Sheffield United: How real world experience helped new Blade Duffy make his Mark

Mark Duffy of Sheffield Utd
Mark Duffy of Sheffield Utd

Before the FA publishes its report into yet another disastrous summer, Mark Duffy would like a word first.

The midfielder, who served his apprenticeship in non-league rather than a hi-tec academy, has a theory about why young English footballers fail to produce on the big stage. One fatal flaw which, all things considered, is relatively easy to fix.

“The YTS lads or whatever they’re called now, I’d send them out and make them work for two weeks,” Duffy said.

“It would give them a little taste of the real world because too many think this is all going to last forever. You’ve got to realise how lucky we are, getting paid to play. Because, if you think about it, there are millions of kids out there who would love to take our place.”

Duffy’s message will strike a chord with those distressed by England’s performance at the recent European Championships. After becoming Sheffield United’s first close season signing, it clearly resonates with Chris Wilder too. Wilder, the League One club’s new manager, has made no secret of his desire to assemble a squad of talented but tenacious individuals after surmising, privately at least, a lack of mental fortitude contributed towards its poor showing last term.

Duffy demonstrated plenty when, having arrived on loan from Birmingham City, he helped Burton Albion win promotion from a division United have spent six seasons trying to escape. His taste of the real world came over a decade earlier. Following unsuccessful spells with Liverpool and Wrexham, the teenage Duffy was forced to start making other plans.

Mark Duffy of Sheffield Utd holds off Will Hughes of Derby County

Mark Duffy of Sheffield Utd holds off Will Hughes of Derby County

“I went out of the game for a year and didn’t really play at all,” he says. “I sort of lost my way a little bit.

“I was doing scaffolding for a while and then I got a job with Liverpool City Council as a multi-sports coach. To be honest, it was a good job and I really enjoyed it. I loved it to bits.”

“I was going into junior schools, working with disabled kids and doing all sorts of different things,” Duffy continues.

“I’d got back into football when one of my friends asked me to come down to Prescot Cables. I turned up on a Tuesday evening, for one of their training sessions, and began playing again. Then, after a while, Southport came in.”

Honest to God, you’ve never seen anything like it under Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink - the cool downs we did were like warm-ups. But he persuaded you it was the right way to do things and, as we all saw, it worked

Duffy initially baulked at the idea of turning professional - “I rejected it to begin with because my job with the council was really fulfilling and so I didn’t want to go full-time” - before then manager Peter Davenport got his way. But it was another former Manchester United player, Sammy McIlroy, who Duffy cites as the biggest influence of his career.

“Sammy took me to Morecambe who were in League Two so it was a big move for me. He was brilliant, unbelievable in training, and technically was still by far and away the best player at the club.

“He used to nutmeg us and dribble around us all. It was scary how good he was. Sammy was a funny man as well. If he scored a ‘worldie’ in training then he’d just call the whole thing off.

“‘You’ll not see a better goal than that,’ he’d shout. “‘That’s why I played for Northern Ireland in two World Cups.’ Sammy was a winger too, so he used to give me lots of really good tips. I’ve got a lot to thank him for.”

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

Likewise Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who was responsible for luring Duffy to Albion.

“Jimmy played me as a ‘number 10’ at times and I really enjoyed that. He worked us so hard and was so intense,” he added.

“Honest to God, you’ve never seen anything like it and the cool downs we did were like warm-ups. But he persuaded you it was the right way to do things and, as we all saw, it worked.”

Duffy, aged 30, agreed a two-year contract with United after being released by City in May. Named in the PFA’s League One Team of the Year following his exploits at the Pirelli Stadium, the Liverpudlian also boasts spells at Scunthorpe, Doncaster Rovers and Chesterfield on his sporting CV.

“I’ve nearly signed for United twice before,” Duffy reveals. “The first time was in a January window at Scunthorpe a couple of years back.

“It didn’t get sorted out and then the deal came up again at the end of the season but I went to Doncaster instead because they were in the Championship at the time. So it’s third time lucky if you like.

“I’ve spoken to quite a few of the scouse lads who have been here in the past and they’ve only got good things to say. It’s a shame to see some of them leaving because it would have been a real scouse dressing room but they all speak so highly about the club.”

Duffy scored eight goals in 47 appearances as Albion finished second in the table last season; 19 points and nine places above United, who promptly ended Nigel Adkins’ 11 month reign. Wilder, the sixth manager charged with restoring their Championship status, is a fierce competitor. Which, Duffy explains, should work in his new club’s favour.

“Attitude takes you a long way, you need that team spirit and togetherness. Burton were one of the favourites to go down but they believed in themselves and they believed in the managers.

That’s what won the promotion. The games come think and fast in this division and you’ve got to be mentally and physically prepared. If everyone is on the same wavelength then, in my experience, you won’t go far wrong.”