Shane Duffy ready to deliver on tall order

There is no sure way of proving it other than asking the leading candidates to stand toe to toe, but Shane Duffy may well be the tallest man to have played senior football for the Republic of Ireland.

He’s certainly in the top three.

Listed as 6’ 3” in the FAI’s recent match programmes, Wikipedia has him pegged an inch higher, while the player himself smiled as he loomed over his inquisitors on the subject in Versailles over the weekend and offered 6’ 5”.

He should know.

Niall Quinn and Colin Doyle, the Blackpool goalkeeper who won a solitary cap in 2007, are the other contenders, but Duffy is almost certainly a player with a big future ahead of him on the international stage, regardless of physical stature.

No-one has come out and declared an intention to call it quits with Ireland after this tournament but, with the likes of Shay Given, John O’Shea, and Robbie Keane all approaching the end, a new era approaches.

Duffy is perfectly poised to absorb the blow that will be the loss of O’Shea at the heart of the defence. The only question as the country braces for tonight’s opener against Sweden is whether he will be asked to partner the Sunderland veteran in Saint-Denis.

Many here feel he will. It is a remarkably swift elevation for a man with just three caps and one who didn’t play a minute of the dozen games required to secure the team’s berth here in France, but his case is a convincing one.

Others, of course, will feel the same.

Ciaran Clark and Richard Keogh emerged as dependable sentries in the latter half of the qualifying journey and the former has the added benefit of having dealt impressively with Zlatan Ibrahimovic when Ireland faced Sweden three years ago.

“The [other] three lads who are here have done ever so well in the qualification and they’ve done so much for Ireland,” said Duffy. “If it’s not my time, then I will bide my time and hopefully wait for my chance, but I’ll be ready if I am needed.”

Those words betray the feeling he has yet to prove himself in the white heat of competitive international football, but his track record is suggestive of someone who is comfortable being put on the spot.

Manager Martin O’Neill told him his chance would come in the spring friendlies after the two play-off games against Bosnia-Herzegovina last November, though he was still contemplating holiday destinations when March came around. That was before he produced a man-of-the-match performance against Switzerland in Dublin, following up with a superb display against the Dutch late last month that was sullied only by the visitors’ late goal.

Luuk De Jong was his man for most of the night and the Dutch striker thieved an acre of space in the Irish box to claim the equaliser. Duffy admitted his culpability publicly in a tweet soon after and it clearly still rankles.

“Yes, I’m quite honest about my game, so if I do well then I say I do well, but I was disappointed, as I thought that they didn’t really look like scoring; I thought that we were solid before their goal.”

He was still able to acknowledge the many positives once the emotion had been flushed from his system. So was O’Neill, and Duffy was one of four centre-back’s chosen in the squad of 23 that night in Turner’s Cross.

O’Neill has spoken as much about the Derryman’s threat in the opposition box as their own. The importance of set pieces, forensically discussed though it is, has been magnified further over the first three days of Euro 2016 and O’Neill has zeroed in on them in training, most notably in Versailles last Friday. None of which would be a talking point if Duffy didn’t offer enough at the back, which he does, and the sound of his commanding voice reverberating through the Aviva in recent months is proof of his belief at this level.

It’s a self-assurance that was obvious again as he dealt with the inevitable Zlatan questions. Due respect was afforded, but it isn’t as if Ibrahimovic is the first player he could encounter who bears a gilded reputation.

“I remember when [Emmanuel] Adebayor played for Spurs. He was a big, physical presence,” Duffy offered by way of example. “He was at his peak and he was good. They had him and Gareth Bale up front, somewhat similar to Zlatan.

“There are a few [others]: I played against Jamie Vardy, Harry Kane. When I play, I don’t focus on the names, I focus on them as a striker. That’s better for me. If you think ‘I’m up against Zlatan Ibrahimovic’, you sort of change your game. So you don’t do that. You have to be aggressive against him and try to handle him. It’s what you want to be here for. You want to get to his level and, if you are playing against him and doing well, it’s a sign that you can push on, for me in my career, anyway.”

He was still a Premier League player with Everton when he came up against Adebayor, but there are those who clearly think him ready to move on from Blackburn Rovers and return to that elite level. Crystal Palace has been mentioned frequently. He has another year on his current deal at Ewood Park and is in discussions about extending it. His stated preference would be to return to the Premier League with Rovers, but that’s not an issue for today or tomorrow.

He may have had to delay the holiday, but he is loving his first visit to France. His parents and brother have made the trip and his wife is popping over and back between minding their young kids, Faye and Lucas.

Six years have elapsed since Duffy almost died following a freak training collision in Malahide while on Irish duty. He has no memory of the incident, though the scar he was left with after surgery on his damaged liver in the Mater Hospital will be visible when he does eventually hit the this summer. There have been no long-term repercussions, no check-ups with doctors, no medicines, while further obvious proof of his complete recovery is on the pitch, where he has never thought twice about putting his body in harm’s way.

“No, I’d be on the dole if I did,” he laughed.

His time queuing is almost done.

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