‘PACE? IT’S SPEED OF THOUGHT THAT’S KEY’

Dal­glish in­spires Duffy

The Football League Paper - - NEWS - By Chris Dunlavy

GROW­ING up dur­ing the 90s in the red half of Mersey­side, Mark Duffy had no short­age of po­ten­tial he­roes.

But whilst his mates pre­tended to be Rob­bie Fowler or Steve McMana­man in the post-school kick­about, the Sh­effield United man re­served his adu­la­tion for a more leg­endary Kop idol.

“No­body tops Kenny Dal­glish,” says the 33-year-old. “My dad’s a big Red and Kenny was his hero grow­ing up. I’ve heard all the sto­ries, watched all the clips and great matches.

“With Kenny, he wasn’t the fastest or the strong­est. But up­stairs he was quicker than any­body. He al­ways seemed to be a yard sharper than ev­ery­body else on the pitch but it was noth­ing to do with his body. It was his thought process. If you’ve got that, you’ll al­ways be one step ahead.”

Duffy is the first to ad­mit he can­not hold a can­dle to the King of the Kop, who scored 169 goals in 502 Liver­pool games, won 15 ma­jor hon­ours and, as man­ager, led them to fur­ther suc­cesses.

But to watch him play in the hole be­hind the strik­ers is to see a trace of the great man; the elu­sive move­ment, the bursts of in­ven­tion, the abil­ity to make team-mates look bet­ter. On his day, no­body in the Blades’ side is quite so in­flu­en­tial.

Play­maker

At 33, Duffy’s emer­gence as a Cham­pi­onship-class play­maker has come late. Re­leased by Liver­pool at 16, then Wrex­ham a year later, he spent the next six years in part-time foot­ball.

At Vaux­hall Mo­tors, then Prescot Cables. Later to South­port, un­der the guid­ance of his good friend Liam Wat­son.

“When Wrex­ham let me go, I didn’t think I’d ever make it back into the league,” he ad­mits. “So I was just play­ing for a laugh with my mates, get­ting £30 a week. I was buzzing at that - it was my money to go out at the week­end.”

It wasn’t un­til 2009 that More­cambe, then in League Two, of­fered a way back. Even then, Duffy was al­most lost to the pro game.

“I was work­ing as a mul­ti­sports coach at the time,” he ex­plains. “My un­cle had got me an ap­pren­tice­ship with the lo­cal coun­cil, the first time they’d ever of­fered one.

“I’d be go­ing into PE lessons, af­ter school clubs, break­fast clubs. It was tough for me to leave that be­hind be­cause I’d al­ready been re­jected twice.

“With my South­port wages and my coun­cil wages, I wasn’t even any bet­ter off go­ing pro. My un­cle said ‘I want you to go’. Play­ing foot­ball had been his dream, too.

“But we both knew it was a big risk. If it didn’t work out, I’d lost my place at the coun­cil and I couldn’t get it back.

“You look at peo­ple who did that ap­pren­tice­ship now and they’re work­ing as sports de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cers, run­ning projects at big coun­cils. They’ve had their ed­u­ca­tion paid all the way through and they’ve got re­ally good jobs.

“I see them now and imag­ine if it had all gone wrong. I’d be look­ing at them think­ing ‘That could have been me’.”

Luck­ily, there is no need for wist­ful re­gret. Duffy shone for More­cambe, then played in the Cham­pi­onship for Scun­thorpe, Don­caster and - briefly - Birm­ing­ham City. Later, he was named in the League One team of the Year as Bur­ton won a fairy­tale pro­mo­tion un­der Nigel Clough.

“When I went from South­port to More­cambe, I thought ‘Wow, this is go­ing to be some step up – I’ll have to be bang on it’,” he re­calls.

“But I ac­tu­ally found it eas­ier. I had more time on the ball. There weren’t peo­ple hack­ing at me non-stop. The stan­dard of ref­er­ee­ing was a bit bet­ter so I got more pro­tec­tion. I was a young lad, full of en­ergy, want­ing to prove how good I was. All of that made it re­ally seam­less.”

Oddly, though, Duffy had rarely fea­tured in his op­ti­mal po­si­tion, damned by stature and ex­pe­di­ence to a place on the wing.

“Get crosses in, get to the by­line, make sure the full-back doesn’t get the bet­ter of you that was my thought process for ten years,” he says.

Process

“I’ve ac­tu­ally had man­agers who would judge my per­for­mance solely on the num­ber of crosses I put in. But there was al­ways a lot more to my game than get­ting down the side and whip­ping balls in. Peo­ple just didn’t see it.”

One man who did was Chris Wilder, who made Duffy his first sign­ing upon tak­ing over at Bra­mall Lane in the sum­mer of 2016. Pro­mo­tion to League One was fol­lowed by a top half fin­ish and, now, a bona fide tilt at the Cham­pi­onship ti­tle.

“I’m prob­a­bly play­ing the best foot­ball of my ca­reer,” says Duffy. “Partly that’s age, un­der­stand­ing the game. But mov­ing in­side, you get a chance to use your brain - you’re think­ing a lot more about the po­si­tion and how you can af­fect games in dif­fer­ent ways.

“You can’t al­ways be bril­liant on the ball, but I’m al­ways think­ing ‘Can I stop my man be­ing ef­fec­tive?’, or ‘Can I cre­ate space for some­body else?’.

“Peo­ple def­i­nitely un­der­es­ti­mate the men­tal ca­pac­ity of foot­ballers. There could be five or six things go­ing through your mind on the pitch.

might have the man­ager shout­ing from the side­lines telling you to run in be­hind. The cen­tre-halves bat­ter­ing you for run­ning in be­hind be­cause they don’t want to be ex­posed. “Then there’s your own thoughts – where’s the space, where’s my man? You’ve got to pick the bones out of that – whilst play­ing – and con­tin­u­ally choose the best op­tion in a split sec­ond. “That speed of thought is prob­a­bly the most cru­cial as­pect of foot­ball in my opin­ion. Just look at Kenny.”

Blos­somed

It seems a shame that Duffy has blos­somed so late in his ca­reer. The man him­self, though, feels those years in the Non-League game will add to his years at the top. “You look at play­ers who’ve come through the sys­tem at 16, 17, train­ing day in, day out and there’s no get­ting away from it – those are hard miles on your legs. At 31 or 32, those play­ers look tired.

“To­wards the end of the sea­son, ev­ery­one’s legs get a lit­tle bit weary. Aches and pains. Sud“You denly you see ev­ery­one on the bed get­ting mas­sages. What I’ve no­ticed is that the lads who’ve been play­ing for 12, 13 years, that’s the whole sea­son, not just the end.

“Think about Wayne Rooney, a phe­nom­e­nal player who achieved so much in his ca­reer. He was play­ing men’s foot­ball from the age of 16.

“Peo­ple say you’ve had a good ca­reer if you get ten years in the game. Well, he’s played 50 or 60 games a sea­son for the last 16 years. How can that not have an af­fect? It’s no won­der he lost his old sharp­ness a few years ago.

“Me, I didn’t have that. My legs feel great. On the train­ing ground, my stats are right up there with any­one. I even feel stronger than I did years ago, be­cause I do more gym work now. I’ve got plenty of time left in me.”

HERO: Kenny Dal­glish is mobbed af­ter scor­ing for Liver­pool

PIC­TURE: PA Im­ages

FLY­ING HIGH: Sh­effield United’s Mark Duffy cel­e­brates scor­ing against As­ton Villa and, in­sets right, play­ing for Birm­ing­ham, Don­caster and More­cambe

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