Monday, July 22, 2024

‘There might be a celebratory mood . . . it absolutely isn’t with us’ – Damien Duff is all business for Shelbourne

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Walking into the famous Drumcondra ground on the eve of their first European tie in 18 years, the first thing that catches the eye is a huge red banner on the New Stand depicting the three castles on the club crest.

Club staff are busy putting the finishing touches to the newly narrowed pitch and the stands, with a sold-out crowd expected for the visit of Gibraltar’s St Joseph’s. In the corner beside the scoreboard lies a brand new mural of Dave Rogers’ famous 2004 volley against Hajduk Split in Champions League qualifying.

But for Damien Duff and his players, the message is clear – there is a game of football to be won and it’s business as usual.

“Yes, myself, my staff and the players are very proud, proud to be playing in Europe, but beyond that, it’s absolute business. There might be a celebratory mood with people and fans in the stadium, but it absolutely isn’t with us,” said Duff ahead of the Conference League first-round first-leg clash (7.45, stream available on Solid Sport).

“Unambitious clubs, unambitious staff, unambitious players would come here in a celebratory mood. We’re looking to win the game.

“It wasn’t just the aim from last year to qualify for Europe. That was there in year one. From minute one, the goal was Europe and it was leading to one thing, which was winning the title. When that happens? I hope sooner rather than later.

“I think I speak on behalf of the players when I say we don’t wake up and go, ‘Wow, we’re top of the league, I can’t believe it.’ No, we go in and work hard, wanting to try [and] stay there.”

With the winners of this tie set to face FC Zurich in the second round, Duff insists his side have been well warned against any complacency against St Joseph’s, especially as sides from Gibraltar have secured results against Irish clubs in recent years.

“It’s nights like this, big games, even the run-in of the league, I’d be shocked if you are off your game. I just can’t fathom it,” said Duff, who played in 68 European club games during his playing career, which included the 2010 Europa League final with Fulham.

“Brutal honesty yesterday morning. I told the guys from now until the end of the season, it is not a time for inconsistency. Big games, big players deliver. That’s what we want tonight.

“I’d be shocked if anyone was complacent from the football side.”

For Reds skipper Mark Coyle, nights like these have also been a long time coming, from previously balancing work with part-time football, all the way to becoming the latest captain to lead Shels out on a big European night.

“It has been a long journey to come to this point, but it’s a mix of a lot of hard work I have done behind the scenes. It’s a very proud moment, and hopefully, it’s one that will leave a memory,” said Coyle, who was one of Duff’s earliest signings. “When I first came here, he [Duff] said we would get to the cup final and we’ll stay up. I looked at him and thought, ‘I believe you, but I don’t believe you’, and sure enough we did. The next year, he says, let’s go for Europe and we got there.

“The buzz to have Shelbourne back where they belong, we’re proud we can do that.”

Leaving Tolka on the eve of the big night, beside the players’ entrance is a mural. ‘Time to rise again,’ it reads. Tonight, it’s time to take flight.

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