There might come a time, if they continue on the same trajectory, when Sheffield United are forced to broaden their horizons and recruit established household names.
But this season’s push for top-flight football is being fuelled by players from humble backgrounds with, Mark Duffy explained last night, an important point to prove.
“You see all these players come down from the Premier League,” he said. “For me, though, sometimes they don’t have that hunger. They’ve been given too much money far too young and they lose that whereas, because a lot of us have taken a different route, we’ve had to fight for everything we’ve got.”
United enter this evening’s match against Queens Park Rangers on top of the Championship after winning 10 of their opening 14 games. However, although results have been impressive and performances effective, the back-story behind Chris Wilder’s team is arguably the most fascinating aspect of its journey from League One champions to promotion contenders in the space of six short months. While Wolverhampton Wanderers invest millions and others clubs in the division routinely hand-out pay packets of over £30,000 a week, huge swathes of United’s squad launched their careers in the amateur or semi-professional ranks. A trait Duffy, the former Vauxhall Motors and Prescot Cables midfielder thinks, is not insignificant.
“When you are in the lower leagues, or not even at that level, your livelihood is at stake,” he continued. “You’re ready to scrap and do whatever it takes to try and get as high as possible. You want to be the best that you can but you know that nobody is going to hand you anything on a plate. That’s what a lot of lads here have had to do and, yes, I do think it makes a real difference.”
Of course, despite being famed for its tenacity, Wilder’s side boasts plenty of quality too. Enda Stevens, previously of St Patrick’s Athletic and Shamrock Rovers, is proving an excellent acquisition at wing-back while Paul Coutts, who served his apprenticeship at Cove Rangers, is statistically the most accomplished passer in the division despite being overlooked by Scotland ahead of their forthcoming friendly against Holland yesterday. His compatriot John Fleck’s omission is equally unfathomable.
“Although the character is really good, you can see the lads have got the ability to perform here, at this level too,” Duffy said. “They have got that quality. Look at Coutts, Flecky, Bash (Chris Basham) and Jack O’Connell, I could go on and name so many more. When we play against teams like Reading, who have spent a lot of money, or Sheffield Wednesday who are the same, we haven’t been in a game lately where we have thought ‘wow, these really knock it about well and are out-performing us. It just hasn’t happened and, for me, that shows the quality we have.”
Fourteenth-placed Rangers also have a history of lavish spending in recent seasons although, after falling foul of Financial Fair Play regulations, are now a much more prudent beast. Two of Ian Holloway’s summer signings were free transfers while the other three, including Linfield’s Paul Smyth and Bright Osavi-Samuel of Blackpool, arrived for modest, undisclosed sums. Nevertheless, as Wilder can testify, big fees do not guarantee results. Saturday’s victory over Wolves, which the United manager attended in person, underlined the threat Rangers will pose.
“We take nothing for granted,” Duffy said, “Absolutely nothing. But what we always do try and make sure is that we back up our quality. If someone beats us and we’ve had a go, at least we know we gave it everything. We can shake their hand, ‘say ‘fair play’, and move on.”
Like character, consistency has helped United acclimatise to life back in the Championship after six years away. However, with Fleck collecting his fifth caution of the campaign during the victory at Elland Road, Wilder will be forced to make changes for the trip to the capital. John Lundstram is expected to step-in after impressing coaching staff following his move from Oxford. Although Wilder has reserved the right to tweak other areas of his starting eleven, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Jamal Blackman, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea respectively, are set to feature against their parent club’s London rivals.
“Jamal and Cameron have hunger,” Duffy said. “Which is testament to the type of lads they are. They’ve obviously got it in them which is why they’ve done well. Some unfortunately don’t.”