It was the footwork and feints which betrayed the fact Mark Duffy had done this before.
While most of his team mates were throwing cumbersome haymakers, he worked the pads with sinuous grace when Sheffield United met Great Britain’s amateur boxing squad a couple of months ago.
“It was good fun,” Duffy remembers. “Even though some of the lads could hardly pick a punch. I used to do a little bit of boxing when I was younger, though. Just to toughen me up.”
Mastering the noble art used to be a right of passage for young boys in Liverpool where Duffy, the former Southport and Morecambe midfielder, was born, bred and brought-up. Like many of his peers, the 31-year-old spent long periods of his youth learning how to slip shots, roll with the punches and inflict punishment. Knowledge, standing only five feet nine inches tall, he still puts to good use against Championship defences now.
Despite becoming a footballer rather than a fighter, Duffy still retains a keen interest in what goes on between the ropes. Particularly as his close friend Tom Stalker is attempting to emulate fellow Liverpudlians Tony Bellew, Shea Neary and the legendary John Conteh by winning world honours.
“I grew-up with Tom, who went to the Olympics, and he lived on the next road to me,” Duffy says. “He’s gone on to do really well for himself and I still keep in contact with him. Tom’s just one of a number of boxers from Liverpool, which is why everybody follows it back home.”
“I used to do a little bit myself,” he adds. “I’ve had a few smacks around the head but it was really enjoyable. Everyone seems to do a little bit back home and, to be honest, it teaches you a lot; discipline, determination and stuff like that.”
Duffy is sitting in the canteen of United’s Steelphalt Academy training complex as, over tea, toast and muesli, he traces his journey from West Derby to Bramall Lane. Having spent time on the books of both Liverpool and Wrexham, he eventually became a scaffolder after “losing my way a little bit.” Persuaded by a friend to join Prescot Cables, a move to Haig Avenue soon followed before Sammy McIloy, then manager of Morecambe, offered him a route into the English Football League. But it was a spell working as a multi-sports coach for Liverpool City Council which piqued Duffy’s curiosity in different disciplines.
“I like all different sports, Me and Jack O’Connell (the United defender) were playing short tennis over the summer. It’s good to try something new and come out of your comfort zone. I actually think it helps your football.
“Jack isn’t one to wind up, he’s done a bit of boxing as well I think. If you get him going he’ll give you a kick or whack out there on the pitch. He’s pretty good at the short tennis too. You play it on a badminton court with a soft sponge ball and it gets your feet going. It definitely beats just running on a treadmill.”
Duffy’s career path is important because it has helped shape his game. Technically strong and sharply intelligent, he was a driving force behind United’s march to the League One title last term. But Tuesday’s visit to the Macron Stadium, where Wilder’s side beat both Bolton Wanderers and the elements, revealed Duffy is mighty courageous too. United, who enter tomorrow’s game against Norwich City third in the table, survived an aerial bombardment during the closing stages of the match as Cameron Carter-Vickers’ first-half goal proved enough to secure their fourth straight Championship win.
“We’ve kicked-off well but, to be fair, I don’t think that’s a surprise,” Duffy continued. “Everyone keeps themselves in good condition and works hard over the summer these days. I was probably in the gym four or five times a week, even on holiday. When you get home, me and Jack were playing tennis and it is non-stop really as we know the Championship is a big ask and we have to be on our mark.”
Duffy’s hectic summer schedule paid dividends when he was forced to miss a large chunk of their pre-season preparations after his wife went into labour.
“To be fair, the little one has been good. It’s the eldest one who wants to get up at 6.30am and watch Peppa Pig. I know them all; George, Suzy Sheep and the rest. I know all the songs as well. My eldest loves the one about muddy puddles. She gets her wellies on, goes in the back garden after watching that one, and brings it all back in the house. What with that and the football, it certainly keeps me on my toes.”
Unlike United, Norwich have made mixed start to the season after appointing Daniel Farke, previously of Borussia Dortmund, as their new head coach. It is a measure of the progress Wilder’s team has made in recent weeks that, unbeaten at home in the league since January, they will start as favourites.
“You look at every game and think ‘oh, they’re good’ or ‘they used to be in the Premier League,” Duffy admits. “Every single game is a test, now matter what the table says. But this is a big thing for me and the rest of the lads. Regardless of who we’re playing, we go into every game knowing that we’ve got to be on our guard because of the quality of the opposition but also confident that, because we never do things by halves, we can give them plenty to think about as well. The attitude stays the same.”