THERE WILL BE plenty of focus tomorrow night on Ireland international Jack Byrne, when the two favourites for the title, Dundalk and Shamrock Rovers, meet.
Probably the closest equivalent for the Lilywhites, however, in terms of creative influence and the attacking outlet they provide, is Michael Duffy.
Duffy was nominated along with Byrne and team-mate Sean Gannon for last year’s PFAI Player of the Year award, ultimately losing out to the Hoops man. He did win the award in 2018, however, and has quickly developed into a key figure since signing for the Lilywhites at the beginning of 2017.
An already strong squad, representing a team that has won five of the past six league titles, was enhanced in the off-season. They did lose two particularly important players in Robbie Benson and Jamie McGrath, but have been boosted with the arrival of Greg Sloggett, Will Patching, Darragh Leahy, Cammy Smith and Stefan Čolović (the Serbian star who has just linked up with the squad today after a delay with his Visa). The likes of Patrick McEleney and Sean Murray are currently unavailable through injury, though once there is a fully fit panel choose from, competition for a place in the side will be especially intense.
Duffy, though, is probably the closest possible example of a guaranteed starter in the team.
“Once everyone’s back fit now, there’s going to be a lot of players for different positions and it’s going to make training very competitive,” Duffy tells The42. “We obviously know that and it’s been the same the past two years, it just might be a bit stronger this year and that’s obviously a good thing. Everybody’s fighting for their position and it’ll drive us on more.”
Despite their success in recent years, Dundalk have tended to be slow starters. In 2018, they drew three of their opening five games. In 2019, they failed to win three of their first four league matches. This year, though, they have started with three wins from three, having overcome Derry, Shelbourne and Cork. So what’s been the difference in 2020?
“The off-season sort of helped us a bit this year,” Duffy explains. “It was a bit different and I think we just came back a bit fresher. We showed that in the first few games. We knew we couldn’t start the way we had done in the past two years. So obviously, it’s an improvement this year.”
Maintaining that run won’t be easy, however, in front of what is expected to be a record attendance of over 7,000 fans at Tallaght against the only other side in the league who have maintained a 100% start to the season. Dundalk were unbeaten in the league against Rovers last year, winning three and drawing one. However, they did lose out to Stephen Bradley’s men on penalties in the 2019 FAI Cup final, despite a spectacular last-minute equaliser from Duffy bringing the game to extra-time.
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“They’re always tough games,” he adds. “They obviously had a great season. They progressed a good bit last year and probably again this year. It’s always just on the night really who performs better, and we did [in the league] last year.
“And the cup final, it was probably half and half, there wasn’t much in the game really, it was just decided on penalties.
“Obviously, the last time we played them, it was them lifting the trophy and stuff, so we’ll remember that and we want to get one back.”
On an individual level, Duffy has come a long way since breaking into the Derry first team as a teenager.
In his third season at the club, an impressive 15-goal haul saw the hometown hero depart for Celtic.
“I sort of went on trial really, did well on trial, scored and went from there really,” he recalls. “They just looked to sign me then right at the end of the transfer window. I played for Celtic and it didn’t happen. That’s why I came home then. It was still two good years and I played in a lot of big games and it was a good experience for me.”
While not breaking into the Bhoys’ first team, Duffy did gain invaluable experience on loan at less glamorous Scottish clubs. He spent a season in the Scottish Championship with Alloa Athletic, who were ultimately relegated from the division. He then had a shorter spell with Dundee in the Scottish Premiership.
“They were my most enjoyable times over there. I was only at Celtic for six months, playing in the development squad. Then I was out on loan for a full year with Alloa and another six months with Dundee and that was when I was playing in big games.
“We struggled that year [with Alloa] and I was actually a striker. It was just a running game really. I played a lot of games and only scored a few goals, but had a decent year personally.
“Dundee were middle, bottom half of the table. They’re still fighting games really — a lot of those battles. It is a bit different being at Dundalk, always being at the top.
“Celtic’s such a big club. They’ve a lot of big players in attacking positions. I probably didn’t do enough to deserve to get in the Celtic team anyway, the times I was training [with the first team] and stuff. Just because the squad was that big, you really have to impress if you want to get a chance.”