Danny Lafferty has spent the summer visiting family, researching Billy Gillespie and investigating the links between Sheffield United and Derry City, his hometown club.
“There’s connections with him, the jersey and the colours but it was news to me until I came here,” he confesses. “I probably should have known all about it to begin with - playing for both clubs and being a Candystripes fan and all - but it’s given me something different to get my teeth into.”
Delving into Gillespie’s lifestory has been a labour of love for Lafferty. Not least because two of its most important chapters revolve around clubs which have been pivotal in his own career.
Born in the Irish village of Kerrykeel, located an hour’s drive away from Lafferty’s old stomping ground on the banks of the River Foyle, Gillespie played more than 500 games for United after arriving, following spells with Institute and Leeds City, in 1911.
Over two decades later, he returned to Ireland having been appointed manager of Derry City where, such was his standing, the club agreed to adopt red and white stripes. Lafferty, who spent 18 months at Brandywell before joining United from Burnley six months ago, is fascinated by the idea of retracing Gillespie’s steps.
“I’m going to have to really look into him properly because I’m not too up to scratch on it. I need to improve my knowledge,” he said.
“A few people in Derry have told me about it, the board members at the club and people like that. I always try to go and watch them when I go back. I try to fit in the trips so I can also take in a game. I’m still a Derry City fan, it’s my hometown club and I was proud to play for them. Just like I’m proud to play for United now.”
Lafferty is sitting in the home dug-out at Bramall Lane as, amongst other things, he reflects upon his own journey to South Yorkshire. The atmosphere is serene and conversation varied, with only the sound of laughter from across the stadium occasionally obscuring Lafferty’s words.
The defender, who turned professional with Celtic after impressing for Derry club Oxford United Stars, recently described leaving Parkhead and returning to part-time football at Derry as the most important, in a character-building sense at least, period of his career.
“I found out a lot about myself there,” Lafferty says. “Celtic was a great experience but, in the end, I wasn’t really enjoying my football because I wasn’t playing much. It wasn’t easy, going back to that level, because the facilities were nothing like over in Glasgow.
“But if I hadn’t have gone to Derry, which kept me really grounded and humble, then I might not be where I am today.
“We had a great season, going up after the club had fallen on difficult times, and it taught me an awful lot.”
Lafferty, aged 28, has just had a damn good season with United too. Initially signed on loan, during the closing stages of the summer transfer window, he made 37 appearances and regained his place in the Northern Ireland squad as Chris Wilder’s team romped to the League One title. Although a promotion alone does not rival Gillespie’s FA Cup win and 161 goals, Lafferty hopes his success has further cemented the link between United and the team he has followed since childhood.
“It was nice that I got the squad number I had at Derry City. There was a few available and I thought it would be a nice little touch. It suited me well there and so I thought, if there’s anything in superstition or fate, it might work. So I took that number and, lo and behold, look what’s happened here.”
“Successful clubs don’t come about very often,” Lafferty continues. “I know that going to Derry City with my dad. Their last league title was the year I was born. They’ve been through a bit of a tough time recently, losing their captain and a few other things. Me, being from Derry, it’s my hometown club and so it’s strange to end up here wearing the red and white stripes as well. I’ve seen them win some cups, they’ve got a good record in that, and I won a league cup with them when I was there. So to think sons and daughters might be having stories relayed to them about what we’ve done now, it does feel a bit weird. Good but weird. Hopefully our achievement will live long in the memories of people here.”
Lafferty still remembers his childhood heroes.
“My favourite, growing up, it was a guy called Liam Coyle who was Derry’s all-time leading goalscorer until the late Mark Farren broke that record.
“I can remember going to the Brandywell with my dad, when they were going through tough times, and teams like Celtic and Barcelona came over to play because they needed the money.
“We saw Ronaldinho and Kluivert; top, top players. But Liam Coyle was always my favourite. Nobody else came close. He was a brilliant player who had so much ability. Watching him was always special.”
Despite accumulating 100 points and scoring 92 goals last term - more than any other team in England - Wilder has warned the forthcoming campaign is unlikely to run quite as smoothly for his side.
With the likes of Aston Villa, Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton Wanderers lavishing tens of millions on players, United’s best chance of success appears to be their manager’s knack of making shrewd acquisitions and, Lafferty explained, ensuring the team spirit which catapulted them to promotion remains intact.
“You read a lot about teams saying they’re together and all that,” he says. “Me personally, I think there’s a difference between genuine togetherness and just talking about it. Everything just clicked last year, the personnel and the personalities of the personnel. Everybody gets along well on the pitch and off the pitch as well. Basically, it’s just enjoyable. It’s grew through the season, that togetherness.”
Despite being perfectly suited to Wilder’s 3-5-2 system, Enda Stevens’ arrival from Portsmouth means Lafferty’s place in the starting 11 for next month’s Championship opener against Brentford is far from guaranteed. Kieron Freeman, his fellow wing-back, is also fighting to retain his position following United’s decision to sign Nathan Thomas.
“Everyone wants to be involved, of course they do,” Lafferty explains. “You need that competition though if you want to do anything. It’s a long season and anything can happen. Whether you are in or you are out, you’ve always got to make sure you’re ready because, one of the things that made us so strong last time out, was the whole ‘group’ thing.
“We all knew what our goal was and it was only in the last few weeks that we started to talk about it. Until then, it was in the individual players’ minds. It wasn’t talked about openly. We all knew how to handle it and what was the right thing to do.”
“We’ve got good strength in depth and good competition for places,” Lafferty adds.
“Most of the season we also had a fit team and were able to put out the same side most weeks if required. That’s not luck, that’s down to the medical team and the staff as well. They know the right things to do and the right balance to take between working hard and resting.”
Although United can not compete financially with some of their rivals, Lafferty is convinced they can make up the difference with graft, grit and guile.
“The manager pointed out at one stage in the season that the club had only won four trophies or so in it’s existence. That was something in my head, thinking how nice it would be to be a part of changing that. We were able to do that. Now we want to cement what was an excellent season. We want to kick on and I know we can.”