MARK DUFFY has scored a spectacular own goal. One which will either bring his illustrious career at Sheffield United to an abrupt end or leave him on the fringe of what promises to be the most compelling season for many years at a sell-out Bramall Lane.
The midfield man’s request last week for a new contract and a pay rise received short shrift from Blades boss Chris Wilder, the tone of which spoke volumes, especially in the context that he was the first signing at the beginning of the manager’s reign three years ago and arguably the best.
But that counts for nothing after indicating to Wilder that he was prepared to move on. Asked if there was a way back for the 33-year-old following his ill-timed demand, Wilder said: “That's a decision I will make. He clearly felt his future was elsewhere.”
Duffy, whose Twitter handle reads ‘Never get to high, never get too low and stay focused on your goals’, was subsequently left out of United’s pre-season friendlies at Northampton and Chesterfield. “I reminded him that he signed one [a contract] 18 months back and got a rise to Premier League money,” said the manager. “Unless it's a special case, my work has to be improving the first team squad by bringing players in. Not looking after players already under contract.
“He's had a rise. He won't dictate to me when he signed a new contract and neither will his agent. It's as simple as that. We told him that and he wanted to pursue different options. He wanted to do that and I gave him the weekend off to do that.”
So what has prompted the Liverpudlian to suddenly put his chances of playing in the top flight on the line after having spent three joyous years at the Lane. A player hugely adored by United fans, almost all of whom, and including this website, regard him as absolutely key in the club’s extraordinary rise from League One to the Premier League?
Well maybe it is just that. Duffy is 34 in October and his contract expires at the end of the season. In recognition of his hugely significant contribution, did he seek further security to end his career on an improved deal, financial as well as length, which would enable him to plan at leisure for a life outside football?
If so, and he didn’t take it upon himself, he was badly advised by his agent, who also represents John Lundstram. Duffy should know Wilder better than most, having been close up and personal to the boss’s entire reign at the Lane.
Wilder might think the world of players such as him who originate from lowly backgrounds, value the position they’ve earned, perform consistently and give their all for the club. But once a clearly defined line is crossed, they’re toast. Most supporters know enough about the man in charge to realise that. Which is why it is hard to understand the player’s clumsy approach as the final countdown to Premier League football begins.
The same would apply to Sheffield-born club skipper Billy Sharp, like Wilder a lifelong Blades fan, if he was foolish enough to go down that particular road or to recent acquisition Phil Jagielka if he were to start playing Billy Big Time.
Duffy may have also been prompted by observing the summer’s record-breaking arrivals of Luke Freeman and forward Callum Robinson, both of whom could play in Duffy’s attacking role behind the strikers. Ben Osborn’s £5million arrival from Nottingham Forest and wild card Ravel Morrison will make competition in midfield all the more fierce. Suddenly, what appeared to be a settled line-up last season is beginning to look anything but. Even John Fleck and Ollie Norwood, United’s trusted central midfield partnership, must be feeling a little less comfortable.
Could it be that he anticipates being relegated to the bench – effectively a fringe player – having previously been one of the first names to be regularly pencilled into the team sheet? The reasoning being if that is the case, accept it and seek extended security.
If so, that would be an alien approach from a player who has consistently seen off all comers during his three seasons at the Lane. There is no evidence to suggest that he won’t do it again. Especially in a league where he would enjoy more time and space. Cream always rises to the top.
Wilder’s habit of substituting him in the latter third of matches may also have played to his fears of being sidelined as expensive new names arrive, presumably on better wages. Being subbed clearly irked Duffy who famously took to Twitter in retaliation to spurious tweets claiming he couldn’t put in a 90-minute shift. At the time his reaction was taken at face value but in hindsight maybe it was also a coded message to his boss.
Evidence to back this theory up was supplied by Duffy himself last week. For a brief period he posted statistics illustrating fitness levels of United’s squad last season, in which he featured prominently, before deleting them from his Instagram account. That was surely a case of making his point to the manager.
It seems, however, in the absence of any other explanation, that Duffy, naively, just didn’t bargain for Wilder’s hostile reaction. After a short conversation at the club’s Shirecliffe training complex, the player went from hero to zero in the manager’s estimation.
The lifelong Liverpool fan has now jeopardised hopes at playing in front of the Kop at his beloved Anfield. Unless he is prepared to swallow extra large portions of humble pie, and even that might not be enough although his contribution thus far offers mitigating circumstances, he is set to walk alone.
This from a man on the brink of reaching the pinnacle of his career after having come up the hard way. A late starter who emerged from non league football having served his time at Prescot Cables and Vauxhall Motors and worked his way up via, amongst others, Southport and Morecambe. The very stuff of which Wilder identifies, so admires and often lauds to anyone willing to listen.
Duffy, signed on a free transfer in 2016 after being released by Birmingham City following loan spells at Chesterfield and Burton Albion, represents the very meaning of value for money. Only striker David McGoldrick could rival him in that department but Duffy still has the edge having proven himself over a much longer period of time.
“I'm absolutely over the moon,” he said after extending his contract for another two-and-a-half years in January 2018. The club is on the way up and it's somewhere you want to be. I had 18 months left on my deal and I was delighted when the club came and said they wanted to extend it.”
I am old enough to have been in the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough for the Boxing Day Massacre of 1979 when United perished 4-0. That event, for very different reasons, is still talked about by supporters from both sides of the city no matter what their age.
Similarly, Duffy will always be remembered for his goal at Hillsborough in September 2017 which set United up for a 4-2 win and brought Wednesday’s celebrating fans to a silent standstill after cancelling out their equaliser within 10 seconds of the re-start. Somewhat surprisingly, Duffy had to sit out the fixture in S6 last season, Everton loanee Kieran Dowell preferred in a disappointing goalless draw.
But it is an ability to take on players and beat his man, a declining attribute in the modern game, that really defines a player whose workrate is second to none.
Looking ahead to the Premier League challenge whilst on United’s training camp in Portugal recently, Duffy said: “It’s the biggest league in the world, the best league in the world. If we can stay in that league I think it’s as big an achievement as getting promoted from the Championship. You hear about how much money is spent and players’ wages, so for us to compete on a level playing field it’s an unbelievable achievement. Every game is going to be special.”
Incredible, then, that a man who was the embodiment of the term ‘journeyman’ until proving himself at Bramall Lane as anything but, appears prepared to throw it all away in what should be his finest hour.