‘It would be the pinnacle’: Damien Duff hopes to guide Shelbourne to FAI Cup final

Ex-Ireland star still finding his feet as a manager as he prepares for key moment in latest chapter of his footballing life

It is 20 summers now since the bow. That bow.

Back then, Damien Duff was the kid who played the game as if Dublin was a suburb of São Paulo, a street footballer with Velcro feet, blessed with an infinite bag of tricks that dared him to conjure up the kind of sorcery Irish players were generally discouraged from trying. As a nation, the world saw us as Kenny Cunningham, but in the back yards of Ireland we dreamed of being Duff.

Duff’s strike against Saudi Arabia in Yokohoma in June 2002 was to be his only goal at a World Cup. The goal itself wasn’t that memorable, and certainly one Saudi goalkeeper Mohamed Al-Deayea would rather forget, but Duff’s celebration became iconic.

Amber Barrett was just six at the time. Jess Ziu was merely five days old. So, it’s not today or yesterday. And yet it is more recent than Shelbourne’s last FAI Cup triumph, which remains 2000. Indeed, they have only contested one final since, in 2011.


On Sunday, Shelbourne manager Duff takes his side to Waterford for a cup semi-final, hoping to lead them back to the big show at the Aviva next month.

“I went to the final last year and I was emotional even watching that, I think you know by now I’m an emotional guy, I had a tear in my eye when the national anthem was played, the teams walking out. I think I had just taken over here at the time,” recalls Duff.

“I was just picturing myself in it and thinking, ‘Why not?’. It was emotional watching it last year, so to be in the semi is surreal, but nobody remembers semi-finals, it’s about getting to it.”

Duff is 43 now, more grizzled, naturally, than he was in 2002, and truth be told, he is still finding his feet at this management malarkey, learning on the job.

“Football was what I did, it was what I was natural at and what I did since I could walk,” he says.

“It was the only thing I was really half decent at. To become a footballer and do half decent at football, it’s probably why I was put here on Earth. It wasn’t to coach or to manage, I’ve had to learn all this, how to coach. Playing football wasn’t anything new, that was me, if that makes sense?”

He’s coming up on one year in the gig, a season not without its challenges but one in which Shels have already secured their top-flight status, and Duff reckons his team has developed over the campaign.

“Sometimes you can feel it. Maybe you walked into the dressingroom before a game previously and there was a silence, a nervous silence. Now, you walk in and the boys back themselves to dominate more. They’re playing together longer, they’ve been coached for longer, bonded together, it’s an amazingly tight dressingroom.

“We’re a newly promoted team. We’re trying to build something very quickly, hopefully we’ll get there but only time will tell.”

Pat Fenlon was the goalscorer when Shels last won the cup, 22 years ago and counting.

“The club has gone through difficult times,” admits Duff. “A lot has happened in last 10-15 years. It doesn’t add any pressure to me. The only pressure is that we’re a Premier Division team.”

Waterford certainly won’t fear the visitors in the RSC on Sunday. They are second in the First Division and on a five-game winning streak, which includes a cup quarter-final victory over Dundalk.

“They’re a very dangerous team,” says Duff. “They have an X-factor up front. I’ve watched quite a bit of them, if they started better you’d say they might have romped the league, not Cork. They’re a very good team.”

It is not only his players Duff reckons has changed over the course of the season, he has been conscious of trying to be more zen during matches.

“I’m working on that,” he smiles. “I’m probably calmer, it’s gone hand in hand with the lads taking the game to another level. Losing the head on the touchline, I don’t think it helps anyone. I’ve tried to be calmer.”

Semi-finals, of course, are simply for winning. It doesn’t really matter how you get over the line, just get over it. On the domestic front in England, Duff won two League Cups as a player, one with Blackburn and another with Chelsea.

“But I never got to an FA Cup final,” he adds. “This would be the pinnacle, if it was to happen. [When you are a manager] you start learning the game all over again, that’s why it would be the pinnacle, because it’s learning something new.”

Duff, the player, will be remembered for his skill and trickery, his guile and self-belief. The bow will forever be a part of his story, too.

But you get a sense if he could lead a team out in an FAI Cup final it would allow Duff, the manager, to stand upright and walk that bit taller as he journeys through this next chapter in his footballing life.


Derry City v Treaty United; Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium, 2pm

Waterford FC V Shelbourne FC; Regional Sports Centre, 4.45pm

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning

Gordon Manning is a sports journalist, specialising in Gaelic games, with The Irish Times