MARK DUFFY believes that he and his Sheffield United team-mates are firmly embracing the pressure of the club’s Premier League tilt – and are determined to prove any doubters wrong.
With a third of the Championship season to go, the third-placed Blades – who will move up to the summit on goal difference if they triumph at Aston Villa tomorrow evening – find themselves in serious contention for automatic promotion in what is proving to be another compelling second-tier campaign.
Last season saw Chris Wilder’s surprise packages remain in top-six contention until the final few months of 2017-18 when their promotion push fell away.
Some are again questioning whether United possess the stamina to last the course this time around, but Duffy has given short shrift to any such notions, while pointing to the fact that a host of rival promotion aspirants are saddled with far greater expectations in his eyes.
Duffy said: “You come into football to be top of any division. Some teams have financially thrown a lot of money at it. So the pressure on us only comes from ourselves, with what we want to achieve.
“It is a motivation to prove people wrong. It comes down the recruitment of the staff. Some people have probably under-achieved in their careers. but you put us all together and we have got real fire in our bellies.
It is a motivation to prove people wrong. It comes down the recruitment of the staff. Some people have probably under-achieved in their careers. but you put us all together and we have got real fire in our bellies.Sheffield United’s Mark Duffy
“Our aim was to go better than last year and, hopefully, that means promotion.
“Maybe individually we have underachieved (in our careers). But collectively, we are on the right path. People look back saying: ‘He was from League One, League Two or the Conference – that is where they should be.’
“There are a lot of things that need to happen and you need to play in a league with the right manager and coaching staff and you need those right players to create the chemistry. I think we have got that here.”
Despite possessing a core of senior players who have sampled success away from the Premier League, few members of the United squad have had much first-hand experience of the top-flight – and that represents another motivational tool in their promotion quest, according to Duffy.
Meanwhile, the attacking midfielder has revealed that the Blades’ story is resonating with many of his Liverpool and Everton-supporting family members and friends back home in his native Merseyside, who have been enchanted with the club’s rise and their footballing ethos.
The ex-Birmingham City player, who netted against Villa in the reverse fixture at Bramall Lane at the start of the autumn, said: “A lot of my family are all Reds and a few of my mates are Blues.
“But they all support Sheffield United and with the style of football we play, a lot of neutral fans enjoy watching us play and what they say is that we will add to the Premier League with the way we play.
“I am sure Evertonians would not be happy with us playing there, as they would struggle!.
“Of course you dream of going to the big grounds like Anfield. That is where you want to test yourself and that is why you come into the game.”
Blades chief Wilder has revealed that he is spoilt for choice in terms of selection options ahead of tomorrow’s televised test in the Midlands, where the South Yorkshire outfit are seeking to secure their first double over Villa since 1965-66.
Last season saw the Blades produce an inspired comeback to draw 2-2 at Villa Park, casting aside an early two-goal deficit to claim a point in a dominant show.
Their performance levels in the corresponding fixture at Bramall Lane last February were deserving of much more, with Villa securing a hugely flattering late 1-0 victory – thanks to a sublime goal from Robert Snodgrass and a wonder performance from goalkeeper Sam Johnstone.
The hosts exacted revenge with an near-perfect display in their 4-1 home success last September, arguably the best display of the Wilder era – and the Blades are seeking another memorable moment in their season tomorrow.
Wilder’s side certainly head to the second city in an impressive vein of form, having seen their colours lowered just once in their past eight league games – a sequence that has yielded five wins.
Yet Wilder is entitled to be mindful of some key games over the next month against the likes of Middlesbrough, West Brom and derby rivals Sheffield Wednesday – starting with tomorrow’s trip to Villa.
He said: “This is one of the outstanding fixtures of the season for us. It is easy to say: ‘Keep the same team’ but people do not always see what I see.
“We also have to look at what we have got coming up, without losing sight of the fact that the next game is the most important.
“We have got a squad that is travelling down and we are confident. We have got that right balance between being confident and not being arrogant. That has always been our mindset.
“We have got good ammunition on the bench now. You have to play well to get in the team and then stay in it or just stay in the first place.
“I have got some difficult decisions to make.”
The Blades will be without the services of loanee Scott Hogan tomorrow, with the striker ineligible under the terms of his recent move from Villa.