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25th May 2024

Everyone could learn from Damien Duff’s investment in his Shelbourne players

Ronan Calvert

Damien Duff Shelbourne

What a week for Damien Duff and Shelbourne.

Bertie Ahern was still Taoiseach the last time Shels’ won the League of Ireland Premier Division, but 18 years later it seems the boom is truly back at Tolka Park.

That’s as a week that started with an injury-time winner against Stephen Kenny‘s St Patrick’s Athletic, ended with a 2-0 away win versus four-in-a-row champions Shamrock Rovers.

Results that mean Shelbourne are now six points clear of Derry City at the top of the table while Shamrock Rovers are a staggering nine points adrift in third.

Duff shaping something serious.

Since taking the reins in 2022, Duff solidified Shelbourne’s Premier Division status, led them to an FAI Cup Final and slowly improved the team with passing time.

Nobody defends like Shelbourne, nobody runs like Shelbourne, nobody fights like Shelbourne. Every player knows not just their job, but their responsibility.

That’s been the case since quite early on in Duff’s tenure, but how he’s branched his side out from being awkward opponents to genuine title contenders is fascinating to follow.

While loan signing Will Jarvis, a tricky winger from Hull City, has added flair to the equation, and seasoned veterans Paddy Barrett, Sean Gannon and Keith Ward have brought leadership; the core of this team is built on players who Duff has developed himself.

Defender Gavin Molloy, powerhouse striker Sean Boyd and midfielder JJ Lunney have come along leaps and bounds since the beginning of the Duff reign.

These are players who have essentially transformed from belonging at the top of the First Division table to thriving at the top of the Premier Division.

Players initially valued for their work-rate and application, now showing improved technique to not just outfight but outplay their rivals.

It’s the kind of development we don’t often see in modern football with the transfer market making players so dispensable, but Duff and his assistants show the value of investing time, energy and care into the players at your disposal.

Right now, their belief and investment is being rewarded in spades.

Mark Coyle.

No player illustrates the point better than midfield general Mark Coyle, a 27-year-old who spent six seasons in an unglamorous Finn Harps team before joining Shelbourne two years ago.

It would have been unthinkable to see Coyle start in a title-winning team not so long ago, but now he could do just that with a captain’s armband on his bicep and a Player of the Year trophy under his arm.

The nucleus of the team, Coyle has been a mirror of everything good about Shelbourne this season.

With noticeably improved control and passing, everything runs through him; every impact he makes feels symbolic of the serious Shelbourne project unfolding in front of fans’ eyes – a project which is a testimony to what can happen when you persist with people.

Ironically, his showing in Monday’s win against Stephen Kenny’s St Pat’s generated comparisons to how, at Dundalk, Kenny developed a similar player, Chris Shields, from an average operator to one of the best players the league has seen in the last decade.

Interesting too, because it was Kenny’s reputation for taking League of Ireland rejects and turning them into Europa League-ready footballers which ultimately earned him a shot at the Irish job.

Unfortunately for Kenny, having such an influence on players proved impossible within the constraints of the international football calendar – and maybe Duff would face the same problems in the hotseat – but there’s certainly no reason why he can’t have a tremendous career in the club game.

By creating a great culture, building a true team and helping players realise potential once hard to see, Duff, though only new to the league, is showing the potential to replicate Kenny’s domestic achievements by becoming one of Ireland’s great managers.

There’s plenty more to be written, but he’s barely put a foot wrong so far.

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