Sheffield United: Mark Duffy will always make time for the fans, even before a Yorkshire derby against Leeds
This weekend, a couple of hours before Sheffield United and Leeds lock horns at Bramall Lane, Mark Duffy and a handful of his team mates will perform their regular matchday routine.
The walk from their bolthole at the Copthorne Hotel should take no more than 60 seconds. But the midfielder, together with Jack O'Connell, Kieron Freeman and centre-forward Leon Clarke, always set-off for the players' entrance a good 10 minutes early so they can pose for pictures with supporters and sign memorabilia for young fans.
It is something actively encouraged by manager Chris Wilder and his captain Billy Sharp. A simple gesture of solidarity which, Duffy explains, has helped him buy into both United as a club and also the city it calls home.
"It's a small thing for us but it can make someone else's day. We always stay there on a Friday night and I think the word has got round now. There's always lots of people waiting and so we always take the time to autograph their stuff or just have a chat because we want to get to know them as well.Â
"It helps with the gaffer and Billy being here because of the connections and the bond that they have got. But all of the lads have got behind it. We all try and take the time to engage and, from a personal point of view, I love it."
Despite watching Tuesday's victory over Brentford from the bench, Duffy has emerged as the creative heartbeat of a side which enters Saturday's match fifth in the table; two points behind their second-placed opponents and knowing a win could see them draw level with leaders Norwich City. United's tactics at Griffin Park produced the desired result but, with Leeds expected to try and meet his players head on, it would be a major surprise if Wilder elects not to recall Duffy for a fixture of such huge professional and regional significance.
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"This is just a fantastic place to play your football," Duffy says. "The relationship between the players and the fans is part of that. It's not like some other places, where the players are on one side and the fans are on the other. Here, it reminds me of back home in Liverpool which is another proud, working class city. I've got lots of friends here now, partly through time and partly because we're encouraged to mix like we do. It feels really good."
"Getting to know them means they tell you their feelings," he continues. "They express how much they want you to win or do well and that means a lot. We know we're a good team and we know, then we say 'yes', that we'll play well. We always give everything but knowing how the fans are feeling, how much they're behind you, drives you on even more."
Duffy, aged 33, is also using the threat posed by Paul Coutts, John Lundstram and Ben Woodburn as extra motivation following Wilder's admission that no one, not even United's most senior professionals, are "bullet proof." Lundstram was singled-out for praise following a combative display in West London, with the manager citing his ability to "get straight back up the speed" after "a long time out" as evidence of the 24-year-old dedication behind the scenes.
"I can last the minutes," Duffy says. "I'm always in the top five or six in terms of running but a while back, when I kept getting taken off, the lads gave me a bit of banter though. I resisted the temptation to chuck those stats back at them.
"Joking aside, the gaffer saw I was a little bit disappointed to get subbed once so he had a chat with me and said he didn't want me getting subbed. I wasn't disrespectful, it was just me showing my emotions because I want to be out there helping. But that was a great touch from him and that's another thing about here: the honesty of the place."