SHEFFIELD UNITED, by midfielder Mark Duffy’s own admission, are a team with no superstars.
It is why the Blades, despite being joint top of the Championship going into today’s all-Yorkshire showdown with Hull City, tend to be overlooked when the plaudits are being handed out, even in their native county.
Not that anyone at Bramall Lane cares a jot about that. Instead, Duffy, the play-maker who been such an integral part of Chris Wilder’s side since joining from Birmingham City in 2016, takes his satisfaction from the compliments that opposition teams have been unwittingly paying United all season.
“We are not bothered that other teams get the publicity,” said the 32-year-old Liverpudlian to The Yorkshire Post. “Leeds have started fantastic, West Brom have come down and have all the Premier league players so it is understandable that everyone likes to go on about their players.
“We just get on with our jobs. We are happy to go under the radar, just keep ticking the wins off. We are not a group who needs praise.
“It doesn’t matter if people on Sky Sports or Quest don’t give us the plaudits. We get the plaudits from teams changing formation against us to try and stop us. To me that is the biggest sign of respect.
“The lads also speak after games to players from the opposing teams we know. After Blackburn on Wednesday night they said most of the week had been spent working on how to stop us playing.
“Can they prevent us getting down the side? Can they prevent us getting hold of midfield? That is what they were asking themselves.
“Blackburn changed formation, but we like to think we play that formation better than others. It means if the opposition do change we know ways to get round it. We might need 50 minutes or an hour or even longer. But, hopefully, we get the goal that counts.”
With imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, the Blades have certainly had plenty of pats on the back this season from opposing managers.
Bristol City, Bolton Wanderers and Birmingham City are among those who switched to the three-man backline favoured by United in an attempt to nullify Wilder’s side. Steve Bruce also tweaked how Aston Villa set up in the September clash that the Blades won 4-1.
On a couple of occasions this like-for-like approach has worked with Lee Johnson’s Robins claiming a 1-0 win at Ashton Gate and the Blues being unfortunate not to take all three points from last month’s goalless visit to the Lane.
Nevertheless, the Blades’ form this season after a slow start has been hugely impressive.
Today’s clash with Hull City comes on the back of a three-game winning run that has left Wilder’s men joint top with Leeds and Middlesbrough on 22 points from 11 outings.
“It is a strength of this group that we have no superstars,” added Duffy, who has been involved in all but one of United’s Championship games this term.
“Not having any big household names is probably why we do go under the radar.
“But I like to think we have a really good bunch. Last season there weren’t many times when we were second best technically. Maybe against Fulham and Wolves, but no others. We had a slow start this season, but put that behind us.
“There are no ‘Big-time Charlies’ here. Everyone just gets on with each other and works really hard.
“That is credit to the staff. They do the homework on the background of who comes in and they make sure that we all know our jobs inside out.
“The bottom line is we love to get after teams. We enjoy playing against these so called bigger teams and their big-name players. We enjoy pitting our wits against them.
“Our mentality is to look at someone who has played 300 times in the Premier League and think, ‘Let’s see what he is like under a bit of pressure’.”
This week brought the welcome return of Paul Coutts after 11 months out with a broken leg.
There can be little doubt United missed the Scot last season. Top when Coutts suffered his unfortunate break in a 3-1 win at Burton Albion, Wilder’s men were soon sliding down the table without their influential midfielder and eventually finished tenth.
“Paul Coutts is very important to this group,” added Duffy, who was the man to give way on Wednesday night at Blackburn Rovers as Coutts came off the bench during the final quarter.
“Last year there was no hiding we missed him massively. Me, him and John Fleck had a great understanding before the injury.
“It was hard to replace that. We probably didn’t manage that until Ollie Norwood came in during the summer. He is very, very similar to Paul. It is good for the squad that we have someone capable of reaching Paul’s heights.”
Coutts spent 324 days on the sidelines and is likely to have to make do with a place on the bench again today as former manager Nigel Adkins returns to the Lane with the Tigers.
Regardless, Coutts seems certain to be afforded a rapturous reception by the home fans.
“I never like to come off,” added Duffy about being substituted at Ewood Park. “But when I looked over and saw it was Paul coming on I was really pleased for him.
“He has been such a big part of the past two and a half years. When we saw the injury happen it affected us all.
“He is a good friend and we chat daily. So to see the pain he was in wasn’t nice.
“Plus the form he was in had been outstanding. The form of his life, totally dominating midfield and playing ever so well.
“To see him rocked by a really bad challenge – that was an accident, I should say – was hard. We did see Paul in the months afterwards. He had a bit of time off at one stage, which he really needed.
“But otherwise he was in quite a bit and the physio room is not far away from the dressing room. That meant we could stroll in and see him. Seeing how hard he worked in the gym left me praying he could get back up to speed as fast as possible.”