MARK DUFFY began the week with a staunch public rebuttal of bizarre claims his level of fitness is not what it should be.
He ended it coming off the bench at Carrow Road to plant a perfectly weighted ball onto the head of Billy Sharp who secured a well-earned point for Sheffield United. It was his second goal of the match and 19th of the campaign in a 2-2 draw with Norwich City.
Duffy is a class act and has been ever since Blades boss Chris Wilder signed him from Birmingham City in 2016. Accusations broadcast mainly via social media that the 33-year-old midfielder is often substituted because he tires too quickly are absurd. Certainly news to me and the vast majority of Blades fans.
It hardly merited a response and yet the player’s rapid reaction suggests it touched a raw nerve. Amplified by revealing that he has approached Wilder to seek an answer as to why he is often replaced during the latter quarter of matches.
Now Duffy has competition for his starting place in the shape of Kieran Dowell, the 21-year-old loanee from Everton.
In East Anglia Duffy was dropped to the bench as England Under-21 international Dowell took the stage. He looked promising in terms of effort but a direct attacking style was easily subdued by Norwich’s well organised defence.
Against poorer teams it may well have produced results. It’s early days for Dowell, but on the evidence so far he lacks the invention of former Blade David Brooks. And remember Brooks, despite the silky skills which have made him almost an ever-present since moving to Premier League Bournemouth, couldn't dislodge Duffy last season as Wilder’s first choice.
Tinker with the team as much as you like but I would suggest most supporters are in agreement that United are almost always a better side when Duffy is in it. On the odd occasion when they're not, it us usually means he’s having an off-day.
For all Dowell’s endeavour at Norwich it was the intervention of his replacement on the hour that made all the difference. Having said that, for the Blades, who fought back twice, to have left Norfolk without a point would have been a travesty.
Wilder drew great satisfaction from the fact they didn't against a quality team which demonstrated why they sit in the second automatic promotion spot. A day which began with United’s kit man kit men temporarily wallpapering the infamous bright pink away dressing room at Carrow Road, a colourful ploy introduced by the home side at the beginning of the season, the theory being that the garish colour subdues testosterone levels.
"It was a hard earned point and we're delighted to get something from the game because we're playing an exceptional side and they've not fluked their way to the position (in the table),” said Wilder.
“There was great character from the players, there are a few of them who are disappointed they've not won it."
He added: ”We've had tight games where we've lost and (also) didn't want to be on the receiving end of one where we've lost. And we weren't."
“The goal just before half-time [a penalty converted by Sharp] gave us a jolt and a shot of belief and sometimes that’s been a little bit of a criticism of my team. Maybe because of the jump we made from League One to the Championship, and top end Championship at that, they lack that touch. Hopefully it’ll kick us on now.”
United, as the previous defeat at Swansea illustrated perfectly, have so often this season not gained the reward their performances deserved. Had that been the case the Blades would now be leading the pack, not West Yorkshire neighbours Leeds.
A goal poacher half as good as Ched Evans at his height, would make all the difference. Hopefully that will be addressed before the transfer window closes on Thursday night.
It’s not the end of the world, however, if it doesn’t happen and it is to Wilder and his staff’s huge credit that is so. United demonstrated at Norwich that unlike last season they are more than capable of maintaining their top six challenge.
Without that key reinforcement it is fair to say that automatic promotion is an aspiration not an expectation. Team ethic and a well developed game plan, however, has ensured that most Blades fans who have long since learned not to count their chickens, as well as those looking from further afield, will be surprised if United don’t make the play-offs.
Not in doubt, barring injury and whatever route is taken, Duffy will remain a crucial influence on the Blades promotion hopes..