Damien Duff’s first press conference as Shelbourne manager did not disappoint. The recruitment process was not been devoid of drama with the 42-year-old informing the club on Friday that he would not be signing a two-year contract.
By Monday morning Duff, capped 100 times by the Republic of Ireland, had changed his mind as much to save his soul from the torturous existence of an idle ex-professional footballer as a desire to awaken the “sleeping giant” of Tolka Park.
“I was obviously at the club already,” said the outgoing under-17 coach, looking healthy as he spoke to the media in the Baskin Suite of the Clayton airport hotel. “After coming home after Celtic, getting involved in the Irish gig, I wanted to be on the grass every day, to keep improving as a coach, keep learning, keep trying new things.
“They are probably the only club that welcomed me with open arms, they let me get on with my thing for the 18 months I’m there. I enjoyed it.
“It’s probably not great that there is traffic back on the M50, it was great during Covid, I’d be there in 20 minutes,” he added about a daily trek from Kilmacanogue to Clonshaugh. “A lot of soul searching, I was humming and hawing. It’s in the media already that I said no on Friday but over the weekend after speaking to [technical director] Alan [Caffrey], [ceo David O’Connor] and [chairman] Andrew Doyle, they wanted me to reconsider.”
Caffrey flat refused to accept his rejection, perhaps knowing how the mind of Damien Duff ticks.
“Probably a midlife crisis,” Duff continued with a perspective that every ex-player would understand. “People keep telling me I need to come up with a plan. I had been home for 18 months. I didn’t have a plan. All I know is I love football, love coaching, love helping and improving players and I would be unhappy with myself if I said no and turned it down. It’s as simple as that.”
So begins a two-year experiment with the highest profile Irish international to manager a League of Ireland club since Johnny Giles left Shamrock Rovers in 1983.
“Why did I say no [on Friday]? Probably because I was in the south of France drinking red wine, I was on my holidays.
“Listen, there were two reasons. One, I like my life, I like to go away with the kids and have my own time. That was one, and secondly, it’s totally out of the comfort zone stuff.
“Am I scared? Absolutely, yeah. Do I feel uncomfortable? Absolutely. But I’ve been preaching to kids since day one, my own two kids, the 15s at Rovers, the 17s at Shels, about showing personality, about showing courage, which they can lack at times.
“For me to say no on Friday, I was lacking courage, I was lacking personality. So over the weekend, the board asked me to reconsider and I did and that was soul searching.
“I can’t preach to kids or coach the kids, whether it be men, women or children, and then turn it down. So that’s why I’m here.”
Comparing Shelbourne’s budget, having just won the First Division title, with Rovers or other Dublin clubs makes for a perilous first season at the helm.
Duff has yet to secure his backroom team, a squad of players or even nail down a professional approach to training in the mornings.
It even appears that Shels will give him significant latitude that could include relegation.
“My ambitions are sky high but if I’m realistic, where Shels are at, they’ve been yo-yoing for a couple of years. They’re a sleeping giant but they have to stay in the league.
“The board have been amazing to me, they’ve assured me the worst case that if we went down, that ‘Damien Duff is building something special here’.
“It’s an absolute sleeping giant. Believe it or not, it’s a special place, Tolka Park, in my life because of the days I had with Brian Kerr there.
“It didn’t help when my son Woody walked in last week with a Shels jersey on. stuff like that gets me. I kind of confronted him so I asked him where he got it? He said ‘I bought it Daddy’. That tugged at me. I thought ‘I’m going to have to do this’.”
Duff was bullish when his track record of short stints as a coach, since retiring in 2015, was put to him: A few seasons at Rovers, 18 months with Celtic, eight games as Stephen Kenny’s assistant coach (he ruled out addressing ‘videogate’) and now Shels.
“Absolutely, I am incredibly restless, I am incredibly impatient, you can ask anyone that I’ve worked with. The Shelbourne boys. I’m probably too hard on them because I want it right now for them, I want them to have careers.
“But I think too much, I thought about everything. I don’t know how you prove longevity or commitment to a club. I was with Shamrock Rovers as a player and then as a coach for 18 months. I dedicated my life to it for 18 months, to kids with Shamrock Rovers.
“It’s never mentioned. I got stick for training at 6am in the morning and bringing them back out at 6pm at night. I’d like to think they were the best day of those kids careers so far. I probably saw those kids more than my own.
“I can’t prove longevity by saying no to Celtic. If Celtic come and ask me to leave Shamrock Rovers under-15s everyone in this room would take it. So I went to Celtic, I had an amazing time there. If I go back there tomorrow, I’d be welcomed back with open arms. I built some amazing, amazing relationship with special people.
“But when your wife and kids are back home and your son and daughter are asking ‘Daddy, we just want you home’. So I came home.
“I went to the Irish coaching gig and I’m not going to get into that today. I’d like to think everyone in this room would have left the gig when I did. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve dedicated my life to it.
“Longevity or impatience or always jumping ship? I actually don’t when you strip it back. I’m incredibly dedicated, when I’m with players, they get the whole of Damien Duff. I give my life to them.”
Duff states that he would be happy making flat whites in a remote Wicklow cafe.
“I know a lot of the managers when they do fail in their first gig, they probably never get another managers’ role again but that’s stuff I am fine with. I’ll happily be a barista, I’m halfway through my course. So if does doesn’t work out you might see me in a coffee shop.
“I’m absolutely fearful and that’s when I’m at my best.
“I didn’t want to go to Celtic, because I was scared. I didn’t back myself, I didn’t think I was a good coach, but [Rovers and his wife] made me go and it was the most amazing time of my life.
“So, the most amazing times, be it as a player or a coach, is when I am fearful and out of my comfort zone.
“Going into the Shels first-team role, is it going to be easy? No. Is it going to be comfortable? No. But it is going to give me 24-7 focus which is what I need. When I have an idle mind, like most people, it is not good for you.”
Similar to Stephen Kenny reinventing his system to survive as an international manager, Duff has no doubt that his philosophy may not suit a relegation battle.
“I would like to think I was a technical player. I love keeping the ball and when I lose it I love getting it back but I know football isn’t as simple as that.
“A big worry of mine, and I have told it to Alan, ‘listen, I don’t know the league particularly well, so I will surround myself with people who do’.
“I know Shels will lose an awful lot of games next season. I know people will look and say ‘aw Damien Duff, he was at Celtic, Ireland, he is this he is that. But I am not. I am bottom of the tree. I am not the best manager in the league. I have an awful lot to prove.”
What he does bring to domestic football is his profile and a work ethic honed under some great managers.
“My first session with Shelbourne first team I will probably be using bits from Jose Mourinho from 20 years ago.
“Being involved with the FAI for eight games, I will take bits, what is right, what is wrong. You take from everywhere, be that Celtic, Roy Hodgson, Giovanni Trapattoni, Jose. I have taken everything and I guess it is just putting your own stamp on things.
“I will never change. I am still energetic, emotional. The players will soon learn that I never try being anything I am not.
“I realise we all have egos but I don’t think I have a particularly big one. If I did I wouldn’t be here today.
“I want to be involved in Irish football, I want to help young and old, men and women.
“I am not going anywhere any time soon because my kids are happy here, my wife is happy here, so Ireland is stuck with me.”