'This will be the biggest day of my football life, hands down'

Damien Duff is embracing what he says is his most important challenge yet, while Shelbourne fans also fight to preserve part of club’s heritage.

Damien Duff is ready for Shelbourne's return to the Premier Division.
Damien Duff is ready for Shelbourne's return to the Premier Division.
Image: Evan Treacy/INPHO

Updated Feb 17th 2022, 8:25 AM

YOU WILL SEE the first billboard barely 50 yards after you’ve passed the Insomnia coffee shop at the top of Richmond Road.

“SAVE TOLKA PARK” is in large, bold capitals, and the message alongside it is stark. “Too much of our city’s history and culture has been lost. Stop the sale. Secure its future.”

Continue in the direction of Ballybough, beyond the small block of flats with miniature Irish tri-colours flickering outside the six doors, and you arrive at the ground. “Time to Rise Again” is spray painted on an entrance gate.

The visit of St Patrick’s Athletic for Shelbourne’s sold-out Premier Division opener is advertised on the “next home match” hoarding drilled to at the top of the pebble dash wall. For those who can’t make it, RTÉ will show it live.

Then another billboard, this one lit up, reinforces a previous message. “SAVE TOLKA PARK”, with some added context underneath. “You are now passing Ireland’s first floodlit stadium. An historic venue. Stop the sale. Secure its future.”

The battle to preserve Shels’ home and avoid becoming tenants alongside Bohemians of the soon-to-be-redeveloped Dalymount Park is gathering momentum.

On its website, the campaign explains how it is “a coalition of local residents, football fans and activists united in opposition to the sale of the stadium to private developers.”

image0 One of the billboards for the 'Save Tolka Park' campaign.

On 5 March in the Button Factory in Dublin city centre, an event entitled “A Night of Songs and Stories to Save Tolka Park” will be held. The fight is on and, against this backdrop of activism for the soul of the club and the local community, it just so happens that one of Irish football’s biggest names is now in charge for their return to the top flight.

For Damien Duff, Ireland centurion and two-time Premier League winner with Chelsea, tomorrow night trumps anything that has come before in his career.

“Outside of having my two kids, as regards to debuts, Friday will be the biggest day of my life, hands down. Above playing anything as a player. It’s most out of my comfort zone,” he begins.

Playing football was natural to me since I was six or seven, I grew up with a ball at my feet. Whereas this, I never had any plans. I retired at 35, dipped my toe in the coaching. I was shit at it. Decided to try and work hard and get better. That’s how I’ve ended up here, I guess.”

Duff has already experienced various coaching roles to this point. He began with Shamrock Rovers’ Under-15s, was head hunted by Brendan Rodgers at Celtic, had a brief stint under Stephen Kenny with Ireland before taking the reins with Shels’ Under-17s.

What happens next will be fascinating, and already the tales and mystique around Duff’s methods are building.

He’s happy to divulge the varying demands of the job, like scouring the internet in search of rental properties for those in his squad who have relocated – 75 per cent of which he has assembled during the off season, the most recent recruit being New Zealand defender Adam Thomas.

Mark Coyle also arrived from just slightly closer to home, leaving Finn Harps and a promising job as a laboratory scientist in Donegal to be part of Duff’s plans.

image1 Another of the 'Save Tolka Park' billboards outside the ground.

“I tell them all that I’m there for them 24/7. Fucking helping lads moving in on getting them property. Actively trying to get lads jobs just to up their wage because it’s not enough here,” he explains.

“I’d like to think that I’ve given them everything in every department. Driving lads to scans, fucking anything and everything. It’s been a real eye opener. The quality of side we’ve built, it’s an amazing bunch already.

“The sacrifices they’ve made to come, you guys might correct me and tell me something different but what they have done, not me, what they have done already is something that’s never been done before in Ireland.

What I mean by that is they have created, the players have, a full-time, elite environment on a part-time budget. Again, you might correct me, but I don’t think it has been done before.

“It’s a part-time budget we work off and they, the sacrifices they have made, training in the morning, giving up jobs, they have created a full-time environment, so they are a special group.

“Everyone’s problem is my problem. When did I take the job? November. I haven’t had one day where it’s been a clear easy ride. Always been some shit to deal with it. More often than not, more than one piece of shit.

“I remember at Celtic, Brendan (Rodgers) said to me ‘in management you’re always knee deep in shit and some days it goes up to your waist, make sure it doesn’t go to your neck’. I can see that. I’m not comparing Shelbourne to Celtic, I’m talking about management. A lot of people rely on you

“People look ‘Oh he’s an ex footballer’. I don’t expect success because I’m one of those ex-footballers who think it’ll be given to them. That’s probably why I’m working harder than ever.

joey-obrien Joey O'Brien will be Duff's second in command. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“I don’t expect anything to be given to me. If anything, you talk about debuts, I’m more nervous than anything I’ve done in my life. Nerves are good, I guess.”

Duff has Joey O’Brien as his No.2, while Alan Quinn and Dave McAllister are on the coaching staff along with goalkeeping coach Paul Skinner.

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Shels face battles on and off the pitch this season, and while the boss readily admits that the Save Tolka Park campaign is not something that has consumed his thoughts in preparation for the season, he’s aware the issue is rooted partly in line with the current housing crisis.

“From a pure football and emotion point of view, of course save Tolka Park, it’s a special place for me, and I wouldn’t say thousands but tens of thousands [of people].

“If you strip the housing crisis apart, of course, that puts a different dynamic on it but Tolka is special for me.

“I think it’s a special place, you’re thinking, ‘ah you’re saying that, you’re the manager’ but when I was over in England, Shels to me were the big club and if there’s one ground in Ireland that has a special place [in my heart].

“Yeah, the old Lansdowne [Road], I thought that was special but it was always Tolka, my memories of Tolka are Brian Kerr which has a special place in my heart. Shels, Tolka, go hand in hand, it’s the perfect fit for me.

damien-duff Duff at his unveiling as Shels boss last year. Source: Evan Treacy/INPHO

“I am as emotional as any fan. I live for Friday nights so that’s all I can say and try deliver on. I’m 24/7, seven days a week and the players are living for it, they can’t wait.

“So I know it’s a special time and exciting time and the most important bit is delivering on the pitch.

“I know there will be a lot of eyes on me. I know there’s probably begrudgers as well who want me to fail – no problem.

“Either way, I think I’ve won. If I have a disaster and I’m sacked or whatever, what’s the worse that can happen? I’ve lost my job. Millions of people have lost their lives in the last couple of years, I’d just be losing a job.

“Likewise, if it goes well, I won’t get too carried away. I never did as a player or a person so if I do well or if it’s a disaster, it’s the same end-game, I’ll just go home and have a glass of red [wine], so it’s no problem.”

Gavan Casey is joined by Bernard Jackman and Murray Kinsella to discuss the prospect of South Africa replacing Italy in the Six Nations and reflect on Ireland’s performance in Paris, before looking ahead to the URC action this weekend.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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