‘PACE? IT’S SPEED OF THOUGHT THAT’S KEY’
Dalglish inspires Duffy
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.
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.
“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.”
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
FLYING HIGH: Sheffield United’s Mark Duffy celebrates scoring against Aston Villa and, insets right, playing for Birmingham, Doncaster and Morecambe