Sheffield United Column: 'It would be such a shame if Mark Duffy's time at Blades ended acrimoniously' amidst contract dispute

He has been instrumental in Sheffield United's meteoric rise from League One to the Premier League, yet now appears to be on the periphery as the top-flight season comes ever closer.

Wednesday, 24th July 2019, 13:24 pm
Updated Wednesday, 24th July 2019, 15:04 pm
Mark Duffy (Photo by Aitor Alcalde/Getty Images)

How did it come to this, for both the Blades and Mark Duffy?

The first signing of the Chris Wilder era, Duffy has been a delight to watch for three years in a red and white shirt as he helped United storm League One, attack the Championship and then win promotion from it.

Few players, certainly in more recent times, have excited a crowd like Duffy; a man who appeared almost born to play in Wilder's innovative 3-4-1-2 formation, making the No.10 role his own and seeing off a series of challenges from the likes of Samir Carruthers and Ben Woodburn.

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Now, though - with August 10's season opener at Bournemouth just over a fortnight away - Duffy's future at Bramall Lane appears to be very much in the air, to say the least.

Duffy was a noticeable absentee from the United squad which faced Northampton at the weekend and Chesterfield last night. And after the 5-0 victory over the Spireites, boss Wilder opened up on Duffy's future, revealing that the forward had come to see him the week before and talked about a new contract.

"I reminded him that he signed one 18 months back and got a rise to Premier League money,” Wilder said.

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

Wilder's next sentence proved telling.

"He won't dictate to me when he signed a new contract and neither will his agent," the manager added.

"It's as simple as that. We told him that and he wanted to pursue different options. He wanted to do that, and I gave him the weekend off to do that."

Wilder stopped short of closing the door entirely on Duffy's career at United and players like Paul Coutts and Kieron Freeman have battled back into the manager's plans, after seemingly being on the way out of Bramall Lane.

But in his words and his demeanour, manager Wilder made no attempt to hide his frustration over the situation. When asked if he would welcome Duffy back into the group, Wilder paused slightly. "That's a decision I will make," he replied.

"He clearly felt his future was elsewhere."

Duffy, something of a late starter to professional football after a spell in non-league following his release from Liverpool as a youngster, turns 34 in October yet believes he has some years left to give.

His story, from playing for the likes of Prescot Cables and Vauxhall Motors to walking out back at Anfield as a Premier League player, was one of the most romantic of United's promotion from the Championship earlier this year.

Wilder himself referenced it in many interviews immediately after United secured second spot behind Norwich; Prescot Cables have probably never had so much publicity.

Now, Duffy's fairytale return to Anfield looks very much in doubt. Although the player is yet to publicly comment on the episode, some observers have suggested he may feel a little threatened after the summer arrival of several players who can play in his position.

Whether any can play it like Duffy does, remains to be seen. The Scouser, at his best, was a joy to watch as he drifted around the pitch and most things that United did well flowed through him.

Then there's the goal; a dramatic, brilliant and beautiful one against Wednesday at Hillsborough that will earn him a place in United folklore forevermore, no matter what happens this summer.

On a personal level, Duffy is a popular member of United's squad, with an innate determination to prove everybody who doubted him wrong and a desire for honesty that he spoke about when I last interviewed him, for my book, at the end of the promotion season.

"I’ll just say it how it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that for me," he said.

"Everyone knows where they stand then. I’ve had managers in the past who look me in the eye and tell me one thing, and then go around the corner and say something different. I’d rather just be told straight, like the gaffer does. Black and white.

"Ask me a question I’ll give you an honest answer and if I feel something needs saying to someone then I’ll say it to them, not in corridors or behind backs. Resolve the problem, and go from there.”

The finer details over this dispute, and the motivations behind it, will no doubt emerge before long as the uncertainty rumbles on. But no player is bigger than the club, or Wilder, and this manager's authority can never be questioned.

But since they came together three years ago, Duffy has been good for United, and United - and Wilder - have been good for him. It would be such a shame to see their marriage end in this way.