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A year on from humiliation, Shane Duffy exorcises the ghosts of Cardiff with heroic display

Last night’s Irish man of the match has been on an incredible journey in recent times.

Ireland's Robbie Brady and Shane Duffy (right) celebrate after the game.
Ireland's Robbie Brady and Shane Duffy (right) celebrate after the game.
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

Updated at 20.06

WHAT WILL MAKE last night’s 1-0 play-off-clinching victory against Wales extra sweet for a number of players in the Ireland squad is that many of the individuals in question know what it is like to be written off and consigned to the lower levels of football.

Harry Arter spent the 2009-10 season playing non-league football for Woking following unsuccessful trials with Gillingham and Ipswich after his release by Charlton.

A decade ago, Jon Walters was playing with Chester City in League Two after spells at Blackburn, Bolton and Hull had failed to work out.

More recently, Sean Maguire, who was on the bench last night and made his international debut against Moldova, spoke of how he considered quitting the game after failing to establish himself at both West Ham and Dundalk.

Four of the players who started the game against Wales began their careers in the League of Ireland, including the match-winner James McClean.

This Irish squad is therefore full of fairytale stories. Many players in their position would have quit following the setbacks they experienced, but their character and resilience ensured they persevered.

And these qualities shone through in Cardiff last night, where they emerged with three points against a side who were Euro 2016 semi-finalists not so long ago.

The Irish team were up against a technically superior, more talented outfit, but an inner belief drove them on to secure a place in the play-offs — a scenario that seemed highly improbable after an opening 20 minutes in which Wales dominated proceedings.

And of all the unlikely success stories in the Irish side, Shane Duffy’s rise might just be the most remarkable and inspiring.

Seven years ago, Duffy — last night’s man of the match — almost died.

At the time, Duffy was just 18, but then-Boys in Green boss Giovanni Trapattoni realised he was a special talent and appeared set to hand him his Ireland debut in a friendly against Paraguay.

However, in the training week leading up to the game, Duffy was involved in the kind of incident that puts football into perspective.

A seemingly innocuous and accidental training ground collision with goalkeeper Adrian Walsh resulted in the teenage defender being rushed to hospital.

His parents were told he may not make it and were it not for the expertise of the staff at Dublin’s Mater Hospital, Irish football would have been dealing with a shocking tragedy.

It was later revealed that Duffy’s liver had been sliced open and he lost six pints of blood. Doctors likened the injury to the kind suffered by victims of serious car crashes.

So when you have been through a traumatic experience like that, making your competitive debut against Italy probably does not seem quite as big a deal as it would to others.

In the months prior to the incident, Duffy had made his senior debut at Everton, playing twice in the Europa League.

The injury, however, curtailed his progress significantly. The player himself admitted as much in a recent interview.

I came back too early and I wasn’t right, physically,” he recalled.

“I’d lost a lot of blood, a lot of weight — I went from 90kg (14st 2lb) to 72kg (11st 5lb). I was just too skinny.

It took me a year and a half, maybe even two years to get back to where I was. But as a centre-half, if I don’t get stuck in, I don’t play. Then I don’t have a career. So I just get on with it.”

Duffy never really established himself at Everton and the freak accident probably did not help matters.

When The42 interviewed him three years ago, he was playing on loan for a Yeovil side who were on the brink of relegation from the Championship.

He was still an Everton player officially back then, but it seemed clear he was not part of the club’s long-term plans, particularly with the emergence of another talented young centre-back by the name of John Stones.

And while some may have sulked and descended into obscurity in the process, like so many of his teammates at international level, Duffy had the stomach for the fight.

After impressing despite Yeovil’s woes, in September 2014, he secured a permanent move to another Championship side, Blackburn.

While the Ewood Park outfit were set for a period of turmoil themselves, Duffy still shone under these difficult circumstances, though as interest from bigger clubs became apparent, his performances suffered.

Just over a year ago, he was the subject of much ridicule amid what turned out to be his penultimate game for Blackburn. Incredibly, it was at the the same venue as last night — Cardiff City Stadium.

On that occasion, Duffy produced the kind of display defenders have nightmares about and reporters tend to describe as ‘hapless’. He scored two own goals and was sent off as his side were beaten 2-1 amid a disastrous outing for a player who had been experiencing the highs of representing Ireland at Euro 2016 just two months prior, in the process delivering on a promise he had made to himself four years previously.

The fact that Duffy had also scored an own goal in his previous match for Blackburn did not help matters, nor did the persistent rumours that he was on the verge of leaving the club.

As a BBC report detailed at the time: ”We have all had a bad day at the office. Or even a bad week.

“But Blackburn Rovers defender Shane Duffy has taken that to new extremes, having played the wrong kind of starring role as his team lost at Wigan Athletic and then Cardiff City in the Championship.”

Source: English Football 2017/18/YouTube

Sadly but not surprisingly, he has been subjected to vicious abuse by some Blackburn fans since then.

Yet while these keyboard warriors reveled in Duffy’s difficulties, it is the Irishman who has had the last laugh. A little over 12 months later, he is in the form of his life while Blackburn are in League One.

The 25-year-old has helped Brighton gain promotion to the Premier League and has subsequently played every minute of their top-flight campaign thus far, having signed a new contract with the Seagulls back in August.

Moreover, having initially struggled to win Martin O’Neill over, he has become one of the key players for Ireland during this World Cup qualification campaign.

Last night, he returned to the scene of probably his worst moment in a professional football match to enjoy arguably his greatest thus far. If it was a movie plotline, it would be dismissed as too corny and unrealistic.

Duffy delivered a display that was described by Paul McGrath, more of an authority on defending than most, as “brilliant”.

In the dying minutes in particular, Duffy stood tall. Nearly every time the ball entered the Irish penalty area, he seemed to be in right place to head clear or make a vital block.

His fellow Derryman James McClean grabbed the headlines thanks to a clinical finish, but arguably no one did more last night than Duffy to secure Ireland a spot in the play-offs, which had looked highly improbable as recently as last month amid a demoralising 1-0 loss to Serbia in Dublin.

Yet for Duffy and so many other members of the Irish squad, recovering from major setbacks is nothing new.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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