It was scored in Berkshire but the beautiful goal which helped breathe new life into Sheffield United’s promotion challenge was devised on a dressing room bench at Bramall Lane.
With, Mark Duffy admits as he talks through his strike against Reading, a little help from a football legend.
“Tony Currie is always on at me to do that. He’s constantly telling me to shoot a lot more. So hopefully he’s happy with that one. I’m sure it made him proud.”
Currie, together with Chris Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill, have been a constant source of support for Duffy since his move to South Yorkshire. The midfielder, whose long-range effort was the highlight of Tuesday’s victory at the Madejski Stadium, is a self-confessed student of the game and regularly gatecrashes the tactical seminars organised by United’s manager and his assistant at the Steelphalt Academy. Currie, who celebrated the 50th anniversary of his debut for the club earlier this week, contributes to Duffy’s development in a more informal but no less effective way. A long-time champion of the 32-year-old’s talents, he regularly interrupts his pre-match ground tours to give an impromptu pep talk. And sometimes comes bearing gifts.
“Not so long back he brought me a few DVD’s of his games,” Duffy says of the former England international and officially United’s greatest ever player. “He always comes in before matches because he’s showing people around and usually ends up sat next to me talking things through. What a talent he was and knowing TC has got that faith in me is a real confidence boost. But he doesn’t just tell me what I want to hear. That’s why he brought the videos in, to show me when to have a ‘pop’ and when it’s better to pass the ball. Taking them home and watching him in action, listening to him, has taught me a lot because, even though I love putting people through, being critical I should score more.”
United climbed to sixth in the table after Duffy’s long-range finish, bookended by Billy Sharp’s brace, saw them dispatch last season’s beaten play-off finalists. The result, not to mention to manner in which it was achieved, represented the perfect response to their Hull City horror show four days earlier. With only 13 fixtures remaining and a clutch of established Championship teams breathing ominously down their necks, United’s margins for error are still uncomfortably slim. But Duffy, who helped Burton Albion climb out of League One before repeating the feat with Wilder’s side last term, believes they are equipped to reach the top-flight. Especially after an influx of new faces during the recent transfer window.
“Three in a row, that’s got a nice ring to it. But there’s lots of games, lots of cup finals left. We’ll be giving our all and the mix of players coming in, it gives us that little bit more depth to rotate. It means the eleven doesn’t have to go Saturday to Tuesday all the way through. We’re in a good place.”
Duffy attributes United’s achievements under Wilder can be attributed to a mixture of man-management, attitude and determination to prove their lack of financial resources is no barrier to success.
“The attitude of the team is that we embrace the challenge, we want to take people on,” Duffy, who started his career with Vauxhall Motors and Prescot Cables, says. “A lot of us have had to fight and scrap in the lower divisions. Maybe we haven’t always individually shown the quality but now, collectively, we are doing that. It’s a little bot of everything, the man management from the staff counts for a lot. It’s hard in the lower leagues and it’s hard to work your way back up but quite a few of us have done. It just goes to show the quality has always been there. It’s how that’s brought out. Here, rather than being on the wing, I’m given more freedom to get on the ball and that’s something I enjoy. It means I can get a lot more involved.”
Wilder is much more tactically astute than his old school image suggests. Cut from similar cloth, Duffy recognises those cerebral qualities could come in useful if, as expected, many of their forthcoming opponents look to sit deep and hit them on the break. Fulham, United’s opponents on Tuesday, are likely to pose an altogether different type of test.
“I love trying to break teams down,” he says. “You’re playing against ex Premier League players and you hear the wages that are getting banded about. You’ve got to pit your wits against them. The gaffer gets us going before a game, saying: ‘You’re better than him, can you be better than him on the day even though he’s played for this club and that club.’ The challenge for us is to show people how good we really are and, for the majority of the season, that’s what we’ve done. Every time we go out there, though, it brings a different type of test and that - trying to solve them - is something I enjoy doing. I like thinking about the game.”
“I always think about the game,” he adds. “I watch a lot of football and I like having chats with Knilly and the gaffer about the game. I’m a big thinker because I want to be involved in football after my career finishes so, to speak to people like them who have been in the game a long time, that’s brilliant for me. I love listening to their thoughts on things; how they go about putting different ideas into effect.”
Duffy had been scheduled to face Albion tomorrow until adverse weather conditions forced their visit to be postponed. Although the pitch would have been playable, concerns about the provision of adequate stewarding and other safety factors prompted the decision.
Despite the changes to their schedule, Duffy says United’s approach will not change.
“We showed what we were all about, what we’re really about, the other night. We’re in the mix and we deserve to be there. The way we’ve tackled things so far is working and we’ll carry on in exactly the same vein because that’s the way the gaffer and his staff want it. That’s what they demand.”
Fulham, the division’s in-form team, are a place above United in fifth and unbeaten in the competition since December 16. They consolidated their grip on a play-off position after beating leaders Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend, with Aleksandar Mitrovic, on loan from Newcastle, and Ryan Sessegnon, reportedly a £35m target for Tottenham Hotspur, on target during the 2-0 win.
“This the business end of the season now. Every game is important. Fulham is going to be a big one but we need to be giving everything in them all,” Duffy says. “We were devastated coming off the pitch at Hull because that wasn’t us. I don’t know what went wrong. It wasn’t a proper Sheffield United performance but our last one was. There’s still everything to fight for. It was important, vitally important, that we responded in the right manner and showed what we are really all about. I think we did that.”