SHOCK and surprise were words that Michael Duff used to describe his recall into the Northern Ireland squad.

‘Deserved’ was how Burnley boss Eddie Howe put it. And few Clarets fans would argue.

They perhaps didn’t expect to see much of the experienced defender this season, given the focus on youth and the movement of his peers to other clubs.

But Duff has proved to be the fulcrum for the Clarets’ latest top six push, inspiring wins over the likes of West Ham and Middlesbrough.

Recognition of that has been expressed by his new international coach, Michael O’Neill, with his first call-up in three-and-a-half years.

The 34-year-old has led by example at the back, and brought some much needed organisation throughout a side that struggled for consistency up until his return from a knee problem that kept him out for 10 weeks at the start of the season.

Burnley had only one clean sheet in 30 games before his return to action, at home to Leeds, on November 19. His comeback did not coincide with success, but a late revival at Hull City kicked off a run of six wins from seven games, including four clean sheets.

The Clarets have gone on to earn further shut-outs against Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest away, and Derby and Barnsley at home.

It is no coincidence that Duff has been involved in all of them.

Had it not been for several early season injuries, Duff might have had an even more profound impact on the club he has served for eight seasons so far.

Sticky starts are, unfortunately nothing new for the Belfast-born defender, who missed the first month of Burnley’s Premier League season after going over on his ankle during the pre-season tour of America.

Last season a calf problem led to a false start.

He has gone on to miss almost three months this term.

Nothing has been as bad as the multiple knee ligament damage he suffered in September 2007 – an injury requiring two lots of surgery.

Despite a succession of setbacks, Duff has bounced back every time, and must go down as one of, if not THE best signing of the last 10 years.

Free transfer Brian Jensen might have something to say about that in his ninth season at Turf Moor.

But £30,000 – the fee paid to Cheltenham for Duff’s signature in 2004 – still represents terrific value for money for a player with more than 250 appearances for the Clarets under his belt. And counting.

Duff’s current contract expires at the end of this season.

But I wouldn’t be surprised to see him stick around for a while longer yet.