By Damian Spellman, PA
Shane Duffy reported for Republic of Ireland duty with a smile on his face after putting a difficult spell behind him.
The 30-year-old Brighton defender is back in favour at his club having emerged from ankle surgery and a bout of Covid-19, and met up with his international team-mates happy to be back playing and regaining the form which has made him a stalwart for his country in recent years.
Duffy has endured tough times in his career – he almost died after suffering a ruptured artery in a freak training ground accident as an 18-year-old and endured a difficult loan spell at Celtic last season, and he also lost his father Brian in May 2020 – but is now back in business.
Asked how he had dealt with those testing times and in particular his spell in Scotland, he said: “Good family, good friends, good people around you who pick you up when you’re down.
“I think if you speak to the majority of footballers, there are low points in your career, and that was mine. You’ve just got to have the mental strength to come out of it and bounce back and believe in your ability, and that’s what I’ve done.
“I’ve knuckled down and I’ve got a smile back on my face, I’m enjoying it again, so that’s it. There’s no secret there, I’m just back being happy.”
Duffy is one of the senior members of a new-look Ireland team which is gradually starting to take shape under manager Stephen Kenny, a development which will be put to the test by world number one side Belgium on Saturday evening.
He said: “The squad the manager has built over the last year, anyone can come in and produce and play – that’s the trust we have among the group.
“In the last few games, we’ve had a bit of continuity in the team and it’s worked. The trust is there – we had a camp last summer in Spain and from that moment on, it’s been similar squads and the same players.
“When you play together for longer, it gets better and that’s how it’s been over the year. Every time I come in, it’s the same faces and it’s exciting every time you come in.”
Midfielder Josh Cullen, who plays his club football in Belgium with Anderlecht, will hope to maintain his position as a key member of Kenny’s side for a game which will allow the Republic to showcase their recent progress, something which has not gone unnoticed outside Ireland.
Cullen said: “It will be a good test for us, but I’m confident and hopefully we can put in a good performance and get a good result against a good team.
“I think a lot of people have recognised the progression we’ve made over the last year or so, and it will be time to show Belgian people, hopefully, on Saturday night how good a team we can be.”
Kenny’s plans have been disrupted by departures from his goalkeeping department with number one Gavin Bazunu having been forced to withdraw through illness following Mark Travers’ return to Bournemouth through injury, with Bristol City’s Max O’Leary and Bohemians’ James Talbot called up to support Caoimhin Kelleher.
Duffy said: “Gavin has performed unbelievably for us and he’s going to be a miss but football is about taking chances, hopefully Caoimhin will come in and does what he does for Liverpool. We are a bit lucky in that position.”