Duff, Ciaran

11 December 1992

Dublin’s Ciaran Duff

Ciaran Duff

One of the best to ever pull on the Sky Blue Jersey

But at the moment the Fingallians man has no regrets about his decision to retire.

As Croke Park became submerged in a sea of green and gold and Donegal’s Anthony Molloy climbed the steps he scarcely believed he ever would, there were very few of the watching Dublin spectators who could afford even the slightest of smiles, writes COLM KEYES.

A stunned Hill could not believe what had happened. Among them was a bearded mild, mannered figure who was once their pride and joy. If any Dublin man or woman was entitled to smile, it was legendary Ciaran Duff, once the darling of the place where he now stood and watched, but now a mere mortal who shared the agonies of his fellow county men. 

In April, Duff dropped a bombshell when he announced he was stepping down from the Dublin panel. Five months later the faithful with whom Duff shared the terrace surmised and said to him “if only you had been there …!

So did he fall or was he pushed? Life may begin at 40 but surely football careers don’t end at 30. Many believe that Duff was pushed, including Duff himself, and he pulls no punches when he says that he could have made a big contribution in 1991 and ’92 as Paddy Cullen’s All Ireland dreams became unstuck. To this day, the popular Swords man, who terrorised defences for the best part of 10 years, says he has no regrets about the decision he took.

“I could have ended up on the football scrap heap if I didn’t take that decision”, he recalled. Dublin had just lost to Tyrone in the National Football League semi final and Duff had been ignored for the entire hour. “I had been dropped for that game and didn’t even feature in the first 21 and I felt I was at least good enough to be there”.

“I could see that I had no future in the Championship. I got no response from the team management, no reason why I had been discarded”, he continued. On the following Tuesday Duff packed his bags as usual and headed for Parnell Park. But he had left something very important behind him. “That night at training I discovered just how disillusioned I had become. My motivation for this county team had vanished. I never felt bitter like it before, I had never been treated like that. I made my mind up to go”.

And so there died one of the great careers of Dublin football. Ten years on Duff was experiencing the other side of the coin. It wasn’t such a sudden decision, according to Duff, as people thought. He felt he never got the right vibes from the management regime which took the reins in autumn 1990. 

Duff felt he could have done more in the marathon Meath-Dublin matches than he was asked. The second match was as much action as he saw. “From the outset the management seemed anxious to make sweeping changes that the media regularly called for. They made things out to be worse than they were. They wanted to be identified by a new wave Dublin team and myself and Barney Rock were the ones to suffer”.

Duff believed that during the four-match marathon the management erred. “They switched things around to often. Generally it was the forwards who shouldered the blame, but were they the ones throwing away the big leads?”

“Take Sean Boylan as a contrast. He trusted his players and even when the likes of Bernard Flynn and Brian Stafford were doing badly, Boylan stuck with them and it paid off”. Boylan, according to Duff, knew his players, could relate to them and could get maximum response from them. “I often felt that the Dublin management was distant from its players. Paddy Cullen was an approachable bloke but there was always a cold feeling hanging over the dressing room. You could walk in there and there wouldn’t be a word said. Unless you were one of the first fifteen, you were virtually ignored. That’s the impression I got”, he recalled.

Duff feared he might miss the build up to the All Ireland final, the crack, the hype, but he didn’t and there was an added bonus of his form at club level which sources say “was never better”. That’s why he believes the decision he made at the time was the right one. That’s why a man in form like Duff could have felt a little vindicated after the All Ireland final … if he wanted.

But he wouldn’t want something like that. Duff was a true blue Dub too long and appreciated the hard work which was needed to prepare with a county team. Though he was initially a soccer man and lined out with Swords Celtic regularly in his youth, he made a name for himself as a promising Minor in 1978 and ’79 when Dublin reached two All-Ireland finals winning the second. 

That was supposed to herald the advent of a new Dublin team. The youthful enthusiasm of Ciaran, Barney Rock and John O’Leary would fuse with the established skills of the remains of Kevin Heffernan’s seventies idols. But a rude awakening lay in store for the young Duff an his team mates as emerging Offaly stunned them and choked the province with a mighty grip for the next three years. Duff, a winner as a Minor, was fast getting used to the reality of losing. In 1983 Heffo went for broke and changed the shape of the team completely. There was a quiet confidence that they could do to Offaly what the midlanders did to them three years previously.

The Fingallians man was a central figure in the capitals renaissance with his driving runs which crippled most defences. But 1983 had more things in store for the emerging star. Sure, they took an All-Ireland title, but the left half-forward incurred the wrath of many when he was sent off against Galway in one of the most controversial finals ever.

The re-emergence of Kerry denied Duff and the Dubs further glory but they at least had the satisfaction of being Kingpins of Leinster. That was until Meath arrived and some of the greatest rivalry the game has known was struck up. Duff wasn’t surprised at the development of Meath “as they had always been there or thereabouts when they played Dublin.

“Missed penalties, goalkeeping errors and just not getting the right bounce of the ball was often Meath’s downfall. It was a cycle of luck. I felt we were very unlucky not to have won a few Leinster finals against Meath in the late eighties. Luck had turned their way”. So luck had turned Sean Boylan’s direction but deserted Gerry McCaul. Duff respected McCaul respected his efforts and claims that sometimes “he tried to hard”.

Luck was never with him. Look at Charlie’s (Redmond) penalty miss in ’88 and Colm O’Rourke’s goal in 1990. He was a straight man though. You knew where you stood with him”.
Meath and Duff also signalled controversy and his clashes with the Royal County’s right half back Kevin Foley were well documented. “Okay, so in the early days I didn’t like Kevin’s style of pulling and dragging, but he was there to do a job and to this day I rate him as my most difficult opponent. Off the pitch I would have no problems with Kevin or any other player. That’s the beauty about football”. 

The beauty of football can be many things. His goal in the ’89 was memorable as he swept through the heart of the Meath defence while his driving runs caused panic among defenders. Duff seems over critical of himself when he says that he often “takes to much out of the ball”. Make your mind up about whether he was missed from the Dublin panel this year. The player himself was quite happy to resume playing with his club Fingallians in Swords. 

“The Thursday after the Tyrone match I went down to the club to train. It was great to play with the lads for an entire season. It was much more relaxed, there was a bit of crack, so much different than the Dublin set up”, he said. Fingallians probably wont win a Senior Championship in the next few years, but Duff is happy to train the team and also finds time to help out with the coaching and training of the Lusk Juniors.

What a change from the intensity of the inter-county scene! “I think I won’t be playing for Dublin again but I would dearly love to see them win an All-Ireland soon. It’s not going to happen unless things change though. “The atmosphere has to be right.

“It could take Dublin two or three years to win the All Ireland again. Ulster is a minefield and that province is the strongest at the moment. Cork will be back so will Kerry while in Leinster, Kildare and Meath will be extremely difficult to beat”, he predicts. “Dublin will have to gain extra strength in their panel”, he feels. “They have no Jack Shea’s, John Egan’s, Brian Mullins’, Gerry McEntee’s, Mickey Sheehy’s or Colm O’Rourke’s, but if they get the right atmosphere, the right balance between management and players, they can succeed”. Duff is refreshingly honest in all his answers and his openness may be one of the keys to his popularity with the Dubs. In fact, even now as he finds himself across all parts of the city in his occupation as an ESB linesman, Duff is still taunted about the possibility of a return. 

To all the Dubs he is known as “Dully” a name which has evolved from his school days for no apparent reason. “Its nice to be remembered and at least when I did get out, I think it wasn’t from the bottom of the scrapheap”. Certainly Duff’s current form would suggest that he hasn’t even entered that category yet. “I probably wont go back now. Even if I was asked”, he concludes. But just what are the odds of “Dully” returning to the sky blue jersey next season? 

Taken from Hogan Stand magazine
11th December 1992