'No one else deserves credit, only himself' - The renaissance of Shane Duffy

The defender has bounced back from ‘rock bottom’ to once again become integral to this Irish side.

Shane Duffy celebrates the late equaliser against Serbia with John Egan.
Shane Duffy celebrates the late equaliser against Serbia with John Egan.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

SHANE DUFFY WON’T captain Ireland tonight but he will lead them nonetheless.

John Egan has the armband in the absence of Seamus Coleman but Duffy will start at the heart of the three-man defence, and, let’s be honest about it, is the most likely Irish player to score. There have been six competitive goals scored under Stephen Kenny: Duffy scored two of them and last month his presence in the box addled Serbia to the point they scored a third. 

Duffy is once again undroppable at international level and a Premier League regular: it is the fabulous renaissance of a man whose confidence was smithereened only months ago. 

Seemingly ill-fitted to Graham Potter’s style of play at Brighton, Duffy last year secured what was meant to be a dream move to Celtic, to help them march to a tenth-straight title. Instead, it curdled into a nightmare: Celtic finished 25 points behind Rangers, Duffy played in a dysfunctional team before empty stands, made several high-profile errors, was dropped twice, and the loan move was ended early. 

Then he lost his place in the Ireland squad: left on the bench for the March qualifiers against Serbia and Luxembourg with Seamus Coleman, Dara O’Shea and Ciaran Clark picked instead. That Egan was missing through injury accentuated Duffy’s slide down the pecking order. 

He has since described his Celtic experience as “rock bottom.” The move to Celtic was presaged by the most awful tragedy: the death of his father, Brian, at the age of just 53. 

“You weren’t just my dad, you were my hero, my idol” posted Duffy in tribute. “I’ll miss ringing you after the match and you telling me how shite I was. Daddy, I love you and miss you. Look after us all now.

“Every time I put that green shirt on for our country, I’ll be thinking about you because I know how proud you were of me playing for Ireland. Love you and miss you.” 

Being unable to make that call after each of his games must have been an incomprehensibly difficult thing to deal with, leaving a loneliness made worse by the pandemic.

celtic-v-st-mirren-scottish-premiership-celtic-park Shane Duffy reacts during Celtic's shock defeat at home to St Mirren last season. Source: PA

Footballers were allowed to continue to work during lockdown, but that’s all they could do, and thus Duffy was left with a lot of time by himself in Glasgow, reading bile on social media. Having been mocked twice on Instagram over the death of his father, he deleted his accounts midway through the season. 

“I was going through a difficult time off the pitch”, reflected Duffy recently. “That affected training every day, and then affected a Saturday, and the fans didn’t deserve that – I put my hands up and apologise for that. There were a lot of things wrong, and the table spoke for itself at the end of the season.” 

He left Celtic a few weeks earlier than planned and drove the seven hours it took to get from Glasgow to Brighton. “I had a long think. I spoke to myself, spoke to people I trust, and went over the summer and surrounded myself with good people.” 

It was anticipated that Duffy would leave Brighton again, but the sale of Ben White to Arsenal opened an opportunity…which he could not have grasped with any more conviction. 

Five games into the season, Graham Potter was moved to call Duffy a “club legend.” 

Duffy has played every minute of Brighton’s Premier League season so far, and often on the right side of their back three, proving he is comfortable playing higher up the pitch and within Potter’s style. 

Using a complex constellation of metrics including goals conceded, tackles, interceptions and shots allowed, scouting and stats platform WyScout rate Duffy as the third-best centre-back in the Premier League so far this season, behind only Man City duo Aymeric Laporte and Ruben Dias. 

And, above all, he is back in the Ireland team.

Without him, Ireland would likely have  lost to both Azerbaijan and Serbia last month. 

An important turning point was Duffy’s selection in June’s end-of-season friendly away to Hungary. Duffy hadn’t played a game in three months but was man of the match, saying afterwards that he felt he had “mentally turned a page” while also making clear how grateful he was to Stephen Kenny for his selection. 

“No one else deserves credit, only himself”, says Kenny. 

“It wasn’t an easy decision leaving him out in March, but that’s where he was. You could see he was struggling, and he agreed with me at the time. He accepted the decision and sort of understood it.

“Likewise, in the summer, when he played against Hungary: that was the turning point. It was the end of the season and to get that good, positive performance from him against Hungary ended the season on somewhat of a high.

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stephen-kenny-with-shane-duffy Stephen Kenny and Shane Duffy, at a press conference in Bratislava. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

“He loves playing for Ireland, he is a good character in the squad and we are lucky to have him.

“He obviously intervenes in big moments. We didn’t get over the line against Portugal, it was so close, but it wasn’t his fault. He did some unbelievable defending in that game and obviously he comes up with big goals, like the equaliser against Azerbaijan.

“He has definitely shown – long before I was manager – under successive managers that he possesses a lot of character, certainly under Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy he was an important part of their teams. He has shown a lot of character consistently.”

As for his rehabilitation at Brighton, Kenny says its kernel is sheer hard work. 

“The old-fashioned qualities of rolling up your sleeves in pre-season and coming back in the best possible condition – and he impressed in preseason – which I think went a long way.” 

Duffy endured another family bereavement last week, and was part of the Brighton side that kept a clean sheet against Arsenal days later. Potter hailed his courage. 

“Obviously Graham [Potter] knows Shane went through stuff in his life and he has come out the other side of it”, says Kenny. “When you have someone you can get a very focused reaction from; someone who enjoys and realises what they have and wants to maximise it. That can have a really positive impact.”

Kenny remained very much in touch with Duffy when he was out of both his and Celtic’s team. “The lockdown in Glasgow…some of the players found the lockdown difficult, particularly the different players on loan: they found it difficult mentally.

“There was a lot of that last year, where they were training and then going back to empty apartments at the end of the day. And they might not have been playing at their clubs.

“I am sure everyone in society found it difficult, but I can only relate to that.” 

There’s always a path back. 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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