Kevin Gage's Blades Column: Why Sheffield United's greatest ever player is such a fan of current star Mark Duffy
When I write an article about '˜The keys to No.10', hopefully no-one reading it will assume that I've started to get all political and am writing an article about how to get elected as Prime Minister, or offering advice on how Theresa May can stay in residence behind one of the most famous front door in existence.
Please bear with me because, as football fans know, No.10 means something entirely different - although to us, it’s equally as important!
Let me take you back to mid August 2016, a few games into last season. Results wise, Chris Wilder’s new regime had not got off to a good start. We were near the bottom of the league and struggling, to be honest. We were playing in a structured 4-4-2/4-2-4 formation and Mark Duffy, our new signing and a creative wide player, was a frustrated man.
In the course of the week, he had a chance conversation with a certain Tony Currie, surely one of the most creative and talented players this country has ever produced and who made the iconic number 10 shirt his own in his time at the Lane. TC had recognized the undoubted talent that Duffy had and in the course that conversation it transpired that Duffs was far happier playing inside, rather than being stuck out wide.
Of course, the trouble was that, with the best will in the world, Mark Duffy is NOT a central midfield player in the rough and tumble of the Football League but, equally, he is also not your typical flying winger.
He actually fits somewhere between the two, and as such if there was a perfect role for him, it’s as what us football folk call ‘the No.10’.
Fast forward a couple of weeks and, lo and behold, Chris tore up the previous playing system, implemented our now familiar 3-5-2 with wing-backs, over-lapping centre-halves, and a creative happy Mark Duffy playing ‘in the hole’ as a No.10.
And the rest, as they say, is history!
Now I don’t have any insider knowledge of whether Chris and Duffs had any personal conversations which led to the change of playing style, but I’d assume it was one of the many factors that were taken into account when the change was made.
However, as decisions go, it was possibly the best one Chris has made as our manager. To give Mark Duffy the freedom to operate as a true No.10 was a tactical masterstroke and Duffy has quite simply been a revelation for well over a season now, floating around in the spaces behind the front two strikers, drifting out wide, and with the licence to venture into any areas of the opposition half looking for the ball.
You can see him actually demanding the ball, constantly offering his teammates a passing option and having the confidence in his ability to receive it, even in the tightest of areas. Given the way we play, his role is absolutely crucial, and his value to the team is sometimes a bit overlooked in my opinion, certainly by some of us fans.
Indeed, not every single pass he tries in his attempts to thread a ball into someone comes off and occasionally I hear fans get a bit impatient if the move breaks down, but a minute later he’ll be in a similar position and he’ll be looking again to slide the ball around and through the defence, teasing and tempting defenders to dive into the tackle.
He’s also important in retaining possession of the ball, and slowing our play down, which is a good thing at times, as it allows team mates to catch up play, get into position and then make their runs off the ball. Not every attack has to be performed at 100mph... after all, when trying to unlock a door, it’s best not to rush!
As we dominated League One sides last season, he was usually the one player we looked for to unlock the defence as teams came with the sole intention of clinging on for a point. Even this season, a succession of teams seem to have come to defend deep and ‘park the bus’ - with Sunderland a prime example.
Duffy took on the mantle of trying to pick the lock of the bus, and as well as John Lundstrum played, Duffs was my Man of the Match. Of course we also have players in Leon Clarke, Clayton ‘The Don’, Jack O’Connell and others who can smash through the bus windows and physically move it if need be, but Duffy, as our brilliant, clever No.10, always tries to find the keys to simply unlock it!
Personally, I can also appreciate just how good Mark Duffy is as, believe it or not Blades fans, I also started my career as an attacking midfielder. I gained five England Youth Caps, was in the U20s Youth World Cup squad, and played there for the first few years as a pro at Wimbledon under Dave Bassett.
For a few months in the early 1980s we tried a new sweeper system, and I was handed the No.10 role! It’s a very difficult job believe me, and in the tight confines of the old Plough Lane ground, on muddy heavy pitches, and in the helter-skelter of the lower divisions, it’s nigh on impossible!
Suffice to say, we later changed to the long-ball 4-2-4 Bassett system that worked so successfully for both Wimbledon and the Blades, and the No.10 role was consigned to history.
There’s an event at Bramall Lane soon in honour of Tony Currie, voted ‘the greatest ever player’ to pull on a Blades shirt, and wearer of the fabled No.10 shirt at many of his clubs.
I’m not going to be so rash as to make outrageous claims as to Duffy being as good as TC (not many were to be fair!), but in style of play, flair, talent and creativity, comparisons can be drawn. Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Duffy is that Tony loves him and raves about him most weeks when we discuss matters on stage in the TC10 Suite on a matchday!
High praise indeed - even with a time span of over 40 years, from one No.10 to another.