FOR DAMIEN DUFF, the last 12 months have been a swift learning curve.
To the surprise of some, the Ireland legend agreed to take charge of Shelbourne ahead of the 2022 season.
And while great players don’t always make great managers, Duff proceeded to enjoy a creditable debut campaign as a League of Ireland coach.
“The first game I was a nervous wreck but I like to think that I hid it well,” he tells reporters. “RTÉ [were showing Shels’ opening match], under the lights. The second round was better, the third round was better, cup final was a million times better. That’s me saying it but others might disagree.”
He guided newly promoted Shels to a seventh-place finish ultimately, a comfortable 15 points above the relegation places.
And there was a considerable bonus too, with Duff’s influence helping pave the way for the Tolka Park outfit’s first FAI Cup final appearance since 2011.
However, the subsequent 4-0 loss to Derry City in the season’s showpiece event served as a reminder that the Dublin club remain some way below the level of Ireland’s top sides.
But Duff feels the club is significantly better off overall, one year on from the start of his reign.
“Without a doubt, if you compare to the squad, starting lineup going into the first game from last season, no disrespect, but I think it is night and day. Even the lads who have been with us for a year know how we work, and the intensity we work at.
“I think there is a marked difference in the quality of everything. I think we are a much better team but talk is cheap. It is about doing it and delivering it on match day.”
Shels have had a busy enough off-season with Conor Kearns, Tyreke Wilson, Matty Smith, and Paddy Barrett among the incoming players, while those to have departed include Daniel Carr, Aaron O’Driscoll, Stephan Negru, and Brendan Clarke.
Speaking on Wednesday morning, the Dubliner hinted at one more new arrival to the club — likely a reference to 20-year-old midfielder and Ireland underage international Kian Leavy, whose loan signing from Reading was subsequently announced yesterday evening — but said otherwise his off-season transfer business is finished.
It is noticeable that Duff has put together quite a young squad and the manager admits it can often be a challenge to attract older League of Ireland footballers.
“Usually at 27/28/29, a player with a lot of experience in the league that has a bit of quality costs €1,200 a week. I ain’t got that, I might be able to get one or two or three of them but a lot of the teams above can keep forking out and I can’t.
“I want loads of kids in — they don’t answer back. The reason I got in Paddy [Barrett] is that he’s a personality and a presence, something we have lacked before.
“Your title-winners with medals and experience cost too much money, at the same time young kids prove they are exciting and hopefully one day they will be 26/27 and commanding these wages and plenty of medals under their belt.”
Towards the end of 2022, Shelbourne were heavily linked with a move from Southampton’s owners, Sport Republic, but that talk has since gone quiet leaving the club in a similar position to last year and unable to match the spending power that some of their rivals enjoy.
“If the investment came in I probably would have been able to quadruple my budget. It didn’t, so I have no issue. I am really happy with the squad I have.
“Listen, I think the club is in talks with many people to get to the next level.
“It’s not rocket science, you look at Derry, you look at Pats, you look at Rovers, any big player becomes available they are in straight away.
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“Have I gone and chatted to these players? Yeah. Did they want to come to us? Yeah. But when money is spoken [about], here, I tap out.”
Consequently, Duff feels his side will need to overachieve again this season, as they did last year in reaching the cup final.
“The top two, top three probably have quadruple our budget but it doesn’t faze me whatsoever. One bit that I stand over and that gives me hope is that of the 10 teams last year, who made the biggest improvement over the course of 36 league games and four or five cup games? Without a doubt, I think it was us.
“From game one to game 36, that is my greatest hope. We have a squad of players who have worked with me over the year and they have improved no end and that is what I will rely on for our success, not paying a lot of money for them.”
Duff’s players aren’t the only ones to have improved in certain respects, as the manager himself feels he is in a stronger position compared to last year.
“I’m going to Dalymount or Pat’s and I know what it’s all about as an opposing manager, I know what I’m dealing with in other dugouts, I know the players now because you can watch them on Wyscout all you want, but I have seen them first hand.
“I made 101 mistakes last year but I think I know everything and everyone inside out now. That is the biggest learning.”
Aspirations of qualifying for Europe and cup finals have been discussed in the Shels’ dressing room, even if they are a big ask on account of the aforementioned financial limitations, but should they fall short of these ambitions, it won’t be for a lack of work ethic or intensity on Duff’s part.
“I need to be busy,” he adds. “I need 24/7 focus in my life, that’s why I got involved in coaching/management, involved in the league, it’s good for me. It’s a catch-22, I was probably on death’s door at the end of the season, I worked myself to the bone but when the season finishes you don’t know what to do with yourself.
“You can do anything in life, this is something I thought I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t be up to it but I have done it. I have grown as a person on and off the pitch, I’d like to think, and it’s out of your comfort zone. A lot of people in life go motoring along but I did something I was scared of, and I am grateful for it.”