John Duffy snaps up second chance to contribute to Donegal’s cause

Ballyshannon man back in the Donegal dressing room – a familiar place but a different world now

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness and his assistant John Duffy. “It has been phenomenal. To be involved with that group is a privilege. To be a part of the training sessions, to see what Jim does, to be at cutting edge of sports science and to be among a squad of players at the top of their game . . . I feel like I am being coached.”  Photograph:  Donna McBride/©INPHO/Presseye

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness and his assistant John Duffy. “It has been phenomenal. To be involved with that group is a privilege. To be a part of the training sessions, to see what Jim does, to be at cutting edge of sports science and to be among a squad of players at the top of their game . . . I feel like I am being coached.” Photograph: Donna McBride/©INPHO/Presseye

 

“I don’t have any,” says John Duffy evenly of one the most common consequences of playing sport: regret. “I was never ambitious. I enjoyed playing football but it never consumed me. I played so much football as a kid that you wouldn’t believe. I never had a football off my toe. And I never played to please anyone except myself.”

Whether that sounds selfish or merely honest is a matter of perspective. But the announcement last October that the Ballyshannon man was among a trio of former team-mates on Jim McGuinness’s coaching ticket for the 2014 season raised eyebrows around the county.

After retiring from club and county football in 1999 John Duffy vanished from view, leaving those versed in the previous decade of club and county ball with tantalising memories of a player who defied easy categorisation. There was unanimous agreement that he was blessed with exceptional technical craft and football vision but some felt he treated that gift casually.

And yet he haunted and taunted all domestic defences from the age of 12 up to the day he finished when he was improviser-in-chief on an Aodh Ruadh team that dominated at all grades through to senior.

His grace note was a chip on goalkeeper Tony Blake with a penalty in the 1999 county final. He kicked ball at all grades for Donegal, playing minor for two years and U-21 for four before making his senior championship debut for the county in circumstances that seemed suitably audacious.

First possession

On a tar-melting afternoon in June 1993, Brian McEniff’s injury-riven All-Ireland champions trailed by three points to Armagh in the closing quarter.

Duffy was warming up and, sensing that the manager was thinking of experience, he remembers saying: “Look, Brian, that game’s there to be changed. I think I can do something”. McEniff looked at him for a moment; he had known Duffy since the player was about 10 years old. “Right,” he said. “You’re going in.”

He kicked a point with his first possession, then won a free which Tony Boyle converted and, with oxygen all but out, landed a deathless equaliser, an angled left foot shot kicked through a slender gap among converging orange shirts.

“The age of miracles is with us still,” was how Paddy Downey began his account of the day in this paper. Donegal survived: Duffy marked his full debut by helping himself to 1-2 from play, the goal a left-foot bullet conjured from nothing.

That was the arrival and he made it look effortless. For the next six years, Duffy (when fit) was an automatic selection on Donegal teams. He played alongside Jim McGuinness in two lost Ulster finals in 1993 and 1998 and two lost league finals and lit plenty of mundane Sundays with flashes of the sublime.

That is the shorthand on his career but he left Gaelic football as a study of potential not so much unfulfilled – because there were several conspicuous successes – as never fully hunted down. It is a familiar interpretation he is happy to explore on a fine afternoon at his Killygordon home where he has a practice as a physical therapist.

“You learn as you go in life. Like I said, I loved playing football. But as you get older, there are different aspects of life that become important. Teenage years . . . you go out with friends, you go socialising and there are girlfriends and everything else.

“Football was just a part of who I was. I had some great friends and enjoyed life. I know I could have been a better footballer. And I think that frustrated people, certainly some of my coaches, yeah. But I always felt that I never committed at any time to allow football to take over my life. I gave eight hours a week to football. I often went out for pints on the Saturday before a game. I see the guys now and their commitment is unbelievable.

“I knew that if I committed 100 percent to be the best footballer I could be, I would probably regret in the future on missing out on so much else. I wanted to go out and have pints at weekends and go to concerts. I didn’t want to be 40-years-old and look back at that . . . I didn’t want to be just a footballer.”

It is easy to imagine an alternative career path which includes winning an All-Ireland medal in his early 20s. Given how seamlessly Duffy fitted into the 1993 side and given that he was brought onto the U-21 panel before his former minor cohorts Tony Boyle and Noel Hegarty, both of whom started the 1992 All-Ireland final against Dublin, one can imagine him as part of that squad at the very least.

But Duffy had gone to London for a summer in 1991 and stayed for a year because he loved the place. He joined up with an exceptional Tír Chonaill Gaels team buoyed by the last tidal wave of emigration which won the British championship and then went 0-8 up on All-Ireland champions Lavey in that year’s quarter final before losing by two scores.

That September, he watched Donegal win an All-Ireland as a spectator and laughs when asked if it crossed his mind that he could have – should have? – been out there.

“Not really. It never did. I was happy in London. I was working and I was playing a good standard. It was enjoyable. I knew that I probably had the technical ability to be part of that team. But look, fast forward 20 years. If I wasn’t in London then, I would never have met my wife. So things happen for a reason. I met Breege in London then and we got married and have three lovely children and I am far happier to have that than an All-Ireland medal.”

Formative years

When Duffy talks about his formative years, it is not county or college coaches he references but the men who taught him sport as a child – Michael ‘Bobby’ Donagher fostered an enduring love of soccer and PJ Buggy and Josie Boyle are the Gaelic mentors he mentions most often. His explanation for whatever skills he developed is simple: repetition and coaching and unbroken games of street football on the fair green at Cluin Barron for about 12 years.

“There were boys around the area at U-12 who were more talented than me. They could have been senior Donegal footballers but they hadn’t a group of players around them and were gone from the game at 14. I would still know them. David Slevin from Donegal Town . . . I shared a house with him years later. An incredible footballer at 14. Conor Barrett from Bundoran. Raphael Meehan from Mountcharles.

“They were probably so good in their own community and hadn’t players to play around them and then coming up against Ballyshannon and being beaten by 20 points . . . just the pathway wasn’t there for them. So I was lucky. Very, very lucky.”

He made the difference when it came to winning and losing a lot of games for his club but attracted unwanted attention for a game he didn’t even see. He showed up in Ballyshannon one Saturday for a county U-21 final the following day only to discover that it had been played that afternoon. The team lost narrowly. Some team-mates were annoyed, supporters incensed. He knows it didn’t do his reputation any good.

The final was originally scheduled for a Sunday and was then switched. He was living in flat land in Dublin and not easily contactable – and out in the city on Friday. “I had a big night, headed down the road and was told at home that there had been phone calls for me and realised the game was on. Look, there were no mobile phones then. I didn’t buy the newspapers. I went down to meet the team when they arrived back and I knew people were disappointed in me.

“I explained what happened to Josie Boyle and he said: ‘Look, you’ve never missed a game for me before, you train hard and I respect you for coming in here.’ And that meant an awful lot to me at that moment. I got a few hits . . . stuff said about it that frustrated me but people who really knew me had no problem.”

Over the years, it became water under the bridge. Future highlights lay in store, including a memorable day in the autumn of 1994 when he hit 0-5 as Aodh Ruadh eclipsed Peter Canavan’s Errigal Ciaran team, then the Ulster club champions.

In the following match, they lost by a point to Bellaghy, who contested that year’s All-Ireland club final against Kilmacud. Again, it was about fine lines and near misses. With Donegal, he belonged to a generation of 1990s players who just fell short in one game or another.

And then he left.

Familiar place

So flash forward 15 years and he finds himself walking into the dressing room in Ballybofey: a familiar place but a different world. He had watched Donegal’s evolution under Jim McGuinness with disbelief and fascination and even though he hadn’t bumped into his former team-mate in years, he knew that he would love to somehow contribute to the cause.

He understood it was almost contradictory: a player who had worn the game so lightly involved with a squad of absolutists, a team who embraced the very absorption that he had instinctively fought against. When he got a call from McGuinness, he was thrilled that the Glenties man felt that he could offer something and says that he has enjoyed every hour of this season.

“It has been phenomenal. To be involved with that group is a privilege. To be a part of the training sessions, to see what Jim does, to be at cutting edge of sports science and to be among a squad of players at the top of their game . . . I feel like I am being coached. I get a real buzz out of it now, probably more than I ever got from playing.”

Inevitably, he occasionally thinks about the player he was and what kind of player he could have become under different circumstances. He can see now that he managed to survive as a county player on just one of the four modern prerequisites.

He had the skill but never bothered with what he describes as the “physical, tactical and mental development”. But could he have committed to a team like the current Donegal side he now works with? Could he have purged himself the way they do?

“I think so,” he says. “If it meant committing where there was a good chance of an end result, yeah, I could see myself saying ‘absolutely’. And people say you are curtailed within a system and there is no freedom of expression.

“But it’s not the case: you can create the space and there is more opportunity for creativity to flourish. When I played we never had tactics really. We relied on football intelligence. When we had a good season, it was because we happened to win rather than because of structure.”

Changing point

He finished up against the same team as he started, scoring a goal against Kieran McGeeney’s emerging Armagh team in the 1999 Ulster championship and putting another on a plate for Declan Bonner. Then Armagh steadily and remorselessly pounded their way towards dominance. Donegal were out after a replay. His intuition, always good, sensed something chilling.

“That was a changing point because I never had played against a team as physically strong or as fit. And I knew that day that football was going in a different direction. And I didn’t have the heart or stomach to compete with that. That would have consumed me and I didn’t have the bottle for it. So I went to Australia for a couple of years and that was it. It had become drudgery. You loved being on the field. But all the other stuff just wore me out. It was a relief. I was finally finished!”

He throws his head back and laughs. He meant it: no regrets. And it was true: John Duffy was finished with the game at 29. What he didn’t understand then was that the game wasn’t quite finished with him.

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