MARK DUFFY must have wondered what he had done wrong after being pushed aside to make way for Sheffield United’s January signings.
The ever-present at the heart of everything positive about the Blades for the last 18 months suddenly found himself sitting on the bench as latest additions Lee Evans, Ryan Leonard and to a lesser extent Ricky Holmes hogged the midfield limelight. But Duffy wasted no time on his return against Leeds United at Bramall Lane to demonstrate what the Blades had been missing.
It’s to the credit of United’s squad that there will be no shortage of candidates when the time comes to deliberate on who receives Sheffield United’s Player of the Season award. But if the campaign were to end today Duffy, at just 5ft 9ins, stands tall.
The 32-year-old quickly established himself as a key player last season as the Blades stormed to the League One title. He stepped up to the plate again, taking the Championship in his stride to demonstrate what a quality player he really is.
Duffy’s boundless energy, willingness to take players on and final delivery is a priceless asset, especially in the modern game. This from a man who represents the ultimate in value for money given he arrived free of charge after being released by Birmingham City.
The industrious midfield man ensured his name will never be forgotten on either side of the Sheffield divide, cementing his place in folklore on a magnificent September’s day last Autumn, literally taking the spring out of the step of Sheffield Wednesday’s bouncing fans in a not to be forgotten moment.
Hillsborough was celebrating wildly after Lucas Joao completed Wednesday’s second-half fightback to level after having trailed by two goals. But from the restart Duffy single-handedly reduced three sides of the ground to silence with a deftly executed strike to set the Blades on their way to a famous 4-2 victory in the noisy neighbour’s own backyard.
Recently offered a contract extension and tying himself to Bramall Lane until 2020, Duffy has been a major contributor to Chris Wilder’s extraordinary journey as Blades boss.
He and Chris Hussey were the manager’s first first signings. Hussey, described by Wilder at the time as the “best left-back in the division” quickly fell by the wayside, making just five league starts and in the summer, unwanted by anyone else, was sent on loan to Swindon Town. Even Wilder gets it wrong sometimes.
Duffy, however, more than lived up to expectation and to date has made 71 appearance. A free transfer from Birmingham City, if his industry was repeated at workplaces across the country it would go a long way to solving Britain’s chronic productivity problem.
“I remember playing United when I was [on loan from Birmingham] at Burton Albion and they were a shadow of what the teams here were in the past,” he recalled.
“Hopefully we’ve helped give the club back to the fans, back to the city. All they want is to see someone giving 100 per cent and, if we do that, then our ability can shine through.”
Like skipper Billy Sharp, Duffy has endured an uncomfortable time on the bench watching new signings bed in. After back-to-back defeats both were recalled for the Yorkshire derby against Leeds and both played a major part in securing a league double over the men from Elland Road.
Duffy’s cross from the right wasn’t dealt with and presented Sharp with the opportunity to fire the Blades ahead after only 70 seconds. The trademark energy of the Scouser and Liverpool fan visibly lifted United. Sharp, of course, cooly converted the penalty which lifted United to within three points of the play-offs in a much-needed 2-1 win.
The arrival of Lee Evans from Wolves manfully fills the gap in central midfield created by a long-term injury to Paul Coutts who would surely be another strong contender for Player of the Season had he not suffered a broken leg back in November which ended his campaign.
On early evidence it is hard to see what Leonard or Holmes can bring to the table to trouble trouble Duffy, widely acknowledged as United’s talisman. But for loss of form, a rarity in his case, and FA Cup matters aside, it would also be difficult to understand should Duffy find himself back on the bench when the Championship resumes next Tuesday against QPR at the Lane.
“I’ve got to say, Duff and the skipper have been brilliant,” said Wilder. “Absolutely first class with their attitudes. They won’t have found it easy but they’ve knuckled down and got on with their jobs. They’ve made sure I’ve had tough decisions to make.”
After Saturday’s performances from Duffy and Sharp, Wilder’s decision making became that little bit easier.