He’s taken a lead role in developing a cultural shift for Irish football but Damien Duff won’t complain should Martin O’Neill’s old-fashioned approach propel the country to a first World Cup since 2002.
As one of the most gifted and successful players to emerge from this country, Duff is understandably conflicted by the current Ireland’s team ability to eke out results in the least eye-pleasing of methods.
The Ireland teams Duff featured in for 14 years up to Euro 2012 weren’t always underpinned by a stylish approach, especially during Giovanni Trapattoni’s reign, but the extent to which O’Neill’s gameplan has relied on direct combat is one of the recurring themes of the present regime.
A season spent on the coaching staff of the Ireland U15s indicated to Duff that the problem won’t be rectified anytime soon but he’s contributing to a step-change himself by assuming a voluntary role within the underage set-up at Shamrock Rovers.
In the wake of Monday’s draw for the play-offs, Denmark manager Age Hareide wasn’t slow about declaring his intention to try counteract Ireland’s route-one approach by deploying a gameplan centred on slick passing along the deck.
Duff, who represented his country 100 times, is not expecting O’Neill to change his tack at this advanced stage of the qualification journey, urging critics to concentrate on the fact the Derryman is on the brink of joining Jack Charlton in the pantheon of great Ireland bosses.
“We all laud Jack Charlton as probably the biggest football hero in this country but this would be the first time we’ve qualified for two consecutive major tournaments since 1990,” noted Duff, who combines his coaching duties with a place on RTÉ’s panel for Ireland games.
“I think it’s bizarre and a bit of a love-hate one. It’s not pretty to watch but maybe that’s the way Martin operates with the personnel we’ve had. That’s what he’s done throughout his managerial career.
“Jack played in a similar fashion to Martin and is considered a hero in Ireland. We’ve had some of the biggest results in our football history over the last couple of years and it’s under Martin.
“I guess we are always chasing perfection and maybe we think we are better than we are. We’re all quick to criticise Martin’s style of play but it’s hard to knock him.
“He’s got us to another play-off and we’ve probably ended up with the best draw in facing Denmark. Looking at the names in the Croatian and Italians teams, we were rubbing our hands together at avoiding them.”
Two massive games in Copenhagen and Dublin on November 11 and 14 respectively await and Duff hasn’t observed anything amongst the Danish ranks to be overly concerned about.
“Denmark are not graced with an awful lot of quality,” said the two-time Premier League winner with Chelsea.
“They obviously have Christian Eriksen, who people could argue is world-class, but I’m not sure what else they have.
“We won’t underestimate Denmark but hopefully we’re the underdogs because that’s when our best performances come. In recent years, we’ve done it against France, Italy and Wales.”
Instead of needing to retrieve seemingly lost causes, Irish fans yearn for the point in time to come when the senior possess the creative nous to control possession at international level.
O’Neill has been blamed for the side’s tendency to present gifts of misplaced passes back to the opposition but Duff believes that ultimately modern-day living habits are a factor. His attempts at replacing time kids play street football have stretched to arranging dawn gatherings for his own Rovers U15 squad.
“We’re still playing catch-up,” he asserts. “Last season with the Irish U15s, when we played the likes of Netherlands and Poland, you could see how far behind we are in terms of their football know-how, how to move the ball and just the touch and feel of it.
“For me, it’s simply down to getting hours of practice. Our best three training sessions of the season at Rovers have been at 6.30am. It’s the first time anyone has done it in this country but none of the players want to miss out so it has snowballed. Some cavemen in Ireland are giving me stick for getting them out of bed but it’s the best time to learn. I picked it up from my time in Melbourne as they’re early risers.”
Damien Duff and former Ireland manager Brian Kerr were at St Killian’s national school in Kingswood, Tallaght yesterday to launch the FARE football weeks, which are co-ordinated by Sport Against Racism Ireland (SARI). During FARE football weeks, SARI tour the country delivering free anti-discrimination football training workshops in primary schools.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved