Irish unearth a gem in Duffy
A BACKDROP of mist and drizzle, no crowd there to witness it, and no caps or points at stake.
As international debuts go, it's hardly up there with scoring a hat-trick in your first Ireland game, a la David Kelly, or outshining the World Cup holders, as Paul McGrath did.
But one fact emerged from the non-event which was a training game between a fringe Republic of Ireland team and an U23 side made up of home-based players: the Republic have pulled off quite a coup by 'signing' Everton man Shane Duffy.
It should be no surprise that he's playing for 'us' as his dad's from Donegal, Duffy was born on the island of Ireland and admits that he grew up supporting the Republic of Ireland. In the past, Irish passports were processed at high speed to allow players such as Jason McAteer and Andy Townsend play for the Republic, but Duffy's had that document with Pas, An tAontas Eorpach and Eire stamped on the front in gold letters for some time now.
Duffy, however, was born in Derry, and is therefore technically (however sadly) a native of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. So until a decision is reached by the Swiss-based body, the Court of Arbitration on Sport (CAS) on his eligibility after the IFA in Belfast complained about the Republic's 'poaching' of the player, he's unable to play in any official games at any level for the FAI.
We don't know when that case will be heard -- though CAS will hear the case involving another Northern-born defector to the south, West Ham's Belfast-born striker Daniel Kearns later this summer (July 19). It is hard to see CAS coming up with any decision which would stop Duffy from playing for the Republic as he qualifies through his Letterkenny-born dad no matter what.
But with top-class Irish central defenders very hard to find at the top level, Duffy is a real find. He proved that last night as the Derry native was the stand-out player in the Republic of Ireland senior side which defeated the U23s 1-0 thanks to a 21st-minute goal from Anthony Stokes.
Duffy was the most inexperienced member of a back four, which included players with experience in the Champions League (Darren O'Dea), international football (Paul McShane) and the English Premier League (Manchester City's Greg Cunningham) but Duffy, with only two first-team appearances to show for his time at Everton, looked the part.
At times during a game watched by just a handful of spectators and the media -- it was technically behind closed doors -- the home-based players threatened to outshine the senior internationals, as Billy Dennehy (Shamrock Rovers), Conor Powell (Bohemians), Stephen O'Donnell (Galway United) and Stephen Mulcahy (Cork) all made a huge impression against a senior Ireland side which, albeit a fringe panel, still had a total of 45 seniors caps between them. Tiredness did kick in late on, which was no wonder as men like Ronan Finn, Billy Dennehy, Vinny Faherty and Kenny Browne have played a lot of club football in the past month.
But Duffy was the real find of the night and the man from Derry told the Herald that, after months of talk and discussion and media debate, he was relieved to just play a game in the shirt of the Republic, albeit an unofficial training game.
"I just wanted to get out there and play and I think I did OK," said Duffy. "It was a big thing for me to come down here and play for the Republic. It's something I always wanted to do and the lads in the squad and the staff were great with me, they really helped me settle in.
"I know that because of all the FIFA stuff I can't play in the two friendly games next week but I will stay with the squad for as long as I can, train as hard as I can and try to impress the manager and show him that I deserve to be in the squad when I get the all-clear to play.
"I think myself and Darren O'Dea had a good partnership at centre half. Even though he's young Darren has a lot of experience. He's played in the SPL and the Champions League for Celtic and he's played for the Irish senior team before so that was great for me, to have someone like that beside me.
"It was a hard game for us as the U23 side were very sharp. They have some very good players in the side and they didn't just turn up for the sake of it. They took the game to us and that's what we needed," added Duffy.
The 18-year-old made his Everton debut last December during their Europa League campaign but since then he's been starved of football, apart from occasional matches for the Toffees reserves, so he was happy to be out on the field.
"I just needed a game, I haven't played much football in the last while," Duffy added. "Last season went well for me. I got my Everton debut, played two games and won a player of the year award so it was a great season and being here with the Republic has finished it off nicely.
"The conditions in Malahide last night weren't easy, but we still had a decent game," added Duffy.