When Damien Duff contacted Stephen Kenny over Christmas to let him know that he wished to leave his role on the Republic of Ireland coaching staff, the manager was understandably taken aback.
But this was not a complete bolt from the blue, as thecan reveal how the Ireland centurion had been willing to tender his resignation during a fraught meeting with former FAI interim CEO Gary Owens back in November.
As part of the investigation into the use of the now infamous motivational video in the Wembley dressing room prior to last year’s friendly with England, Duff passionately expressed his view that there was nothing to be sorry for after famous moments in Irish history, such as the 1916 Rising, were depicted.
And he was adamant that he would not stand over any statement of apology from the FAI regarding the video.
Indeed, rather than any fallout with Kenny, sources indicate that Duff no longer wished to work for the FAI, and that the drama relating to a leak about the video had taken its toll.
Despite Kenny’s best attempts to persuade him to remain part of the set-up, Duff stood firm into the New Year and his exit was finalised over the last few days.
Last night’s statement from the FAI landed at 9.41pm, believed to be another source of annoyance for Duff, and others, as they didn’t want the story to break at such a late hour.
The news was also greeted with shock by those within the dressing room. One source described Duff’s departure as “a massive blow”, another explained that “he was the main link between players and staff.” Many in the squad had come to “adore” Duff because of how he operated on the training pitch, as well as his use of sharp video analysis and also on a personal basis.
“There is no bullshit with him, he gets his message through very well,” a source added.
The sense of loss is also felt by FAI staff, some of whom describe Duff as an engaging presence (even with Covid restrictions) around the camps, much more so than fellow legendary figure Robbie Keane who was part of the previous regime under Mick McCarthy.
Ireland’s record goal scorer is still an FAI employee but there is no chance of Kenny turning to him to fill the void left by Duff.
Theunderstands there is no hard feelings between the two men, with Duff’s “single-minded” nature a trait to be admired, yet there can be no getting away from the optics of his departure.
Especially as Ireland are without a win in Kenny’s first eight games and the World Cup qualifying campaign is just over two months away, but the Ireland manager is understood to accept Duff’s reasoning for wanting to step away.
As some players and staff began to learn of the news last night, the shock quickly wore off, with a source adding: “I presumed it was video-related when I heard he (Duff) was on the warpath.”
The way in which the FAI dealt with the fallout from “Videogate” must not be discounted. And such was Duff’s depth of anger over how the Association added to the controversy, which thein England whipped up by describing the motivational tool as “anti-English”, he is understood to have lambasted Owens and the FAI in a tense one-on-one interview at Abbotstown.
A statement released by the FAI, so often almost bashful to mundane press enquiries, said they were “looking into this (video) internally as a matter of urgency.”
It was during this process – in which Kenny and assistant manager Keith Andrews were interviewed, while senior players also backed the manager - that Duff declared his full support for the Ireland boss, insisting that if any disciplinary action was taken against him for drawing on Irish history he would feel unable to continue to be a part of the FAI.
That is a feeling he ultimately hasn’t been able to shake.
Indeed, Duff hinted at the level of frustration he felt over the matter while working as a pundit forahead of Manchester United’s Champions League exit last month, although he attempted to temper it with humour as he looked ahead to March’s opening World Cup double header with Serbia and Luxembourg.
“And nearer the time, it’s obviously up to us staff not to make any motivational videos, because even if they’re based on true historic events – Irish events that you should be proud of – they can be very offensive to some people. So, we’ll stay away from that in March.”
As it turns out, Duff will have no involvement whatsoever, and while the Ireland manager is attempting to take the loss in his stride, there can be no doubt that this news is another major headache so early in 2021.
After a wretched start to his reign in 2020, with Covid decimating his squads, David McGoldrick retiring and also missing out on Euro 2020, the prospect of a new year offered hope for a change in fortune.
Kenny will now begin the search for a successor to Duff, who is not believed to have any other job lined up, but instead is content to continue in his role as head coach of Shelbourne’s Under-17s, which he already held while working with Kenny.
The 41-year-old is not understood to be eager on a quick return to Britain, where he previously earned rave reviews for his work on the coaching staff at Celtic, and was promoted to the first-team staff by Neil Lennon following the departure of Brendan Rodgers.
As fate would have it, Duff is likely to be linked with the top job at Parkhead as Lennon continues to feel the pressure after the Hoops’ bid for 10-in-a-row of Scottish league titles went up in smoke.
Duff made his mark in Glasgow, where he remains held in high regard, described as a diligent coach with a lethal, dry sense of humour, who “doesn't f**k about” and was always on hand in the club’s analysis hub to talk players through specific areas of their game they could improve on.
There is one story early on from his time with Celtic’s first team which illustrates the true affection. Duff finished off a training session by taking part in a crossing and finishing drill, with the talk among some of the foreign players in the dressing room revolving around this impressive new coach. It was then laid out to them exactly who he was, in what appeared to be a lightbulb moment for some.
“Oh, Duff! Duff!” It is that kind of reverence which plenty in the Ireland squad also felt, even if the quotes within the statement from the FAI last night kept things brief.
“I want to thank Stephen Kenny for the opportunity he gave me to coach with the senior Ireland team and I wish Stephen, Keith [Andrews] and the players all the very best of luck for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers,” Duff said.
Kenny added: “Damien is an excellent coach as he proved in his time with us and his contribution to the Irish team was greatly appreciated by myself, my staff and the players and I wish him the very best of luck for the future.”
It is one Duff is clearly determined to follow on his terms.