MARK DUFFY cut a frustrated figure on the bench at Hillsborough.
The man who lit up Sheffield United’s last visit to S6 in 2017, destroying the Owls with a moment of pure magic in front of joyful Blades fans amassed in the Leppings Lane end.
Acceleration and footwork which would have surely caused Sheffield Wednesday more problems on Monday night in what was a third successive goalless draw between the city rivals.
It wasn't to be. United boss Chris Wilder preferred young Everton loanee Kieron Dowell playing behind the strikers. When a change was needed midway through the second half, Dowell was replaced, not by Duffy, but Martin Cranie who operated down the right.
The counter argument being that the Duffy effect didn’t make any difference to the result of the goalless encounters at the Lane, both of which he started. But few Blades would surely disagree that United are a better team with him in it.
Wilder rarely gets his team selection wrong and after all he has done for the club is beyond reproach. With the benefit of hindsight, however, he isn’t beyond the odd mistake or two which the manager freely admits.
It does seem the January arrival of England Under-21 midfield player Dowell has muddied the waters a little. Maybe the fact he scored the winner at West Brom recently influenced the decision and why not?
Duffy, however, is tried, trusted and usually effective. A player who revels in taking on his man and delivering balls into the box. As he proved in the 4-2 win, where he delivered so spectacularly by himself. Turning what could have been a nervous last 25 minutes after the Owls had levelled from being 2-0 down, into a famous romp completed by Leon Clarke.
Wilder admitted after the goalless draw at Bramall Lane which followed almost four months later that he’d made an error leaving striker Billy Sharp on the bench and then ignoring him in favour of James Wilson, signed on loan from Manchester United only 24 hours earlier.
Wilson’s short stay at the Lane was something of a flop. Sharp, 30-goal hit man the previous season, finished 2017-18 as United’s second top scorer (14) behind Clarke (19) and is of course the current leading marksman (23 all competitions) in this campaign.
Had Wilson scored on his debut it would have been hailed as a managerial master stroke. Sometimes, however, as in many walks of life when under pressure, it is hard to see the woods from the trees. As Wilder later confirmed, ignoring Sharp was one such occasion. Similarly with Duffy this week, a match which was crying out for his attacking prowess in an encounter which left many thinking what was all the fuss about?
A stop-start match played with more vigour than the previous two, both at Bramall Lane, but nevertheless instantly forgettable. Referee Simon Hooper’s whistle couldn't come soon enough, especially if you are not a lover of these occasions like me.
It was everything United’s last visit to the dark side of the city wasn't. That clash contained more thrills and spills than what has followed put together. But nevertheless the Blades can still consider it job done.
They weren’t firing on anything like all cylinders and never found their rhythm in a scrappy encounter. But to leave with a point from a hostile and emotion-charged environment was the minimum required and they did just that. Win their home games, draw away and United will finish with 88 points, enough to stake a claim for Premier League football if not earn it outright.
As Wilder and Wednesday boss Steve Bruce both agreed, the match lacked quality. “It was always stop-start and outside of Sheffield I think people will be looking at it and saying that really wasn’t a good game,” said the Blades boss.
Bruce added: “In terms of quality there was a lot to be desired. But the players have given me everything they’ve got. We went toe to toe with a team at the top of the division.”
The occasion and passionate embrace by both sets of fans in the 31,630 crowd won the day. What happened on the pitch never lived up to it. A little concerning as United, if they are to win automatic promotion will have to deal with similar high pressure points between now and the end of the season.
Sam Hutchinson had the best chance to settle it. All he had to do was prod the ball either side of United keeper Dean Henderson instead of driving it straight at him to put a feather in the cap of the Owls.
It would, however, have been a harsh outcome. Neither Hendo nor Wednesday keeper Keiren Westwood were unduly troubled. If Sharp had connected with an outstretched leg in the first half from Oliver Norwood’s penetrating first half-delivery it may have changed nature of the contest completely.
Similarly had former Wednesday striker Gary Madine been cuter with his header in front of the Hillsborough Kop who used to chant his name, he could have written an unlikely piece of history into the folklore of Sheffield derbies.
Strange to think that the striker on loan from Cardiff City was particularly reviled by Blades fans until his January arrival. Madine, who made V-signs behind his back at Blades in the Hillsborough clash of 2012, was met by a chorus of boos by Owls supporters as he was substituted this week and applauded at the United end. Such is the fickle nature of football.
Madine's 68th-minute replacement, David McGoldrick who also previously played for Wednesday, was more effective but supply to the front runners remained sparse. A moment of real quality could have won the match for either side. The sort of quality Wilder was searching for in the January transfer window.
In the end he finished with what he’d already had when the window closed last summer with another recent loan recruit, Aston Villa striker Scott Hogan remaining on the bench alongside Duffy.
United without doubt have more options at their disposal, but it looks very much like the old guard will be most relied on to finish the job.
An old guard which must surely include Duffy.