From Tuesday evening to Wednesday afternoon, Duffer had undergone an outfit change, without renouncing his wardrobe principles. Gone were the electric, two-tone canvas shoes, one half of which reached out to his-wine coloured waistcoat, while the other half saluted his summer-in-the-Hamptons chinos. No matter that it was November – Duffer is never out of season.
At the centre of his ensemble on Wednesday was a deep-blue waistcoat, carried off with signature panache. His attitude from Tuesday evening, though, hadn’t shifted: hopeful, but sceptical; wary. He was so cross at half-time in the England-Wales game that it felt like Duffer had summoned the players to his headmaster’s office and was threatening to ring their parents. They couldn’t look him in the eye.
Yesterday, he nursed a soft attachment to both sides. From left-field he declared that Denmark was the team he chose to study for a module of his coach’s licence and, in case we’d forgotten, he spent a twilight season playing for Melbourne in the A-League at the end of his career.
“Australia back themselves to play,” he said, approvingly. “They do have an air of arrogance. They’ll try to play through you. They’ve taken the Jack Charlton route too, looking for players with an Australian passport.”
Given the chance, Jack Charlton would never have picked Duffer and Liam Brady in the same team – it would have amounted to reckless abandon. On the pundits’ couch, though, their alliance is a natural selection.
Having accounted for so much of Irish football’s creative output over the last 50 years, they are both appalled by unaccountable crudeness. Before a ball was kicked on Wednesday Brady was sniffy about Denmark’s “bluntness” in front of goal, and you could see Duffer nodding in shared distaste.
In some respects, there is a whiff of Roy Keane about Duffer. He’s not afraid to flash his tongue, like a lizard. When he’s unimpressed his face changes, his head tilts and there is a squirt of lemon in his tone. The difference is that Keane expects the audience to be tickled by the first thing that comes into his head; the fearsome attitude to preparation that governed his playing career has been replaced by busking and his droll shtick has become a runaway hit.
Duffer, though, is clearly a student of the game, and because football is still his day job, his knowledge has an unmistakable currency. Every time he appears in the studio he’s armed with stuff that you didn’t know, and that he had gone to the bother of finding out. Clare McNamara invited him to introduce the Australian players on Wednesday and he had a neat, researched, disposable line for everyone, mined from somewhere.
“Harry Souttar is six-foot-six,” he said, “the tallest player ever to play for Australia, I believe.” Who knew?
In one unguarded moment, though, he left a hostage to fortune. “I would never criticise a player for missing a chance,” he said. He didn’t sign an oath, but there were many thousands of witnesses. Maybe people will forget.
By half-time, the lads were quietly agitated. Brady’s pre-match assertion that Denmark would handle the pressure was being barracked by second thoughts; Duffer was bothered about Australia’s carelessness on the ball. Not a sight of a goal. Then, in the ad break, Duffer’s phone went off, breaking the first protocol of in-studio behaviour. Clare didn’t leave him off the hook.
“Go on,” she said. “Who was it? Name and shame.”
“Richie Sadlier,” said the Shelbourne manager. “I thought it might be somebody I was trying to sign.”
In the World Cup, there are always passing tremors. To qualify from this group Australia needed to upset the seedings and usurp the number 10 ranked team in the world. In the second half they conjured a stunning goal on the counterattack, and protected the lead with bullish resistance, blocks and bodies everywhere.
It was 3 o’clock in the morning back in Australia, but footage quickly emerged of joyous mayhem in a Melbourne fan park. Soccer is probably only the fifth most popular sport in Australia; winning, though, has always been the most popular thing in the world.
Graham Arnold, their manager, was put in front of a microphone and invited to stir the hysteria. “There will be no celebrations,” he said. “No emotions. Sleep. No social media.”
For decades, Australia has been a mass producer of fluffy, melodramatic content for daytime TV. Yesterday, they raised the bar.