Duff tells Mcclean: We like you just the way you are.. as Ire­land’s go-to man aims to take down the Danes

Daily Mirror (Northern Ireland) - - SPORT - BY PAUL O’HE­HIR

DAMIEN DUFF smiles when asked for his first im­pres­sions of James Mcclean after break­ing into the Repub­lic of Ire­land squad five years ago.

The leg­endary ‘Duf­fer’ was a star of the team but near­ing the end of a sparkling in­ter­na­tional ca­reer which would run its course just five games after Mcclean’s de­but in Fe­bru­ary 2012. Mcclean was the springer from pack go­ing into that sum­mer’s Eu­ro­pean Cham­pi­onships in Poland with Gio­vanni Tra­p­at­toni nam­ing the rookie in his 23-man squad for the fi­nals. And Duff – capped 100 times – would ul­ti­mately re­tire his green shirt – on his own terms – after the fi­nal group game de­feat to Italy.

Winger Mcclean was the young pre­tender to his throne and ahead of to­mor­row’s first-leg clash with Den­mark, Duff re­calls: “He was a breath of fresh air.

“I’m not sure whether he had his Twit­ter ac­count then but lis­ten, he was young, naive, maybe not a lot be­tween the ears at times.

“He was ob­vi­ously start­ing to earn money and he was go­ing out and spend­ing it in Poland, buy­ing any­thing and ev­ery­thing – Gucci here and new cars when he was back at his club.

“But that’s why the likes of John O’shea has looked after him over the years (at Sun­der­land) and Sea­mus Cole­man and the squad. All the lads love him, he’s a top pro.

“He’s up and down. You can see away from the pitch he lives his life well, he doesn’t drink or any­thing like that. He’s im­por­tant and he is af­fect­ing games for us.”

Mcclean has been Ire­land’s go-to man in times of trou­ble in this cam­paign, rel­ish­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the tal­is­man role Jon Wal­ters played on the way to Euro 2016.

He turned a tricky game in Moldova on its head a year ago by scor­ing twice in the se­cond-half to dig out an ul­ti­mately com­fort­able 3-1 win.

But his best was yet to come. Fum­ing with a lack of starts at West Brom this sea­son, he has chan­nelled that pent-up frus­tra­tion and used it to good ef­fect with Ire­land.

Mcclean smashed the win­ner away to Aus­tria and stepped up again with the all-im­por­tant goal in Cardiff that sank Wales last month and booked this play-off spot.

But those club frus­tra­tions have been ev­i­dent, not least last week­end when, ac­cord­ing to Martin O’neill, he “lamped” Hud­der­s­field’s Tom Ince with a crunch­ing tackle.

And, as one of the 10 Ir­ish play­ers walking a sus­pen­sion tightrope to­mor­row night, O’neill has or­dered Mcclean to cool his jets and use his head.

Ire­land leg­end Duff said: “He’s af­fect­ing games and that’s what big play­ers do. That’s all you can ask. He looks like a dif­fer­ent an­i­mal play­ing for Ire­land. It means so much to him.

“You can ar­gue if he loses that edge, is he the same player? He scores a great goal and then he’s giv­ing away stupid free-kicks in the last five or 10 min­utes against Wales.

“But that’s a side of the game if he lost it maybe he wouldn’t be the same.

“It’s a bit like Wayne Rooney, I don’t think he’s the same now, maybe be­cause of legs or maybe be­cause he has lost that edge.

“You don’t want James ever to lose it, just maybe to tone down his de­ci­sion mak­ing with those types of free kicks.”

But Duff added: “At the same time, when the team isn’t do­ing well he gets peo­ple off their ar­ses and he gives the team mo­men­tum.

“Not with clas­sic wing-play but by ab­so­lutely bull­doz­ing into a 50/50 tackle. I don’t think you want him to lose things like that.”

FIT & READY TO FIGHT Mid­fielder Jeff Hen­drick James Mc­clean re­places Damien Duff for his com­pet­i­tive de­but against Spain in 2012

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