James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Has Blades star Mark made a duff move?

Football, as Sheffield United have just been reminded, can be a ruthless, cut-throat business rife with conflicting interests.

Thursday, 25th July 2019, 1:19 pm
Updated Friday, 26th July 2019, 6:20 pm
Mark Duffy in action for Sheffield United: James Wilson/Sportimage

Even at Bramall Lane, where Chris Wilder has cultivated a remarkable team ethos during his first three years in charge, it is not always possible to ensure the players' individual requirements mirror those of the group as a whole.

Earlier this week, when it emerged Mark Duffy had been granted permission to miss Sheffield United's friendlies against Northampton Town and Chesterfield because of a contractual disagreement, the initial reaction was one of shock. Duffy, the poster boy of a recruitment strategy which proves past achievements are not always the best guide to future prospects, has been a driving force behind United's climb from League One to the Premier League in only three seasons. But by asking for fresh terms, only 18 months after signing an improved and extended contract, the midfielder's hopes of gracing the most prestigious stage in the domestic game now appear to be in jeopardy. It would be a crying shame, given his role in United's recent renaissance, if Duffy leaves South Yorkshire under a cloud. Better, if there is to be a parting of the ways, something more reminiscent of Paul Coutts' stage-managed and much more cordial exit nearly two months ago.

In a sense, United's rapid rise through the divisions made such a problem inevitable. Wilder has had his say, insisting ahead of tomorrow's friendly against Barnsley that he will not be "dictated to." Duffy and his representatives, so far at least, have kept their own counsel. But on the evidence provided, one could easily surmise that neither party is in the wrong. It is possible to sympathise with the position both have adopted. Even though they are clearly, given Wilder's comments on the subject following Tuesday visit to Derbyshire, incompatible.

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Why was something like this bound to happen? Particularly with someone in the autumn of their career? Because of the sheer scale of change, and the speed at which it has been forced to happen, during Wilder's reign.

Aged 33, Duffy has spent long periods of his time in football earning what, by industry standards at least, was probably a pretty unspectacular wage. After enrolling on the youth programmes at Liverpool and Wrexham, it was not until the former Prescot Cables, Southport and Morecambe midfielder joined Birmingham City in 2014, following spells with Scunthorpe and Doncaster Rovers, that his salary rose to something you and I envisage a professional sportsperson might command. United will also have paid him well, particularly when they regained membership of the Premier League. But since then, Duffy has seen Ravel Morrison arrive at Bramall Lane while Nottingham Forest's Ben Osborn's quickly followed. They possess different skill sets to him but still represent competition. David McGoldrick could also feasibly fill Duffy's position if United choose to completely overhaul their attack.

Fearing he might spend long periods on the bench, requesting their client receives a new deal might have represented an attempt on the part of Duffy's representatives to gauge where Wilder has placed him in the selection pecking order. They will also, because it is the purpose of their job, attempt to ensure he paid the absolute maximum his employers can afford. If Duffy was destined to perform a more peripheral role next term, an increase might soften the blow. That, like it or not, is how the business works.

But it is also easy to see why United, and Wilder in particular, have taken umbrage. Both will feel they rewarded Duffy a year-and-a-half ago while the latter, quite understandably, clearly views developments as a challenge to his authority.

"Unless it's a special case, my work has to be improving the first team squad by bringing players in," Wilder said. "Not looking after players already under contract. He's had a rise.

"He won't dictate to me when he signed a new contract and neither will his agent. It's as simple as that."

It is impossible to disagree with either the sentiment or the thrust of that argument. But it is also easy to understand why, after fighting off a number of different challengers to his position before, Duffy suddenly feels vulnerable. This is one of those awkward scenarios where, the moment you take one side, you experience more than a pang of sympathy for the person on the other. What is non-negotiable though, is that Wilder must maintain the final say in the dressing room while United keep spending - particularly in the top-flight where the temptation is to do otherwise - under strict control.

Hopefully, however the story develops, the final chapter has a happy ending for every character involved.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
Joe Sbarra of Burton Albion tackles Mark Duffy of Sheffield United during this month's friendly: James Wilson/Sportimage