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Football: Duff is toast of winter warm-up

FEBRUARY HAS never been an ideal month for the home countries to play full internationals, which is why Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all opted out of any engagement this week.

Bad weather, poor pitches and heavy club commitments tend to diminish the enthusiasm of players and supporters alike, leading to disappointing attendance by both.

On the other hand, managers are aware that international football's mid- winter break is already longer, at three or four months, than the traditional close season, and they can be desperate to bring their charges together again.

Inviting a second-rate Paraguay side to leave high summer at home for a frozen fixture in western Europe was hardly a recipe for excitement. Such is the continually astonishing spirit of football in the Republic of Ireland, however, that on a bitter Dublin night a crowd of almost 28,000 turned out to watch their heroes at Lansdowne Road. Only one player (Steve Staunton) had pulled out of the full strength squad selected, while Mark Kinsella and Kenny Cunningham, rival captains in Monday night's Premiership game between Charlton and Wimbledon, flew from London to join their team- mates on the training ground the following day.

A year ago, having been knocked out of the World Cup by Belgium in a play-off, not even the Irish bothered to arrange a February match. This time Mick McCarthy needed a warm-up (in everything bar the meteorological sense) for next month's important away game against Macedonia in a European Championship group in which four countries - those two plus Yugoslavia and Croatia - now share the lead with two wins apiece.

Against a Paraguay team just about strong enough to make for a meaningful contest, a 2-0 victory was probably the minimum requirement and that was duly achieved. If the goals, a penalty by Denis Irwin and a deflection off David Connolly's thigh, were scruffy, the Irish reaped enough benefits to make the whole exercise worthwhile.

Seventeen players had a run-out, without unduly affecting the team's essential cohesion and as long as there are no serious injuries, the squad for Macedonia will pick itself. A number of members, notably the whole midfield quartet of Jason McAteer, Roy Keane, Kinsella and Damien Duff, enhanced already burgeoning reputations with Blackburn's Duff emerging by general consent as man of the match.

Pundits like John Giles and Mark Lawrenson had identified the diffident young man as one who needed a convincing international performance and "Duffer" proved to be anything but.

"He was confident enough to run at players and beat them," McCarthy said. "I asked him and Jason how many good crosses they could get in.

"It certainly helps when you've got the same players together and I was pleased with their commitment to training and their attitude on the pitch. Perhaps that team [Paraguay] coming here two years ago might have given us problems."

Macedonia still might in a very different sort of game on 27 March, but the Irish will be all the better prepared.