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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 27 January 2021

The Irish star who could help Liverpool make Premier League history

After a difficult season for the club, Shane Duffy chats to The42 about hoping to inspire Brighton to a positive result against Man City today.

Shane Duffy was recently named Brighton's Player of the Season.
Shane Duffy was recently named Brighton's Player of the Season.

SHANE DUFFY SPENT nearly six years at Everton as a youngster, so it’s no surprise that he has been getting text messages from their supporters all week.

While the Toffees fans would generally wish their former player no ill will, they will be hoping he fails miserably in his task today.

Man City face Brighton this afternoon (Sky Sports Main Event, kick-off: 3pm), with Pep Guardiola’s side knowing a win would see them crowned Premier League champions.

However, if Duffy and his team-mates can succeed where nearly everyone else has failed and deny City a victory, Liverpool could claim a first title since 1990 and first-ever triumph in the Premier League era by overcoming Wolves.

Nevertheless, the Derry native insists he will not be concerned about the fates of other teams this afternoon.

“Everyone knows what the occasion is, it’s one we’re looking forward to,” he tells The42.

We can’t worry about what other teams are expecting. We just have to go there, focus on ourselves and try to win the game. That’s what we do every game, so it’s just another game for us.”

It has not been an easy season for Brighton. It was only last weekend that they were confirmed as mathematically safe from relegation, after Crystal Palace’s 3-2 victory over Cardiff consigned Neil Warnock’s men to Championship football next season.

However, Duffy dismisses any suggestions that it will be trickier to motivate themselves for the match now that their Premier League status is secure for another campaign.

“Not at all. We’re professionals, we want to win every game we play in.

It’s a big game and it’s obviously Man City as well, so it’s more motivation to try to win every game. It’s in front of the home fans too, so it’s [an opportunity] to say bye to them for this season. So it’s one we’re going to take as normal and try to win.”

City have already faced Brighton twice this season, with Duffy featuring on both occasions. When the sides met at the Etihad in the Premier League last September, it was a comfortable enough 2-0 win for the hosts, as goals from Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero in the 29th and 65th minute respectively saw them over the line.

The FA Cup semi-final at Wembley was not quite so straightforward, however. Gabriel Jesus put City ahead after four minutes, and it proved to be the decisive goal. The win was far from convincing though, with the reigning Premier League champions struggling to create clear-cut chances thereafter. Kyle Walker was fortunate to avoid a red card after a VAR review and Aymeric Laporte had to clear a Glenn Murray shot off the line, while the Seagulls were given a standing ovation for their efforts at the final whistle.

“They are one of the best I’ve played against,” says Duffy. “We know the challenge. Liverpool have been right up there as well. Both of them probably deserve it but only one of them can win [the title], so it all comes down to the last day — you never know in football. We just have to wait and see.”

Britain Soccer Premier League Duffy will be hoping to prevent Sergio Aguero from adding to his 20 Premier League goals today. Source: Rui Vieira

And how does he plan on stopping an attack set to feature world-class players such as Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero?

“We have meetings and videos. We all know [their strengths]. We’ve played them twice already this season. Hopefully, we still have an idea of what they’re going to be like and we can just try our best to stop their strengths.

“We’ve got our own [strengths] we can try to [utilise] and hopefully they’re enough on the day.”

It has not been an entirely satisfactory season for Brighton. Even if they beat City, they will finish on 39 points — one fewer than they managed last year. They are also likely to finish 17th — two places below where they came in their only other season in the Premier League.

Chris Hughton’s men have won just two league matches this year — back-to-back victories against Huddersfield and Crystal Palace last March. They went on to lose five of their next six top-flight fixtures, but have shown signs of improvement of late, drawing 1-1 away to Arsenal last weekend in a game that effectively ended the Gunners’ top-four hopes.

Nevertheless, Duffy says the team have been disappointed with their overall performance in recent months.

We’ve got ourselves in a situation that we had to dig ourselves out of. If you don’t get the results, it leads to bad momentum. It can suck you in right away and that’s what happened. We had a disappointing second half of the season, but the main aim at the start of the season was to stay in this league and that’s what we did. 

“I think you’ve always got room for improvement. We’ve got to strengthen in the summer and the players we signed this year, hopefully the experience of playing in this league [will help them] push on for next season.”

On a personal level though, the Irish international says it has been an “okay” campaign, though he remains eager to improve his game next year.

Brighton’s defence has been pivotal to their survival. Only two teams, Cardiff and Huddersfield, have scored fewer goals than the 34 they have registered. But only one side in the bottom eight, Newcastle, have a better defensive record than their goals-against tally of 56. Duffy was recently voted the club’s Player of the Season for his efforts, and arguably no one has done more than the centre-back to ensure Brighton will remain in the top flight next season.

“I just try to improve every day,” he says. “I’m very lucky that I’m at a place where I’m playing most weeks and I’m playing regularly, so that helps. You learn a lot about yourself playing every week. So it’s just steady progression and hopefully I can keep getting better.”

Brighton and Hove Albion v Newcastle United - Premier League - AMEX Stadium Brighton boss Chris Hughton has been instrumental in helping Duffy to develop as a player. Source: Gareth Fuller

The 27-year-old former Foyle Harps youngster has come a long way over the past few years. He appeared five times in the Premier League for Everton during the David Moyes era, but generally found first-team opportunities hard to come by at Goodison. He was consequently sent out on loan to Scunthorpe in League One, and Burnley as well as Yeovil in the Championship. In 2014, he left the Toffees permanently, signing with Blackburn for an undisclosed fee. And after some impressive performances at Ewood Park, he joined the club’s Championship rivals Brighton in 2016, helping them gain promotion to the Premier League in his first season there.

“You always question it,” he says of his time playing in England’s lower tiers. “Because you’re dropping down the leagues and you know how difficult it is to get [to the Premier League]. But I’m very lucky to go this club and we’ve just progressed every year since I’ve been here. I’m happy that I’m back [at the top level] and the aim is to stay there for as long as I can.

You’ve always got a point to prove every week you go out onto the pitch. You always feel like that and I don’t have anything against Everton. That was the perfect club for me at the time, it was always just very difficult to break through and I wasn’t ready to play there.

“I went down a different route learning the game. Hopefully I’m getting better and can keep progressing, that’s the main aim.

“[Chris Hughton has] been huge for me. He’s given me the opportunity to come here and play regularly. He’s done a lot for me, on and off the pitch. He helps a lot every day and I’m lucky to have him as a manager.”

Brighton and Hove Albion v Barnet - Carabao Cup - Second Round - AMEX Stadium Duffy believes Irish youngster Aaron Connolly has the potential to go far in the game. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

Duffy is not the only Irishman earning plaudits at Falmer Stadium. Galway native Aaron Connolly was recently named the club’s Young Player of the Season and is also one of three Irish players nominated for the Premier League 2 Player of the Season award.

The young striker is highly thought of at the club. He has already appeared for the Seagulls in the EFL Cup and recently spent time on loan at Luton. The 19-year-old will be hopeful of advancing to the next level imminently and Duffy believes he has the potential to establish himself in the club’s first team.

“He’s got everything in front of him. He’s a big player for us and for the Ireland squad. It’s all about him learning and progressing. Hopefully he can get a chance here. If not, he might have to go and play somewhere and improve. But the main aim for him is to break in here and hopefully he can come on the Ireland scene and score some goals for us. He’s a top lad, a good player and has a good head on his shoulders.”

Even after the Man City match, Duffy cannot afford to relax amid the end of the club’s season. Barring injury, he will almost certainly be involved in Ireland’s two Euro 2020 qualifiers next month against Denmark and Gibraltar on 7 and 10 June.

We had two good results in our last two games, so everyone’s excited to go back in and get back together. We only had a week or so with [Mick] and it was great. Hopefully he’s got more ideas and we’ve got a couple of weeks together now. It’s one we’re all looking forward to. Two big games and it’d be the perfect start if we can get the two wins.

“I’ve a lot of time for Martin O’Neill as well. He gave me one of the best experiences of my career. It was just one of those things where it was a new phase and a new voice [was needed]. And that’s what is, everyone has had a fresh start and everyone is trying to improve, impress and is eager to play for the new manager.”

Ending Man City’s title hopes would certainly be ideal preparation, as Duffy prepares to do battle once more with Christian Eriksen and co. 

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Paul Fennessy

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