Roy Keane hails Republic of Ireland's Shane Duffy as rising star aims to make mark
There are times when Roy Keane accompanies a compliment with a caveat.
The reminder a player still has areas where he can improve, or a warning that he should not get carried away with praise.
But it's safe to say that Irish management are pretty content with Shane Duffy right now. The Republic of Ireland assistant struggled to disguise it when the recent performances of the centre-half were raised in discussion earlier this week.
In fact, he indicated that his ascension has been a talking point amongst the Irish staff.
"It's strange you asking me that question," he said. "Because we were just discussing it 20 minutes ago watching him training and I thought, 'Yeah, the lad's done well'."
That is high praise in Keane speak, and it's hard to argue with the conclusion he deserves it.
In Cardiff last month, Duffy was in the right place on a consistent basis when Wales pumped balls into the box. Fittingly enough, he can be described as the rising star in the Republic's dressing room.
Throughout the O'Neill and Keane era, they have faced questions about the dearth of Irishmen making an impact at Premier League level.
Jeff Hendrick and Robbie Brady have made steps forward this time, yet they were roundly tipped to get there. You sense that Duffy has been a bit more of a pleasant surprise.
Both the manager and assistant have referred to a trip to watch Duffy on loan at Yeovil and it's clear from their observations that they felt he was a work in progress. They also spoke about that as they watched proceedings in Abbotstown.
"We were talking about how well he has done over the last few years. I think I saw Shane when he was on loan at Yeovil, playing against Brighton," said Keane, breaking into a smile. "He's done well considering where he was three years ago.
"He deserves credit and the fact he is playing most weeks in the Premier League would be a huge help to him. He will improve.
"I know you have to start somewhere - Everton, out on loan at Yeovil, getting his move to Blackburn, a move to Brighton and you're thinking, 'They've got promoted, will they step up to the plate?'
"He's doing really well there, and obviously Chris (Hughton) is looking after him. It's good to see any young Irish player stepping up to the plate."
The stats speak for themselves. After a slightly shaky start, Brighton have adapted to their new surroundings and their defensive solidity has been a major factor in that. And the 6ft 4inch centre-half has warmed to the task.
Strangely enough, he spent part of his early schoolboy years at Foyle Harps as a midfielder. Gerry Colhoun, who was manager of the Derry & District Schoolboy representative sides, remembers being underwhelmed when he was told to go and watch him.
"Their manager told me he had a midfielder and I went along and I wasn't impressed," he said. "But then he was moved to centre-back and I went to watch him again. He was a different player. I brought a colleague along with me and he was on the team for five years after that. He was a natural.
"I had a District team and we went to Barcelona for a trip. I'm 5ft7 and Shane was 5ft10 - he was three inches taller than me and he was only 14."
When he was snapped up by Everton and quickly progressed through the ranks, David Moyes raved about the Derry lad's heading ability. He was an unpolished diamond, though, and he needed to take a few steps back to learn how to properly use his natural physical advantage.
He's succeeding at the highest level now and is getting plenty of practice with the Premier newcomers. After 11 appearances this term, he is well clear at the top of the chart for headed clearances with an impressive tally of 76.
Yet the progression goes beyond that with Match of the Day pundits highlighting his improved distribution, while Jamie Carragher used his Sky platform to hail his old-school approach.
"He's more of the commanding one in the air," said the ex-Liverpool defender. "We don't see enough of this in the Premier League now. We want a lot more from our centre-backs, that's the way the game is going. But there's nothing better for me to see defenders defend like this, and want to defend. Doing everything they can to stop that ball going into the back of the net."
Duffy's Irish team-mates have echoed the sentiments across this week.
"There are lots of people his size that play football," said Darren Randolph. "But not that many are as aggressive attacking the ball as he is."
The goalkeeper conceded that the 25-year-old made life easier for him in the dying stages in Cardiff.
Harry Arter honed in on his bravery, and acknowledged it did give the other players an extra feeling of security when it comes to defending dead balls.
"I think that if a bus was coming at Shane Duffy he'd try to get his head on it," he joked. "So it's nice to have that feeling. If the opposition does score from a set-piece, it's going to have to be unbelievable. We have so much confidence in Shane and the other lads that they will throw themselves into anything."
The near-death experience in a behind-closed-doors match between the Irish senior team and their amateur counterparts will always be a part of his story. Duffy, who was just 18 and grateful to receive a call from Giovanni Trapattoni, was lucky to survive.
There were a few journalists allowed into that game and, before the incident, a talking point was the manner in which the rookie went about his job.
He was a vocal presence, a characteristic that marked him out from the crowd, but it would take him four years to get into camp and finally make his debut.
He's certainly making himself heard now and, aged just 25, the best days are still to come.
Rep of Ireland
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