MARK DUFFY and Leon Clarke are the latest names to epitomise what Sheffield United are all about.
Skipper Billy Sharp hogged the headlines last season with his 30-goal haul which spearheaded the Blades to promotion. Paul Coutts and John Fleck in midfield, alongside wing-back Kieron Freeman, often stole the limelight.
Ten wins from 14 matches into the Championship and United are blazing the trail again, topping the table at the third time of asking after a milestone 2-1 win at promotion rivals Leeds.
Match-winner David Brooks is the player everyone has been talking about this season. Not least for speculation about how long the supremely talented 20-year-old will remain at Bramall Lane before the big money clubs come calling.
But as Brooks still tries to convince manager Chris Wilder that he deserves to be a regular starter, Duffy and Clarke have risen to the fore. Two 32-year-old journeymen footballers who have discovered the form of their lives, coaxed by the manager and his assistant Alan Knill.
Duffy was always a reliable performer in last season’s title charge, but not outstanding. Striker Clarke at his 17th club, injury-prone and often appearing to be disinterested, was written off by many fans.
Also carrying the cross of having played for the other team in Sheffield, he left it late to demonstrate the potential that Wilder was hoping for when he signed him from Bury. Six goals in five matches took his tally to nine for the season as United clinched promotion.
He has added another four in the Championship, but it is his energy, workrate, and hold-up play, chasing down every ball that has been transformational. The groans have subsided as Blades fans have taken him to their hearts. The manager’s insistence that Clarke would eventually be influential finally vindicated.
So much so that even Wilder sounds a little surprised and has admitted that the striker has taken over Sharp’s role up front as the focal point. “I’ve got to say he’s in the form of his life,” said Wilder. “If he’s played any better then he must have been doing something really outstanding at other clubs. I thought he was outstanding [against Leeds] and his performance deserved a goal.
“Whether it’s Billy at the top of the pitch, whether it’s Clayton [Donaldson] or whether it’s Brooksy or Duffy who come on, he takes the responsibility of being the main man up top there. That’s not being disrespectful to the skipper but he gives us a focus point and a lead for us to go and play off. It allows Billy to get round him and if we change shape a little bit, allows Brooksy to get round him.”
Duffy, meanwhile, has become a driving force in midfield, in recent weeks surpassing even Paul Coutts and John Fleck. His strike at Hillsborough in the 4-2 derby win over Sheffield Wednesday has become legend and his man-of-the-match performance at Leeds is now typical of the Liverpudlian ’s contribution.
He remains modest, stressing, like his manager, how the importance of togetherness can go a long way to overcoming barriers.
“It’s been an unbelievable journey,” said Duffy, one of Wilder’s first signings in a 2016 summer move from Birmingham City. “Those first four games [last season], it wasn’t great. It just took a little time. We’ve just gone from strength to strength and the character the lads showed tonight [against Leeds] was superb.
“We’re a team, it’s not just the lads who are playing, it’s the lads on the bench, the lads who are coming back from injuries. It’s a squad game. We’re going to need every single player. I started the season on the bench, then Brooksy came in. Now I’m in. It’ll rotate round and when you’re called upon you need to do yourself justice and not let the lads down.”
Again, like his boss, Duffy believes that despite winning at Elland Road to go top of the Championship, United’s performance fell below what was expected.
“If you’ve watched Sheffield United over the last year we’ve played some really good stuff and it’s an honour to be up there,”he said. “We’re happy with the win but we want to do better. We could have passed it a bit more and we could have maybe took the game away from them in the first half.
“We let them back into the game with a lot of stray passes which is not like us. But if we win when we’re not playing our best we’ll take that all day.”
Now that United are in pole position so early in the season the midfield man recognises some sceptics remain but he has an answer for them. “You here some people saying it’s only 12 or so games and we’ll see where you are at the end of the season. You don’t get more points for a win after Christmas so why not just try and win more.
“It’s always the next game that’s important. We let the fans do the talking and they all have their opinions on how far we can go. The lads are confident. We want to win every game, we don’t set up to defend and counter-attack no matter at home or away. We get after teams.
“Sometimes if it doesn’t work, we all shake their hands and say fair play to you. You have got the points tonight, next game we’ll go for it and do exactly the same thing again.”
Explaining why he thinks United have taken everybody by surprise on their return to the Championship after a six-year absence, Duffy said: “To be honest I think we’ve got some fantastic players, maybe players who have underachieved a little bit for their careers. Now you’re seeing the likes of Couttsy who has possibly played right-wing for most of his career, but now he’s an unvelievable central midfielder.
“How he hasn’t played there for all his career is unbelievable. You’ve got the likes of John Fleck, Basham, Jack O’Connell. Clarkey, The amount of work he got through tonight. He was injured one minute and the next minute he was closing the keeper down and I thought ‘where has that come from’. Billy Sharp he scores goals, it’s endless really. The team’s full of quality and long may it continue.”
The player is in no doubt about where the heart of their success lies. “It says a lot about the staff, the gaffer, Knilly [No2 Alan Knill] and the backroom. Its comes from the top, they drive it and make sure that from Monday to Friday everyone’s at it.
“When we’re not on it they let us know. We had an off-day in training the other day and he [Wilder] pulled us up and said he wouldn’t accept it. If you are going to have an off-day in training he’ll just change the team around. That’s how he is.
“Not only have you got to be on it on a Saturday or a Tuesday night, you’ve got to be on it in training. There’s tackles flying in everywhere in training. It’a as feisty in training as it is out here [on the pitch].
“I’m loving every minute of it. I don’t think there is anybody in there [the dressing room] who’s not enjoying it. It’s been a fantastic ride over the last year and a half. We just want it to continue and at the end of the day we’ll see where it takes us.”