Thursday, 17 February 2011

Views from Opposite Ends

A lot can change in five years, just ask the fans of Sheffield United and Reading. This time five years ago both clubs were racing towards promotion from the Championship, Reading eventually taking the title with 106 points, scoring 99 goals along the way. United finished runners-up on 90 points, a total that would have been good enough to be champions in three of the four seasons since. Both had strong financial backing from figure head chairmen, the future looked rosy.

The Blades, somewhat controversially, managed just one season of top flight football and have since gambled heavily on a quick return that has not materialised. A combination of poor managerial selection, investment in players on Premiership wages that failed to deliver, the inflationary impact of those wages on the salaries paid to the rest of a distinctly average squad and the need to sell the family silver to balance the books have left the club in a state of flux. Throw in the fact that that four different people have taken charge of the first team games this season, you have a club without an identity, a team without a style and players without an understanding.

After an impressive 8th place finish under the tutelage of Steve Coppell, Reading's second Premier League season faded badly ending in the final relegation spot due to a goal difference just three less than that of  Fulham. Coppell departed and Brendan Rogers didn't last long, but an unexpected promotion from within saw caretaker boss Brian McDermott take permanent charge. Mainstays of that promotion/Premier League team, Shorey, Doyle, Hunt et al have moved on and belts have been tightened, so that replacements have been cheaper and the club has been put on a better financial footing to deal with life post parachute payments.

On Tuesday night the two clubs faced each other at Bramall Lane, with Reading sitting comfortable mid-table and the Blades embroiled in a relegation battle following a period of turmoil. Post match I met up with Reading fan Lanterne Rouge from top football league blog thetwounfortunates to mull over each others teams' performances and future prospects.  LR was slightly surprised a number of aspects of the game, not least that the request made by Blades striker Daniel Bogdanovic for the fans to "make hell" for the opposition was not heeded.

A Royal view of the Blades

My three previous excursions to Bramall Lane have revealed it to be one of the country’s most tempestuous grounds for atmosphere. The importance of the fixtures helped – Reading equalized through Lee Nogan in 1995 en route to play off final misery, a crackling 1-1 draw in 2006 was a just result in a season that saw both teams promoted, and Kevin Doyle’s early opener at the beginning of the subsequent Premier League campaign was a factor in setting up the launch pad for Royals to go on and finish eighth. The flatness of last night’s encounter seemed ill fitting to this grand old stadium.

Blades are in as woeful a run of form (eleven matches without a win, ten under Adams) as one can remember at the moment and it is a surprise that, contrary to received wisdom, even the spur of new management has failed to arrest the decline. Micky Adams has worked tigerishly but the hand dealt him has been meagre.

A major problem is the size of Blades’ squad and Adams’ refreshingly honest post match comments bemoaned the need to accommodate a range of strikers’ urgent pleas. Daniel Bogdanovic was on the sidelines again but showed a rare ability to hold the ball up on entering the fray. His poise in possession was welcome after new loan signing Sam Vokes and quintessential journeyman Richard Cresswell made little impact. With Ched Evans ill and Jamie Ward heading down to Derby, Adams showed his frustration with both (querying Evans' dietary habits after successive bouts of gastro-enteritis and questioning Ward's commitment and endeavour both on the pitch and in training) – the forward options may appear luxurious but the reality has been quite different.

United confound expectations that they are a physical side these days and the wispy Lee Williamson sums up the occasional soft centre at the heart of the team. Michael Doyle does a job as defensive shield but isn’t the best at what he does and Stephen Quinn has failed to push on after that first Premier League campaign under Neil Warnock seemingly earmarked him for greater glory.

On this occasion, Mark Yeates showed a willing directness, but too often failed to apply the final through pass. Blades fans appeared to welcome his substitution for Bjørn Helge Riise. Here, via Norway, could be the answer to inspire a turnaround – the Fulham loanee’s presence on the pitch coinciding with what I viewed as the South Yorkshire club’s brightest spell of the game.

With a litany of additional players – Montgomery, Morgan, Nosworthy, Mattock, Lowry and Henderson – injured, ill or out of favour,  a squad is being stretched beyond its limits. It was left to Neill Collins and the midfielder Johnny Ertl to form an unusual makeshift central defensive partnership. Perhaps helped by only having to deal with a lone striker in Shane Long, they coped well on the day, but Reading’s usual wing threat proved a lot to handle for the Blades’ defensive flank men: Estudiantes’ loanee Elian Parrino would probably flourish in a better team but Stephen Jordan was unceremoniously hauled off after a mauling from Jimmy Kébé.

Matthew Lowton – a player whom Adams should surely be giving more house room to as he rebuilds, was caught out by Shane Long for Reading’s goal but is worth persevering with – the youngster replaced Jordan at half time and was seemingly playing outside of his natural position

In goal, Steve Simonsen was United’s best man on the night, keeping out two early close range efforts in the first half and a vital and impressive save from Long, after a flowing move near the end. Adams felt his side were lucky as a second successive penalty has saved them from defeat but some succour will have been gained for a decidedly torrid three months ahead.

I say torrid because these two draws against southerly clubs have done little to mask the malaise at the heart of Bramall Lane. In an appearance on last week’s Two Footed Tackle podcast, I chose Crystal Palace as the team who felt will accompany Preston and Scunthorpe through the trap door but Adams’ frank post match comments denote exasperation. I’ll stick with my optimistic line for Blades but they will be fourth bottom at the very most.

A Blade's View on the Royals 

In a match, containing spells of open end to end play, the lack of quality on view from both sides was disappointing. What impressive play there was came, for the most part, from Reading and they were deserving of more than a point over the 90 minutes. Yet, despite this, there were very few standout performers.

Both wide men, as LR has alluded to, caused the biggest threat for Reading with Kébé dominating his first half tussle with Stephen Jordan, to the extent that Jordan rarely got near him. In fact the only time he did, was with a scything tackle with the ball well out of sight and a yellow card being issued as a result.

Kébé was strong and athletic, combined with his speed of thought and feet he made several surging runs down the right wing that Blades players seemed unable to handle, shrugging them off with ease. Throughout the first half you felt that we were allowing him far too much space, allowing him to build up momentum before any challenge came in. The half time change for the Blades shut down some of that space and as a result Kébé's effectiveness reduced as the match progressed.
Both Jobi McAnuff (on the opposite wing) and Jay Tabb (in an advanced midfield role, playing off the lone striker Long) impressed in a high tempo start from the Royals, but like Kébé faded from view a little in the second half as United finally got to grips with the game. To my mind, playing with pacy wide players is an important facet in the Championship and credit to Reading for using this, particularly away from home.

Former Blades failure Brian Howard was quietly effective in midfield, comfortable in his play without ever really opening up the play or opening up his legs and surging forward in the manner that Barnsley fans might remember and Blades fans could only dream of him doing. He looks a play still trying to find is place and form after his disastrous spell at Bramall Lane. Both Jem Karacan and Mikele Leigertwood were suspended and Noel Hunt was on the bench so clearly they are not short of alternative midfield/attacking options.

At the back is where Reading impressed. The Blades offered little up front for most of the game, but that could be as much to do with the job done by the Reading defence as the failings of United's strikeforce. However in Ivar Ingimarsson and Matt Mills have a very good centre back pairing for this level. With the added experience of Harte and Griffin at full backs, you could only really see them being troubled by pace out wide, something United don't have at their disposal. It was surprising to see Griffin allowing himself to be put in a position where the referee had a potential penalty decision to make.  When that referee is Trevor Kettle and the foul is soft, there is only likely to be one outcome. To get that close to Bogdanovic, whilst the striker was running away from goal, belied the full back's top level experience.

The fact that keeper Adam Federici was barely troubled was a shame, as when he was put under pressure he looked to be a weak link. His kicking was woeful and I think his handling might have wobbled if tested as his confidence didn't look high.

Looking down the bench and the squad list, it is clear that there is not significant strength in depth beyond 15/16 players and I think that points to where Reading will be for the next couple of seasons. Under Steve Coppell, the Royals had an exciting squad of players that the manager was able to name on a consistent basis. This cohesiveness and effective team play, might point to the reason why many of those players who have since moved on have failed to make the same impact elsewhere. Maybe the whole was better than the sum of the parts?

The current Reading team has the same feel. There are some good individual players, but their future success is to some extent dependent upon a good team ethic, organisation and exploitation of players' strengths. The question is whether, with a period of stability, Brian McDermott is the man to make that happen. He certainly turned things around last season, but two points dropped at Bramall Lane leaves the gap to the play offs at 9 points. Not insurmountable in a division where most teams are capable of beating each other, however it is the number of teams between them and the play offs that might be the issue.

Five years on, two clubs that might have hoped to establish themselves in the Premier League a la Stoke are both in a period of transition and one is dealing with it better than the other. Instead of a Premier League return I can see a couple of stable Championship seasons ahead for both clubs. Reading could be top half, maybe pushing for the play offs, United mid-table at best. That is assuming United have the where with all to stay up and, with no wins in 10, that has to be a doubt. Consecutive away games at fellow bottom four dwellers Palace and Scunthorpe, means that the next week will define United's season and immediate future. For Reading it is a more comfortable and stable picture.

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