to the Portuguese coach on Friday.

“I don’t know. I don’t try to be anyone. Being animated on the sideline is just me. I probably do turn into something when I cross the white line.

“That’s me and my passion. I’m honest with the players. I give them everything 24/7, hugs, kisses, kicks up the arse, nights out. They get the full package. Maybe that goes a long way to getting their buy-in.”

The former Ireland star also addressed the ‘defensive’ reputation.

“We can be as organised as we want and I’d like to think we are. People call it defensive, I call it organised. There’s a big difference. But I’ve been called a lot worse than defensive anyway, especially at St James’ Park when I was a player.

“You can set teams up all you want, your structure and how you press but it’s getting lads to buy in and do it for each other. The most pleasing thing is getting the likes of Will [Jarvis] and Liam [Burt], unbelievable players in the league, working hard and getting their buy-in.”

And while Duff’s side excels at that aspect of the game, perhaps the other end of the pitch will determine how far they can go in this campaign.

They lost one key attacking player at the end of last season when Jack Moylan departed for Lincoln City.

However, the re-signing on loan of Hull City’s Jarvis — one of the league’s most talented wingers — was a coup.

Meanwhile, John Martin, an off-season signing from Dundalk, started up front on Friday.

However, much will be expected of Sean Boyd, who is widely considered as potentially among the best strikers in the league.

The 25-year-old demonstrated his prowess in 2022 by scoring 11 goals in 29 Premier Division appearances, though last year was a more frustrating, injury-ridden campaign that led to four goals from 10 matches.

This season has been similarly mixed so far. He scored and was sent off in the opening match with Waterford — the only time the Dublin side have dropped points in 2024.

On Friday, Boyd returned from a three-match suspension as a substitute, playing a crucial role as he won the penalty that led to the opening goal.

There was controversy too as Boyd appeared to clash with Bohemians defender Cian Byrne at one stage.

“I didn’t [see it],” said Duff. “I just saw Cian Byrne on the floor. It sounds like I’m copping out. I don’t think… I don’t know, I’d have to look at it back here with LOITV.”

Getting the best out of his temperamental striker is one of the challenges facing Duff as he aims to take Shels back to the type of heights they reached during the early-to-mid 2000s glory days.

“Effectively, he’s still 16,” the Shels boss said jokingly of Boyd about the amount of playing time he has lost to injuries and suspensions. “And that is the way I treat him, he won’t lie to you, that is the way I treat him. Sean tonight, he’s come on, he’s impacted the game, lets backlines know he’s there, but I have to say, all round, he was probably a bit off his game. He’s been out for a month, coming back from two serious injuries, so the scary thing with Sean is there’s so much more to come.”

Despite their early slip-ups, five-in-a-row-chasing Shamrock Rovers remain the team to beat. Nevertheless, there is a quiet confidence about Shels, which suggests they could be a force to be reckoned with in this campaign.

“The most pleasing thing is that we went in and had a ‘woo-hoo’ and high five but it felt like ‘job done and let’s move on,’” Duff said on Friday.

“Maybe in the last couple of years when we beat Bohs away we’re having a party and organising Dawson Street.

“It’s pleasing — I said to them afterwards: ‘Yeah we’ve won but let’s move on.’”

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