Shane Duffy puffs out his cheeks and exhales at the thought of clinching World Cup qualification over the next week, fully aware he’ll experience better emotions than Ireland’s last successful tournament tilt.
The 25-year-old may these days be the rock at the heart of Martin O’Neill’s defence but two years ago he reluctantly joined a lap of honour at Lansdowne Road following the Euro 2016 play-off victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Duffy’s sheepishness was natural considering his participation in the campaign was non-existent. He had earned just one cap, that in a friendly 17 months earlier against Costa Rica in the United States.
“I had nothing to do with us qualifying for the Euros so I just celebrated on the pitch as a fan when we won the play-off,” explained Duffy, the Brighton and Hove Albion centre-back who was then with Championship club Blackburn Rovers.
“I hardly even knew anyone in the squad and didn’t really feel part of getting us there. This time it’s 100% different.” That elevation began at the Euros when Martin O’Neill plunged Duffy in at the deep end against Italy for Ireland’s last chance of getting out of the group.
Like his peers in the team, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick, the Derryman came of age that night in Lille, winning not just the game but the trust of his manager.
Although he got sent-off in the last-16 tie against France for a professional foul, Duffy was restored to the line-up once his suspension for the World Cup qualification opener in Serbia was over. He’s started every qualifier since, bar the visit of Wales in March due to a broken foot.
The former Everton trainee will be paired with Ciaran Clark in central defence for Saturday’s visit to Copenhagen, intent on seeing out over the two legs against Denmark his role in bringing Ireland’s World Cup drought to an end.
“By playing in most of the qualifiers, it feels like I’ve made a contribution in getting us to this stage,” Duffy noted.
“If the final whistle goes in Dublin next Tuesday, and we’re through to the World Cup, then it will be the proudest moment of my career.”
Overcoming the final obstacle could depend on how Duffy and his fellow defenders handle the threat of Christian Eriksen. O’Neill, along with his old friend Age Hareide, both agree that the Tottenham Hotspur talisman possesses the craft to become match-winner, yet Duffy doesn’t seem overly concerned.
He cites Ireland’s track record of keeping established forces like Gareth Bale, David Alaba, and Marko Arnautovic quiet as evidence that another man-marking mission can be accomplished.
“Eriksen will be Denmark’s key player but we’ve dealt with bigger and better players in the campaign already,” he reasons.
“While I’m glad we got Denmark, rather than Italy, when it came down to the final two in the draw for the play-off, I’m part of a team here that wouldn’t fear facing any squad or player.
“Eriksen is just another one to tick off and do our job. Our away record gives us confidence heading to Copenhagen because we let teams have a lot more of the ball and are quite comfortable defending.
“It’s just something we’re suited to and I think we’re well capable of getting a 1-0 win on Saturday. Away from home, we tend to soak up the pressure counter-attack with the pace we’ve got. Set-pieces are also one of our strong points, so we’ll aim to try and nick a goal from them.”
Duffy also admits savouring the most fruitful spell of his club career. Brighton’s climb to eighth in the table hasn’t quite got Seagulls fans banking on a top-half finish in their maiden Premier League season but their defensive record at least lays the platform for a campaign of consolidation.
“The Premier League is a big step-up level but I’ve enjoyed the challenge,” he says.
“Everything gets highlighted and I’ll take the praise because you could have a stinker and get hammered.
“We’re getting results and keeping a few clean sheets but won’t get ahead of ourselves. Our manager, Chris Hughton, wouldn’t allow it anyway.
“As a former Ireland player, he always wishes me well heading away on international duty. So long as I don’t return injured, he’ll be a happy man.”
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