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Dublin: 2°C Saturday 23 January 2021

Dundalk star hoping to boost Ireland international prospects with another stellar season

Michael Duffy is aiming to impress, as the two title favourites prepare to do battle in front of what is expected to be a record Tallaght crowd.

Michael Duffy celebrates scoring against Cork earlier this week.
Michael Duffy celebrates scoring against Cork earlier this week.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

THERE WILL BE plenty of focus tomorrow night on Ireland international Jack Byrne, when the two favourites for the title, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, meet.

Probably the closest equivalent for the Lilywhites, however, in terms of creative influence and the attacking outlet they provide, is Michael Duffy.

Duffy was nominated along with Byrne and team-mate Sean Gannon for last year’s PFAI Player of the Year award, ultimately losing out to the Hoops man. He did win the award in 2018, however, and has quickly developed into a key figure since signing for the Lilywhites at the beginning of 2017.

An already strong squad, representing a team that has won five of the past six league titles, was enhanced in the off-season. They did lose two particularly important players in Robbie Benson and Jamie McGrath, but have been boosted with the arrival of Greg Sloggett, Will Patching, Darragh Leahy, Cammy Smith and Stefan Čolović (the Serbian star who has just linked up with the squad today after a delay with his Visa). The likes of Patrick McEleney and Sean Murray are currently unavailable through injury, though once there is a fully fit panel choose from, competition for a place in the side will be especially intense.

Duffy, though, is probably the closest possible example of a guaranteed starter in the team.

“Once everyone’s back fit now, there’s going to be a lot of players for different positions and it’s going to make training very competitive,” Duffy tells The42. “We obviously know that and it’s been the same the past two years, it just might be a bit stronger this year and that’s obviously a good thing. Everybody’s fighting for their position and it’ll drive us on more.”

Despite their success in recent years, Dundalk have tended to be slow starters. In 2018, they drew three of their opening five games. In 2019, they failed to win three of their first four league matches. This year, though, they have started with three wins from three, having overcome Derry, Shelbourne and Cork. So what’s been the difference in 2020?

“The off-season sort of helped us a bit this year,” Duffy explains. “It was a bit different and I think we just came back a bit fresher. We showed that in the first few games. We knew we couldn’t start the way we had done in the past two years. So obviously, it’s an improvement this year.”

Maintaining that run won’t be easy, however, in front of what is expected to be a record attendance of over 7,000 fans at Tallaght against the only other side in the league who have maintained a 100% start to the season. Dundalk were unbeaten in the league against Rovers last year, winning three and drawing one. However, they did lose out to Stephen Bradley’s men on penalties in the 2019 FAI Cup final, despite a spectacular last-minute equaliser from Duffy bringing the game to extra-time.

“They’re always tough games,” he adds. “They obviously had a great season. They progressed a good bit last year and probably again this year. It’s always just on the night really who performs better, and we did [in the league] last year.

“And the cup final, it was probably half and half, there wasn’t much in the game really, it was just decided on penalties.

“Obviously, the last time we played them, it was them lifting the trophy and stuff, so we’ll remember that and we want to get one back.”

On an individual level, Duffy has come a long way since breaking into the Derry first team as a teenager.

In his third season at the club, an impressive 15-goal haul saw the hometown hero depart for Celtic.

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“I sort of went on trial really, did well on trial, scored and went from there really,” he recalls. “They just looked to sign me then right at the end of the transfer window. I played for Celtic and it didn’t happen. That’s why I came home then. It was still two good years and I played in a lot of big games and it was a good experience for me.”

While not breaking into the Bhoys’ first team, Duffy did gain invaluable experience on loan at less glamorous Scottish clubs. He spent a season in the Scottish Championship with Alloa Athletic, who were ultimately relegated from the division. He then had a shorter spell with Dundee in the Scottish Premiership.

“They were my most enjoyable times over there. I was only at Celtic for six months, playing in the development squad. Then I was out on loan for a full year with Alloa and another six months with Dundee and that was when I was playing in big games. 

I played a few games in the Scottish Premiership with Dundee and the year I played in the Championship with Alloa, even though we didn’t have a great season, I still played in good games. Rangers were in the league that year and Hibs. So there were some big crowds as well, it was a good experience.

“We struggled that year [with Alloa] and I was actually a striker. It was just a running game really. I played a lot of games and only scored a few goals, but had a decent year personally.

“Dundee were middle, bottom half of the table. They’re still fighting games really — a lot of those battles. It is a bit different being at Dundalk, always being at the top. 

“Celtic’s such a big club. They’ve a lot of big players in attacking positions. I probably didn’t do enough to deserve to get in the Celtic team anyway, the times I was training [with the first team] and stuff. Just because the squad was that big, you really have to impress if you want to get a chance.”

Since returning home, however, Duffy has been consistently among the League of Ireland’s standout attackers, helping Dundalk win two titles during that period.

“I was looking forward to getting back really. The year before I came back, they were in Europe and watching them, I obviously knew they were a brilliant team. As soon as I came back, they made me fit in straight away. My confidence was up — just by the way Stephen Kenny dealt with me. I didn’t feel like I was down at anytime, I was excited to get here and I’ve been enjoying it since.”

Duffy’s performances have been so impressive, in fact, that there has at times been talk of a possible Ireland call-up. After switching allegiance from the North, Martin O’Neill did suggest the player was close to a call-up towards the end of his time in charge, though the 25-year-old winger has yet to figure as part of Mick McCarthy’s plans.

“It’s what I’d imagine most players want to do,” Duffy says. “Their goal would be to play for their country. I’d love that. It’s obviously tough. They’ve a lot of players to choose from.

From being in our league, sometimes they might not look at you as much. But I feel like they are now the past two or three years and with what Jack done last year, it gives people a lot of hope in our league that we can hopefully get the opportunity.”

And does he believe he might get more of a look-in under former Dundalk boss Stephen Kenny than he has had so far with Mick McCarthy?

“Hopefully anyway. I need to be playing really well for Stephen to have a look at me. It’s going to be a tough job, he’s going to have a lot of players to choose from, so I need to be playing at my best to get that chance.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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