Shane Duffy has insisted there will be no ill-feeling or uncomfortableness when he faces former Republic teammate Declan Rice in the Premier League today, focusing instead on taking his own career to the next level.
Brighton defender Duffy, named yesterday in the Republic’s squad for a vital Euro 2020 qualifier against Switzerland, will come face to face with his good friend for the first time since West Ham midfielder Rice controversially announced he was switching international allegiance from Ireland to England six months ago.
The decision was a knock-back for Irish football but the Boys in Green have gone on to top Group D in their qualifying campaign, currently five points clear of Denmark (who have a game in hand) and six clear of the higher-ranked Swiss (who have two in hand).
So, Duffy is calm about the situation and about facing Rice in club football.
The Derry man said: “There’s no bad feeling. I’m still close to Declan, I’ve kept in contact and I hope he does well. He’s a top player and I’m delighted to see how he’s progressed in his career, so it will be good to see him.
“He came through with Ireland first and but there was no bad feeling from us. It’s his decision. Of course we’re disappointed he’s not with us because he’s a top player. But he’s made his decision and we have to take it and move on. There are plenty more people in Ireland who want to play for their country. We have lost a player but there will be others.”
The Republic have certainly coped well without Rice in what has been a positive qualifying campaign so far as they prepare to face Switzerland in Dublin on Thursday, September 5th and Bulgaria in a home friendly five days later.
“We have had a good start in the group and these games are very important,” said Duffy.
It’s a big one against Switzerland and if we can beat them then it would be a real statement looking forward.
Duffy hopes to make the same kind of statement in the Premier League as he prepares to face West Ham at the Amex having already won 3-0 at Watford - with a brief to adapt his style over the coming months. New Albion manager Graham Potter prefers a more fluid attacking game plan compared to previous incumbent Chris Hughton, including play three at the back.
That’s a challenge for Duffy, who has won plaudits for being an old-fashioned, combative ‘none shall pass’ centre-half alongside the equally physical Lewis Dunk; but it’s one which he feels can benefit him long term.
“I’ve enjoyed it so far,” he said. “And I hope it can help me reach the next level. You want to progress your game as much as possible.
“I know I can do the other side, the physical side, so this is about the on the ball stuff and playing higher up the pitch, which I haven’t done for several years. If I can work on that and improve then I’ll end up a better player. I’m excited by the challenge and if it can help me internationally as well then that’s great.”
It’s an interesting time to be developing as a defender. After all, centre-backs who can combine physical skills with possession skills are all the rage, with Virgil van Dijk and Harry Maguire attracting huge transfer fees over the last year.
“That’s the top level and that’s where everyone wants to be,” admitted Duffy. “Maybe I felt like the last two years we didn’t really have the chance to do that, and that’s nothing against Chris Hughton. But I never really had to do it and now under a new manager he wants us to bring it out and travel with the ball more often. I need to win the ball higher up the pitch and play it more and play more passes. I’ve never been so high up the pitch in my life and I need to learn it. I get excited because I love scoring goals so I want to keep going and make numbers in the box, too. It could take me to another level.”
The 27-year-old managed five goals last season, his best return for Brighton, and has now been joined by 2m giant Dan Burn in Brighton’s back three; so it won’t all be about pretty football. But the opportunity for Duffy to take his game to the next level is a big one nevertheless - and where better to start than a game against West Ham’s Academy of Football, Rice and all?