By Shaun Casey
A LOT has changed in the twelve years since Kieran Duffy pulled on the blue and white jersey of his native county and lined out in the Ulster Championship for the very first time.
That was back in 2011 as Monaghan travelled to Omagh to take on Tyrone in the provincial opener. They’ll make that same journey this weekend, but for Latton clubman Duffy, the voyage will be a much different one.
Twelve years ago, he was just a youngster trying to break into the starting team and fulfil his dream of representing the Farney County. On Sunday, he’ll lead his side behind the band and into battle as team captain.
The inter-county scene is much different now and Duffy has had a ringside view of all the alterations. Tactics, diets, S&C programmes, analysis, it’s all gone to another level over the last decade or more.
“You had the Jim McGuinness era where it was more defensive football and then in between it could have been a bit more attacking but now it’s a bit of both really,” said the Monaghan skipper. “In terms of the whole package, it’s definitely come on leaps and bounds in that time, there’s no doubt about it.
“It’s the analysis your physical conditioning and power output, I feel it’s only for the benefit of the game and the benefit of the spectators watching. You want to be seeing the best athletes out there and the best footballers going at it.”
Duffy, who made his championship debut off the bench in a 2010 qualifier game against Kildare, earned his first start and his first appearance in the Ulster Championship the following year, against Mickey Harte’s Tyrone. Monaghan lost 1-13 to 1-11, and it’s safe to say Duffy was thrown in at the deep end.
“It’s unreal, time doesn’t be long going past,” said Duffy, looking back on his inter-county career. “It only feels like yesterday but there’s always the same build up every year and there’s championship fever and excitement and anticipation of what’s ahead.
“You do all the training earlier in the year and late last year in preparation for championship so that excitement and buzz of championship is what you wait for all year round so we’re looking forward to it.
“I was picking up Stephen O’Neill that day and he gave me a torrid time. I think he scored a point or two from the end-line and when I saw those going over, I knew I was going to be in for a long evening!
“The calibre he had, left or right foot there was no difference. But in this day and age, any good, quality forward that you come up against, you’re going to be pushed to the pin or your collar and you just need to be ready for anything that comes your way.
“I think we got a man sent off that day as well and they obviously had a pretty formidable forward line so it was one of those days that we’d probably rather forget, but that kind of evened itself out over the years.”
Fast-forward to the present day and Duffy could face just as tough a task when Monaghan and Tyrone renew a rivalry that has blossomed during his time. Tyrone have a forward line that, when on song, would strike fear into any defence in the country.
You have the silky skills of Darren McCurry, the power of Mattie Donnelly, the elusiveness of Darragh Canavan. Throw Cathal McShane, Ruairi Canavan, Conor Meyler, Kieran McGeary and Peter Harte into the mix and the Red Hands have serious options in attack.
“Tyrone’s a quality team, there’s no getting away from it. Their All-Ireland in 2021 speaks for itself so there’s no doubt they have lots of quality. There’s a few young fellas coming into the team now and they’ve really added to what they had already.
“We’re under no illusions, it’s going to be a tit for tat match, there’s not going to be a whole pile in it, it’s kind of been like that the last couple of years. It’s one you have to prepare for and look forward to, it’s what you want to be playing in, these big championship matches.
“There’s no doubt the calibre is there, the quality’s there. Throughout the years those lads have been there, and they won the All-Ireland, now the two Canavans and a few of the lads coming in have really rejuvenated a couple of them.
“They’re flying and they’re very good footballers, so we have to be very wary. Tyrone have always been renowned for their good forwards, so we’ll be taking nothing for granted and we’ll have to be on our guard.”
Back in 2011, before facing Tyrone, Monaghan had just suffered relegation from Division One despite beating Mayo on the final day. They regained their top tier status in 2015, following a spell in Division Three, and haven’t looked back.
This year, with another last round win over Mayo, Monaghan secured their place in Division One for a tenth successive season and Duffy puts it down to the huge amount of belief that is inside the Monaghan changing room.
“It wasn’t planned, any year it’s not planned, we don’t intentionally wait to the last day, but it was great. Obviously to improve you want to be battling against the best in Division One and we’re delighted to be there for another year.
“I think there has to be (belief) at any age group, when you go out to play football for your county there has to be a belief and that probably comes throughout the years. We’ve gained a good bit of character over the last couple of years as well.
“We have that resilience, if we’re in with a chance of staying up then we’ll go for it and pluck away until we find victory. It’s not every day that that happens but we’re just happy enough to get over the line.
“You can’t really sugar-coat it any other way, if you want to have aspirations to win anything later on in the year, you need to be in Division One or Division Two and competing well to see where you are.”
Monaghan suffered four defeats during their league campaign, including a round six trouncing at the hands of Tyrone.
Goals from Peter Harte and Cormac Quinn saw Fergal Logan and Brian Dooher’s men ease to a 2-15 to 0-13 victory in Clones.
Duffy suggests there’s a big difference in league and championship mindset and that the three week break between the end of the league and the start of the championship can only benefit the Monaghan men.
“League and championship would be slightly different in terms of mindset. It’s knockout, you don’t go out to lose the league match but in championship, in Ulster football, it’s a different mindset all together. When you’re gone, you’re gone and there’s no going back.
“Every match takes on a life of its own, there could be different personel, there could be any factors that could happen in a game so you just have to prepare yourself as best you can.
“I like the new format for county and club. I have to say the three-week break gives you time to re-evaluate where you’re sitting at the minute and what you need to improve on and where you need to go from there.
“I think it’s great that you have three weeks to size up the task that you have ahead, so I feel it’s going to be beneficial for the group.”
Duffy has been here many times down through the years. He not only has the war wounds that come with years of service, but the medals to back up his quality and make it all worthwhile.
He was an essential part of the Monaghan defence when they captured the Anglo Celt twice in three years (2013 and 2015), soldiering alongside his now manager Vinny Corey.
“As a team-mate you’re in each other’s pockets more often than not and talking about different bits and pieces and as managers come you have to distance yourself to a certain degree,” said Duffy on Corey’s transition from team-mate to boss.
“I suppose you have to take a lot of other factors into place in terms of other players and selections and what not. I’d imagine there’s numerous amounts of things that Vinny has to think about but in terms of conversation between the two of us, nothing has really changed, Vinny’s the same person he always was.
“He’s black and white and there’s no in between so I think a lot of the Monaghan players can relate to that and it’s working wonders at the minute.
“Any Monaghan captain that I’ve played under, you always would have taken a wee bit from all of them. Vinny was one of the best when it came to being captain and leading by example.”