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Star power with substance: Why Duff can make a difference at Shelbourne

‘I probably get too angry and emotional, something that’s developed over time. I think I get it from my mother. I probably need to calm down a bit.’

Duff has signed a 24-month contract at Tolka Park.
Duff has signed a 24-month contract at Tolka Park.
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

THERE IS A funny story from Damien Duff’s first training session working with Celtic’s first team following the departure of manager Brendan Rodgers to Leicester City in February 2019.

At the end of the morning’s work, the former Republic of Ireland centurion and two-time Premier League winner with Chelsea took part in a crossing and finishing drill which he had devised.

His deliveries were precise and some of his finishing equally impressive.

The players retreated to the dressing room and some of the foreign stars were taken aback by the playing talents of their new coach. That’s when some of the more senior pros in the Bhoys ranks stepped in to explain exactly who he was.

The reaction was almost conciliatory. “Oh, Duff! Duff!”

Safe to say nobody in the Shelbourne dressing room will be in any doubt about just who their new manager is the minute he walks through the door.

damien-duff-puts-away-gear-after-training Duff packs away gear during his time with Shamrock Rovers' Under-15s. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The same goes for those targets around the League of Ireland who Duff will look to entice to Tolka Park in order to avoid a swift return to the First Division – his former Ireland teammate and current Shamrock Rovers full-back Joey O’Brien is a prime candidate to join the coaching staff.

Not that Duff was giving anything away at his unveiling at a hotel near Dublin airport, just down the road from Shels’ rented training complex at the AUL Complex, where he has witnessed first hand during his time in charge of the club’s Under-17s just how much time has stood still.

“People have said to me in the last week that I’d have to bite my tongue. If there’s a bottle out of place, I’m not going to say that I’ve had enough of Shelbourne Football Club,” he began.

“Absolutely, the way you dress or if you’re late for a meeting, in my head that’s the most unacceptable type of behaviour. If you’re anyway lethargic in training or don’t address anything properly, yes I am a perfectionist.

The one thing I pride myself on is standards and I refuse to meet people halfway. Yes, I’ll be better at dealing with it in my own head, but the standards will stay the same. Absolutely.

“I’ve been to a lot of Gaelic training grounds and they wipe the floor with football. It breaks my heart and startles me. It’s ridiculous what Gaelic have and then I look at the football. That’s what we have to give the kids. There are no training grounds and the Gaelic is unbelievable. This is how much I care about Irish football. Forget about Shelbourne and me, this is the most important thing that I’ve said.

“Shelbourne have plans for the AUL but listen, I’ve told the gang here that I was at the AUL for Irish trials – what am I, 42? – nearly 30 years ago. It hasn’t changed one bit. The toilets I’m going into and chairs I’m sitting on are exactly the same. How has that not improved?

“Am I biting my tongue? No, but I know what’s ahead of me with Shels. They’ve got plans to invest in the AUL and improve it. I trust all of that but I’m just talking here as a passionate Irishman who cares about football in this country.

“But we’re lightyears behind everywhere. This isn’t me having a pop at the FAI. It’s factual. Go see every country, the training grounds, what players are given, so it’s gone wrong somewhere along the line.”

chelseas-signings Duff at his unveiling as a Chelsea player 18 years ago. Source: PA

For Duff, he is now primed at the starting point in his senior managerial career, and that impassioned monologue was just one of many he gave over the course of an hour facing the media yesterday.

He spoke about the soul-searching he undertook having initially rejected the job while drinking red wine on holiday in the south of France last Friday.

He admitted to being scared at stepping out of his comfort zone but that he needed to practice what he has preached to his own two children, as well as the ones he’s coached with Shamrock Rovers’ Under-15s and the current Under-17s at Shels, about showing character and being brave in their lives.

It was a fascinating insight into the vulnerabilities of a man who is uncompromising in his values and will bring the kind of star power to the League of Ireland that it has not seen since John Giles returned to Rovers in the late 1970s.

But soundbites are not the currency he wants to deal in, Duff is a man of substance and it will be delivering on that potential as a coach with Shelbourne that could open the minds of a wider sporting public that is, at best, dismissive to the merits of the League of Ireland.

For now, though, with just two players under contract for the 2022 campaign, it will be about building a squad he can trust to lay solid foundations for the start of his new career.

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“I think my biggest strength in a dressing room is I’m good at connecting with people, I’m good at building relationships,” he explained.

“So it doesn’t really worry me because I know I build relationships with people. I don’t lie when I say I’m here for you 24/7. Ask any young boys that have played for me and it’s going to be the same with senior boys, they’re going to have wives, girlfriends, families, splitting up, no job, not enough money.

damien-duff Duff has been in charge of Shels' Under-17s. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“That would probably be my major strength, not from a coaching environment, knowing where to run, when to run, being able to pass the ball, it’s that bit of managing people.

“I’m no expert on the game, who is? I probably get too angry and emotional, something that’s developed over time. I think I get it from my mother. It came onto me later in life.

I was always a calm passive guy but maybe it’s the coaching that’s done it to me. I probably need to calm down a bit. But listen, if I absolutely fell flat on my face, I’m fine because I still, in a way I’ve won because I’ve done something out of my comfort zone. If I failed and never get a job again, I’m totally fine.”

And yet, in the same breath he contradicted himself beautifully by detailing further that drive inside him.

“It’s why you get up in the morning. When I decided [to take the job] on Sunday evening, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday you’re waking up at 5 and 6 in the morning, and I like my sleep as you all know.

“It’s that focus, that laser sharpness. When you retire, everyone says you miss the football, the dressing room…excuse my French but that’s bollocks, it’s the focus, it’s the 24/7 focus for me anyway.

“You rarely get that with jobs in life. I’ve been lucky enough to in roles where it’s ‘holy fuck!’ You know. This is one more. It’s uncomfortable, it’s stressful but it’s where I belong, I think.

“I know it’s not going to be done in two years. I get that. Yes, I’m impatient, but when I’m excited and I’m developing teams, developing players, I’m here for the long haul.”

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