Damien Duff (left) with Shamrock Rovers boss Stephen Bradley. Evan Treacy/INPHO
making the leap

Next stage of Damien Duff's managerial career will be most fascinating

The Shelbourne boss was outspoken about demands on his players this week, but what will be expected of him in 2024?

IT FEELS LIKE Damien Duff is approaching the next stage of his managerial career in the League of Ireland.

The Shelbourne boss has been clear that his aim is to challenge for the Premier Division title.

The outcome against Shamrock Rovers tonight won’t give too much of an indication if they are ready to make that leap in 2024 given Shels have already drawn three times with the four-in-a-row-chasing champions this season.

A run of one defeat in their last 14 games also shows their strength and an impressive level of consistency that bodes well, but making the leap to pace setters and standard bearers is a different challenge entirely than establishing a promoted side in a new division.

Duff will be doing his best to make former colleague Stephen Bradley sweat just a little bit longer for ultimate domestic success as they travel to take on Rovers this evening. The Hoops are five points clear with five games remaining while Shels, in fourth, are aiming for Europe.

And yet, an away win would leave Shels just six adrift of the top with four games to go. “It’s irrelevant, absolutely irrelevant to me,” Duff said of whether he expects Rovers to win the league. “I want to play a big part in the say of it, yeah. Obviously a say in going to Europe [for us]. I’m not there to hand them three points or a point. I want to go and win.”

Duff has no issue stating his clear ambition to make Shels champions, but he also likes to throw out a disarming line in self depreciation if everything goes wrong.

“You know me, I could do anything. I am never far away from being a barista. A league title would be nice. But I am very calm. I might be a barista. I might have a league title,” he said after the 1-1 draw with Bohemians on Monday night.

He revealed that he was training to become one before accepting the Shels job two years ago, after initially rejecting it following their promotion from the First Division under former manager Ian Morris.

There is no in between for Duff when it comes to his ambition, it seems.

All or nothing.

Glory or lattes.

“I will give my players plenty of love. I am there for them 24/7, even off the pitch. But I still know that one or two of them don’t like the demands,” Duff said earlier this week.

“They want the easy life. At clubs you don’t get an easy life and that is what I have tried to create in 18 months. And guys that don’t like the demands, who say ‘Ah jeez, the pressure’, they won’t be here.

“I know who they are. Demands is top-level football. It is as simple as that. Yeah, we have brought in quality but the demands is what has helped us creep up and become a good team over the 18 months. The demands is what creates the culture and it all has a knock-on effect.”

Eight years after he finished his playing days with Rovers, the former Republic of Ireland international has been on a varied journey to this point.

He had 18 months with Rovers’ academy, learning his trade with the U15s before being lured away by Celtic. After a year and a half in Glasgow, during which time he joined Stephen Kenny’s coaching staff with the Ireland men’s team, Duff returned home for personal reasons.

He then began work with Shels U17s and, following the fallout from the Wembleygate fiasco in January 2021 that job became his sole focus.

Duff immersed himself in the role and in the 18 months since accepting the senior job the landscape at the club has changed, perhaps speeding up the process – and expectation – of them being capable of challenging at the top.

The arrival of Will Jarvis and Harry Wood have added a new dimension to Duff’s side. The pair are on loan from Hull City, one of the benefits that has come from the two clubs now being owned by Turkish millionaire Acun Ilicali.

That has brought with it a new dynamic, too, and even if their ambition is aligned it is a relationship still in its infancy. More tests are to come.

With Rovers in a state of flux and Bradley revealing this week that contract talks with key players have been put on the backburner until the season finishes, Shels may well have an opportunity to pounce.

The expectation then will be to capitalise. 

That’s the demand for Duff.

Tonight: Shamrock Rovers v Shelbourne, Live RTÉ 2, 7.45pm.

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