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Monday 18 December 2017

Boys in green off colour

Brighton’s Shane Duffy, in action here against Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross last Monday, has been a talismanic figure for the Seagulls since the start of the Premier League season
Brighton’s Shane Duffy, in action here against Stoke’s Ryan Shawcross last Monday, has been a talismanic figure for the Seagulls since the start of the Premier League season
(l-r) Jeff Hendrick, Stephen Ward and Robbie Brady have struggled to bring their form with Burnley into the Irish team of late

The very act of pulling on the Ireland jersey was enough to lift you up when you were down.

That's a common thread through the careers of many Ireland internationals over the years, players who were able to able to put aside a run of bad games, or a bad run of no games at all, for their club to go out and deliver for the national team.

Think Jason McAteer in September 2001, a peripheral figure with his club (to put it mildly) but a national hero with his winning goal against Holland in Dublin.

More recently, James McClean has enough about him to brush off the cold shoulder at club level to deliver for Ireland.

The man who started in five of Ireland's six competitive games this season (the only one he missed was due to suspension) has just two starts in his club's 12 league games.

A club struggling to avoid relegation may well decide to try and sell an Irish national icon in the next transfer window. Club v country, 2017 version.

However, for a current batch of Ireland players, the green jersey appears to be some form of burden on the shoulders, a garment which sucks out the lifeforce.

Confidence shown on a weekly basis in the theatres of the Premier League simply evaporated over 180 minutes against Denmark.

The contrast between club form, and form with Ireland, for Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick in particular, is puzzling, as is the drop in quality from Harry Arter in the Ireland shirt.

Shane Duffy will go out onto the field of play tomorrow, away to Manchester United, and show no fear. He will look like what he has been all season, a decent Premier League player for a decent Premier League team.

In the Premier League this season Duffy has more clean sheets to his credit than, say, Daley Blind or Gary Cahill.

Yet Georgia, Serbia and now Denmark have been able to breeze into his defence with Ireland and score.

Duffy has only ever conceded five goals at club level on one occasion, an FA Cup debacle with Blackburn but Denmark rattled five past him in Dublin.

Christian Erisken was unable to do much damage for Spurs at home to a Burnley side featuring Ward and Brady back in August; last week he scored three times away to an Ireland team containing both players.

Possible

Presuming he does stay on as Ireland manager - and there is nothing to suggest that a 65-year-old will willingly walk away from a €1million a year contract - Martin O'Neill has to face a few home truths.

And the contrast between club form for the likes of Duffy and the Burnley boys is something he has to deal with.

Chris Hughton is likely to have stern words with Duffy should he simply boot the ball 60 yards up the field, to no one in particular, just to have the ball as far away from his goal-line as possible, as Duffy did with Ireland.

He did it early in the second half of the second leg, lashing the ball to the other end of the pitch despite having four players available. Then again, does someone need to have words with O'Neill?

Hughton feels that Duffy has recovered well from the World Cup woe.

"There is no doubt there will be huge disappointment but Shane has come through the games having scored and improved immensely with the Irish team.

"He is a big player for them and he has come out of it with a lot of credit," said the Brighton manager.

"I think he'll be fine. You don't get time. You've got to go straight back into games. He has got to focus on doing as well as he has done this season.

"With professional players comes the ups and downs of winning games, losing games, getting knocked out of competitions, getting promotion, just missing out.

"There are so many highs and lows that you have got to be able to cope with them all."

Burnley manager Sean Dyche has also stated his belief that the World Cup exit will not impact on his Irish contingent. He will also wonder what happened to Stephen Ward last week against the Danes.

Ward had been a key figure for Ireland in this campaign, his form at left back removing any suggestion of moving Robbie Brady to that position.

In terms of defenders with clean sheets in the Premier League this season, Ward is joint-third, only Phil Jones, Antonio Valencia and Kyle Walker have played at the back in the Premier League and came away with more clean sheets.

Ward's display against Denmark, where errors led to two goals, can be put down as a one-off as he had been so reliable in the games leading up to that, but Brady and Hendrick have been struggling for form with Ireland for some time now.

Brian Kerr said that the pair's "brains were scrambled" at home to Denmark. But they will probably look calm and brainy when playing Arsenal on Sunday.

It's the Irish conundrum. And no one has an answer.

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