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Wednesday 22 May 2019

Don't judge me: Duff

Dublin legend harks back on defining moment of his career ahead of TG4 series

FAMOUS DAY: Dublin’s Brian Mullins and Kieran Duff celebrate their victory over Cork in the 1983 All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE
FAMOUS DAY: Dublin’s Brian Mullins and Kieran Duff celebrate their victory over Cork in the 1983 All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Photo: Ray McManus/SPORTSFILE

Contrary to perception, the eponymous hero of this story is not a villain dressed in Sky Blue garb.

Part of the latest Laochra Gael series produced by Nemeton, Kieran Duff - Don't Judge Me will air on TG4 next month. It's a compelling hour-long programme that reveals the man behind the stereotype; a man whose affable nature is completely at odds with how he was depicted in the poisonous aftermath of the 1983 All-Ireland final.

Which begs the question: does Duff believe that programme title captures the essence of his story?

"Look, we all have our family life, we all make mistakes," he tells The Herald.

"You are judged on one incident. And people just see, you were sent off in an All-Ireland final, you allegedly kicked a fella - and that's the first thing that everybody says to me since TG4 showed the repeats. That's what I was judged on. 'You're a dirty so-and-so.'

"But look it, it happens. I think I'm still the same person off the field back then as I am now. I think I grew up even before that, but certainly I grew up after that incident."

The Herald was given a sneak preview of Don't Judge Me, which will be broadcast on Wednesday, March 13 (9.30pm, TG4). It paints a rounded picture of 'Dully': ESB veteran of 37 years, loving husband to Mags (they were going out three weeks when he popped the question, she told him to "get a grip!"); and doting father to Ciara. His daughter, who has Cerebral Palsy and is quadriplegic, "has Dully wrapped around her little finger," Mags reveals in one heart-warming segment.

But this is, primarily, a tale of footballing highs and depth-churning lows.

It reveals the impressionable youngster from north county Dublin who was suddenly awakened to the world of GAA by the All-Ireland success of Heffo's heroes in 1974, and who determined in that moment that he wanted to play for Dublin.

It charts his progress with the Dublin minors, losing an All-Ireland in 1978 but bouncing back to victory in '79, and then his rapid elevation into the senior ranks.

The incident . . .

GREAT GAELS: Seamus Darby (Offaly football), Jackie Tyrrell (Kilkenny hurling), Rena Buckley (Cork football and camogie), Andrew O’Shaughnessy (Limerick hurling) and Kieran Duff (Dublin football) at yesterday’s Laochra Gael launch at the Dean Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile
GREAT GAELS: Seamus Darby (Offaly football), Jackie Tyrrell (Kilkenny hurling), Rena Buckley (Cork football and camogie), Andrew O’Shaughnessy (Limerick hurling) and Kieran Duff (Dublin football) at yesterday’s Laochra Gael launch at the Dean Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Sportsfile

But the centrepiece of the progamme is, not surprisingly, the pivotal moment in Duff's Dublin career. The moment he flicked his foot in the direction of a prone Pat O'Neill during the 1983 All-Ireland final - and duly became the third Dub to receive his marching orders from embattled referee John Gough.

As Duff explains on camera: "It looked like I actually kicked him in the head. But he said it himself afterwards that I made no contact whatever, and if I did make contact it was with his arm or shoulder … it was the crowd's reaction, I think, what done me."

Irish Independent journalist Vincent Hogan offers a neutral perspective on that 1983 All-Ireland SFC final.

There was "very little football" played in the first 20 minutes; the feeling in the press box was that the referee would need eyes in the back of his head. Three players - Dublin's Brian Mullins and Ray Hazley, the latter in tandem with Galway's Tomás Tierney - all received their first half marching orders.

Yet on Duff's dismissal, early in the second-half, Hogan reckons the camera angle made the flashpoint seem worse, concluding: "I don't think in any circumstances you could call it a kick."

What's unarguable is the devastating ramifications it had for the Dublin forward. And it went far beyond a 12-month suspension, one that was eventually cut short (but only after a failed plea before the Mercy Committee at Congress) in time for him to feature in the 1984 Leinster championship.

"He was branded by that moment," says Hogan. Duff puts it more bluntly: "It does hurt when you're just getting called a thug."

What made it even harder for Duff was the then-recent memory of the '83 Leinster final against All-Ireland holders Offaly. While in the act of tackling an Offaly wing-back lying on the turf, ball in hand, Duff was floored by what can only be described as a flying kung-fu kick from Mick Fitzgerald.

Replayed quite early in the programme, it's an almost surreal moment. The Offaly defender was then reportedly accosted on the pitch by a supporter, prompting a Garda investigation.

"We would never make a big deal of that incident in the Leinster final, because that was done and dusted," Duff stresses, speaking to The Herald at yesterday's Laochra Gael series launch.

"It's ironic - two months later I get sent off in an All-Ireland final. Now, he gets two months and misses nothing. But, because it's an All-Ireland final, I get 12 months.

"Without sounding smart, all the media attention was on Dublin - you know, 'The Dirty Dozen, 12 Apostles, disgraceful scenes'.

"But I don't think I've ever seen anyone comment, 'Hold on a minute, Galway had two extra players. Now, do you not feel embarrassed losing an All-Ireland final with two extra players?' That was never taken on board that, hold on a minute, Galway really messed up here."

The aftermath . . .

Duff turns 58 today - St Valentine's Day. Yet for all the 12 Apostles nostalgia, it's hard to put a romantic spin on '83 and its aftermath, or on a career forever coloured by that one incident.

"Certainly for the next two or three years, playing with Dublin, people had an impression of me that I was a dirty player," the Fingallians clubman recalls.

"When you move on a few years, it's only one incident in 12 or 13 years of a football career.

"Then it was always classed as 'a melee, disgraceful scenes in an All-Ireland final.' But when you look at it in the cold light of day, there was one incident in the first-half, another one about ten or 15 minutes (later), and then the second-half was my incident.

"So, there was no disgraceful scenes other than a few wild tackles in the first half. It wasn't as bad as people - or sorry the GAA - were making out.

"They were the ones that were making out that Dublin did X, Y and Z.

"Then when you look at the 1996 All-Ireland final, Mayo and Meath - now that was a pure brawl."

When he resumed playing, it didn't take Duff long to notice that he was finding it next-to-impossible to win a free.

"One hundred percent," he confirms. "We got to an All-Ireland semi-final in '84, beat Tyrone. And in that game I was actually pushed into the fence, a pillar in the old Hogan Stand, and the Tyrone guy got away scot-free.

"When we went into the All-Ireland final against Kerry, the guy marking me on the day, all that he was short of doing was putting a saddle on my back ... he could do what he liked.

"But it also went into club football," he continues. "You'd players within Dublin club football having a go at you, trying to intimidate you, trying to get you put off. And then you had referees operating the exact same way."

Duff never won another Celtic Cross but continued to be a standout player for the rest of the 1980s. He won back-to-back All Stars in 1987 and '88, even as Meath had usurped them as Leinster's top dogs.

Which brings us to another twist in the tale: the All Star tour to San Francisco, which came after Dublin and Meath had drawn the '88 league final … but before the replay.

A post-match verbal spat with some Royal rivals was conflated into something far bigger by the time the story had crossed the Atlantic. Duff confirms that the late Tony Keady and Brendan Lynskey were among a posse of Galway All Star hurlers who came to his defence on the night, but insists the saga was overblown.

"An incident happened on the field, in San Franciso, and of course I was fuming over it because you're playing exhibition football, but we're also playing them in a league final replay when I come home," he explains.

"So, when I got the slap or whatever you want to call it in the game, I was fuming. That carried on into the pub that night or wherever we were. And I would have been thick and I would have been giving out, 'For f***'s sake, we're here playing exhibition football'.

"Of course, probably then a few verbals started and that was it really. But it came home as if there was a row. The word came home that I was involved in a bust-up with the Meath lads. And then my missus of course rings the hotel, no mobile phones ... 'Ring (Dublin manager) Gerry McCaul straight away, will you?'

"Coming through the airport, a reporter just stopped me: 'Kieran, I believe there was a row?' I just said, 'No, I don't know where you heard that from.' Seán Boylan was coming behind me and Seán just said, 'Fair play to you for not commenting'.

"Now, I wasn't hiding anything. But you know, over the years, Dublin and Meath never whinged about anything publicly."

The dream . . .

Duff's dream was always to play for Dublin and to win an All-Ireland with them. When it happened and he was there, on the Sunday night, feeling "a bit down with being sent off", Kevin Heffernan was quick to tell him, "Look, wouldn't it be worse if we lost?"

And in time he came to appreciate that it takes four or five matches to win an All-Ireland, not just one final.

"So, I started thinking of it differently," he concludes. "That 'hold on a minute, I've won an All-Ireland, I've won one more than maybe some other lads have and maybe better than me.' So, in the long run, no - it didn't tarnish it."

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