BY CHRIS MCNULTY
THREE years ago, John Duffy was in the throes of an election campaign.
He had his eye on Dáil Éireann, standing as a candidate in Donegal South West for the Green Party in the 2011 General Election. Duffy was working at the time as a solar panel installer and his name hit the local media for the first time since his heyday as a mercurial Gaelic footballer with Aodh Ruadh and Donegal.
Football, by then, was a thing of the past.
He might have had his political dream dented, but Duffy reinvented his wheel again and is back in his natural game again.
Seven years after his last involvement with his native Aodh Ruadh, Ballyshannon – as the assistant manager/coach in 2007 – Duffy is these days wearing the Maor Foirne jacket alongside Jim McGuinness with the Donegal senior footballers. Sunday sees Duffy back at Fr Tierney Park, the old ground in which his teeth were cut in the 1980s.
Duffy was plucked almost from the wild by McGuinness when the restructuring of his backroom team was taking place last autumn. Duffy, Paul McGonigle and Damian Diver were recruited; all of them former team-mates of McGuinness, although Duffy was seen as the surprise choice, but it is interesting that it has been he who has taken the baton as the ‘runner’ for the Donegal manager.
“It has been a pretty steep learning curve, but I’ve been really enjoying it,” says Duffy, who played 49 times for Donegal between 1993 and 1999.
“I’ve learned a lot and I’m sure the other two boys would say the same thing. It has been good, though. It’s been great to see this team in action at first-hand. The vast majority of them have All-Ireland medals in their pockets. They’re very focussed and they have been a joy to work alongside.
“This is a great group of players to work with. They’re very dedicated to what they’re doing.
“The year is bringing different challenges, but we’re trying to embrace those challenges and meet them head on.”
Duffy had tentative talks with McGuinness at the beginning of his Donegal tenure, but his political desires at that time meant he wasn’t able to give the full-on commitment the job demands.
A few moments in his company and you begin to see the traits that McGuinness will have recalled from his days aside Duffy in the dressing rooms of those times when Donegal danced momentarily with the big time in the 90s.
“I’m a guy who believes that you’re either in something or you’re not in it at all,” says Duffy, who believes the time away from the game has served him well.
“I came back with the battery recharged. You can get stale or flat when you’re doing the same thing constantly.
“You do miss something like this when you’re away from it. There is nothing like playing, that’s for sure, but still being involved at the coalface of things is hard to beat too.
“I spoke at length to Jim and, to be honest, I jumped at it. The time commitment is serious, but my wife (Breege) has been very supportive.
“I’m excited by it and I know I’m privileged to be involved in it.”
With three young children – Sophie, Oisin and Caolan – Duffy’s time is busy. Now working as a physical therapist, based at the Oaktree Business Park in Killygordon, it’ll be strange to get back onto the rough pebbles of Fr Tierney Park’s concourse on Sunday.
Duffy was well-travelled in his time and played for both Tir Chonaill Gaels and the London senior footballers, as well as lining out for Civil Service. Drafted by Brian McEniff in the aftermath of the 1992 All-Ireland win, Duffy was a sometimes unpredictable forward, unmistakable for the long locks and possessing a buoyant talent that was perhaps like the team he was involved with, unfulfilled.
“We had a damned good team, but there is no doubt that we underachieved,” he says now as he prepares to go back onto home soil this weekend as Donegal chase two big Division 2 points against Louth.
“I haven’t been in Fr Tierney Park since 2007. I was coaching Aodh Ruadh at that time, but I haven’t been since. I’m really looking forward to getting back there. I’ve got a lot of good memories there.
“This weekend isn’t about looking back, though. It’s all about two points and putting those on the board. We’re in a good position coming into the business end of the season.”
He talks in gushing terms about Aodh Ruadh’s meetings with Burren, Errigal Ciaran and Bellaghy back in the day.
When the fresh-faced Duffy first dandered through the rusting gates to McEniff in late ‘92, the role of the selector was much different to the position in which he now stands.
But evolution, he says, was always ongoing.
“Football has changed so much since those days. It is professional in everything bar the monetary aspect. That’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s absolutely true,” he says.
“The way the game has advanced is phenomenal, but it’s nothing new really. When I started in 1993 until I finished in 1999 there was a huge change in the standard of all sides of the game. I remember us playing Armagh in the Championship in ‘99 – I never played against a team that was as fit.”
Donegal drew with the Orchard 2-9 to 1-12 in Ballybofey, but lost the replay 0-12 to 2-11 in Clones. It was the last time his name appeared for Donegal in the Championship.
“You talk now of the lifestyle off the pitch being as important as what you’re doing on the pitch in training – and it is, of course – but it was the same back then. We had Armagh on the rack in the first game.
“We had a big lead, but we let them back and, Jesus, they just over-ran us in the replay. They were just super fit. We were just lacking something that Armagh had and it was only in later years that people in Donegal began to realise what that was when they saw what Armagh went on to do.”