Saturday, 19 November 2011

Views from Opposite Ends - Managers unfairly under pressure?

Continuing our Views From Opposite Ends series it is a pleasure to welcome Carlisle United blogger and sometime contributor to the Carlisle United blog Bring Me The Head of Keith Mincher, Mark Donnelly to the pages of A United View.

In an interesting game at Bramall Lane today, 5th placed United came face to face with 10th placed Carlisle United. Yet despite relatively positive starts to the season for both sides, there are elements in both club's support waiting for the opportunity to have a go at their manager.

From a Blades perspective there are aspects of Wilson's appointment that still rankle with some of the support. Although a majority have accepted Wilson and will back him and the team, you always sense that we are one or two bad results from fans turning on him. Even today, when Evans was substituted for Porter the boos rang out and catcalls of "you don't know what you're doing."

Greg Abbott is a slightly different tale. Nearly three years into his reign, he has taken the Blues to the JP Trophy final in two consecutive seasons, winning it last season. He has suggested the team should be capable of reaching the Play Offs, something achieved when he was assistant manager to John Ward. Yet elements of the support see the lack of a top six position an opportunity to criticise Abbott and his perceived negative tactics.

So what did we make of the game and each other's teams. First up I'll let Mark give you his view of the game and the Blades.

A Cumbrian View

Carlisle made the trip to one of the ‘giants’ of the League 1 this year, with around 1,200 (I would say North of 1,500) travelling Blues ascending on the Steel City. The Cumbrians and Blades both advanced through the first round of the FA Cup last weekend, so were full of confidence coming into this fixture. Both managers kept faith with the sides that defeated Alfreton and Oxford respectively.

Pre match view of the Cumbrian support

The hosts started the game brightly, and forced a corner within two minutes of kick off. The ball was cleared, but fell to Lee Williamson, His volley however, flew over from 22 yards. The Blades should’ve taken the lead on 6 minutes. Williamson again tried his luck, this time forcing Collin into a superb save. Richard Cresswell collected the rebound, but volleyed over in front of an empty net.

The hosts continued to apply the pressure, and this paid off on 21 minutes, Carlisle loanee Christian Ribeiro was caught with a high foot, but the referee waved play on, and the Blades continued up field and won a corner. The set piece eventually fell to Ched Evans, who hammered home into the roof of the net. The Carlisle fans were rightfully not best pleased, and the players made their feelings know to the officials.

This goal perked the visitors up, and Lee Miller had Carlisle’s best chance of the game late on in the first half, but drilled the ball into the side netting. The Blades almost extended their lead in first half injury time. Stephen Quinn had to time to pick his spot, and it took an acrobatic save from Adam Collin to deny him.

At half time, the general thoughts in the Cumbrian camp were that we were unfortunate to be behind to the controversial goal, but we were far from impressive. The second half started off at a much slower pace than the first, but sprung into life in the 70th minute. Ribeiro brought down Ryan Flynn in his own box, giving the Blades the chance to double their lead. Adam Collin however, had different ideas. The impressive Collin guessed right to push away Creswell’s penalty.

Carlisle found a new lease of life after this, and pushed on to try and find the equaliser. Rory Loy, and then Craig Curran, failed to hit the target. The home side could have added gloss to the score line deep into injury time. Richard Cresswell scuffed his shot from 6 yards out, and Carlisle got let off the hook.

It’s probably fair to say that this wasn’t one of the Blades best performances this season and there were no spectacular individual performances. £3million (This will never be the actual fee paid!) man Ched Evans was probably the best player on the pitch, and managed to get himself on the scoresheet. The Blades looked organised at the back, and kept the Carlisle front line at bay, and their keeper had very little to do. Lee Williamson looked a threat with drives from long distance and his crosses into the area caused the Cumbrians’ defence all sorts of problems.

In all honesty, this is a game Sheffield should have been winning comprehensively. The contrasts in the two teams were massive. The Blades starting line up included ex-Premier League players and Internationals, many of whom can probably play at a higher level. The fact that they couldn’t kill off the game (especially with Cresswell’s chance in the dying minutes), could start to show later on in the season. On another day, Carlisle may have grabbed an equaliser, and to be in contention for promotion, the Blades will have to finish off their opponents.
I wish United all the best for the season, and can definitely see them in contention come May, See you on January 2nd!

A Blades View

I think Mark has summed up the game quite well. It was a lot closer than it should have been, at the end of the day Steve Simonsen didn't make a save of any note throughout. Too often both sides let themselves down in the final third when the ball into the box was poor quality. In the midfield it was a scrappy affair, with Doyle and Montgomery again failing to impress for the home side and ball retention poor. Former-Blade Paul Thirlwell, alongside James Berrett and Liam Noble, worked hard harrying and hassling, but there was a lack of quality in the central area all round.

With chances spurned by Cresswell (he really should have allowed the ball to drop rather than trying a spectacular volley that flew over an empty goal) and Quinn, credit should be given to Carlisle keeper Collin. His save on to the bar from Williamson was excellent and his all round handling good. He deserves credit for a second penalty save in a week, but the reality was Cresswell's shot was weak and too close to the keeper

Cresswell strikes his saved penalty

The best of the chances that fell to Carlisle fell to Lee Miller, but the shot just before half time was sliced into the side netting when he could have tested Simonsen. Miller was billed as the star man in the Blades programme, but offered little up front for much of the match. In a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 system, he needs to be holding the ball up much better and bringing Jon Paul McGovern and Rory Loy into the game more than he managed to today.

It was surprising seeing McGovern play so narrow, then again he always frustrated me in his failure to frequently beat his man and get to the by-line in his loan spell at United 8 or so years ago. He delivered a couple of dangerous balls second half as Carlisle looked more threatening, the introduction of Zoko adding zest and creativity lacking in the midfield prior to that point.

With a willingness to run at the opposition; Zoko's runs, combined with a failure to properly clear lines, left the Blades scrambling in the closing stages. It did make you wonder why Zoko wasn't introduced earlier or even started, but reading tweets since suggest he is one of those players who is better used off the bench and rarely delivers from a starting role.

I am not one to criticise referees, but I thought Phil Gibbs was poor today. Decisions angered both sides, with free kicks given for soft challenges and inconsistency in his use of yellow cards. I have to say I didn't see the incident Mark refers to in the build up to the corner from which United scored. I guess that is why these articles are good, different perspectives of opinion from opposing fans and different perspectives on incidents from sitting at opposite ends of the pitch. It is fair to say that there were similar incidents at our end, the free kicks subsequently awarded could have been better used in a more threatening manner by the Cumbrians.

The Blades have played better and drawn or lost games this season. I am delighted with three points, a clean sheet and we will just gloss over the match. With all of the teams above the Blades winning, we needed to stay in touch. Mark's point about our failure to kill off the opposition is a fair one and it is something that has bitten us on the backside in recent weeks. It also added to anxiety levels, which again transferred from the stands to the pitch in the latter stages of the game.

Overall, I think today's starting positions are a fair reflection of where both teams will find themselves, even if today's performances did little to vindicate it apart from the differential in the teams capabilities. Given the squad Greg Abbott has assembled, should Carlisle fans expect any better? Based on what I have seen of other teams this season, they shouldn't. There are teams with better starting XIs and squads. It also appears that the Cumbrians lack that one off player who could change a game. They are a steady hard-working collective, lacking spark that Zoko briefly gave them.

Before today Carlisle were just 3 points behind the Blades, now it is a 6 point gap, but only 2 points to the play off positions. Maybe fans of both sides need to appreciate the positions they are in and the job that their respective managers are doing. After all, there can be few complaints. Can there?!

Thanks again to Mark. He can be found on twitter at @markdonncufc

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Manchester Rises Again - Interview with Martyn Walsh (Inspiral Carpets)

See the lad on the Saturday terraces,
his collar pulled up around his chin.
His side are two goals down and playing lousy,
but he still believes his team are going to win.
And he prays each night that his family's alright
and he's got work.

Song for a Family - Inspiral Carpets

The great thing about having your own blog is that you can be your own editor. So please forgive me the indulgence of this post. When one of my favourite bands announced they were reforming, my excitement levels increased to levels not seen since Paul Peschisolido's goal against Forest in the 2003 Play-Off semi-final. Throw in a bit on intra-band football banter on twitter and that gave me all the incentive I needed to ask if they wouldn't mind answering a few questions.

Inspiral Carpets started in Manchester in 1983 and after several changes of line-up settled into their own, what I would say was, relatively unique sound. Taking influences from ? And The Mysterians, the Farfisa driven garage sound became a firm favourite of John Peel who championed their work. Starting with Keep The Circle Around in 1988 they went on to make 8 appearances in John Peel's Festive 50 - including taking the Number 1 spot in 1994 with I Want You - a collaboration with Mark E Smith of The Fall.

When Stephen Holt and Dave Swift left in 1989, Tom Hingley took over vocal duties and Martyn Walsh brought his low slung bass playing style to the group. The band went on to have 11 Top 40 hits, starting with the anthemic This Is How It Feels in 1990, they also released 4 albums plus greatest hits packages.

With a couple of comebacks supporting Greatest Hits albums and a download only collection of B sides and rarities, all had been quiet until in early August when the band announced a return to their garage roots, with original singer Stephen Holt returning to the fold.

The band spoke to John Robb about their return and you can read about it here on Louder Than War. Missing that day was bass player Martyn Walsh and he very kindly took time out from rehearsals to talk comebacks, stadium gigs and Manchester United, prior to the band flying out to South America for their first gigs last week.

First things first - Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions.
Where were you in the John Robb interview?

Sorting out my broken bass amp!!!

That's a relief, didn't want band issues just after you had reformed! It's 15 years since you last recorded together, which shocked me, is that a scary thought for you?

Since Steve has come back, there’s a new found enthusiasm for all things related to Inspirals. Going in the studio was very much a statement of intent; how confident we are as a unit and with the material we’re recording.

Why did it all come to an end in the first place? Was the band being dropped by Mute hard to take? - Bands like Inspirals, Depeche Mode and Nitzer Ebb must have kept Mute going for years!

Being dropped did knock us for six, moreso a couple of years later. I think we may have lost our hunger, and in hindsight it was probably a good thing that we never really split, just went our separate ways for a while.

In amongst a couple of comeback tours you all went off and did your own thing. What were you all doing and did you miss playing?

Yeah, we all kept involved in music to some extent. Clint had his band The Clint boon Experience and XFM shows. Craig had bands like Proud Mary and started his Manchester Music Tours. Graham works for SJM the concert promoters. I was lucky that a couple of my projects; Atomizer and DC10 did play live, but I do miss the unique buzz of playing gigs with Inspirals!

Interesting you say that because I have heard it said footballers always struggle once they have retired as they no longer have the feeling of stepping out to play in front of hundreds/thousands of people.

Totally, the fans are what really makes being in a band so special, that might sound a bit corny, but without that loyalty and support we’re nothing.

What are you enjoying most - the energy of revisiting and revitalising old tracks, or creating new music?

Both, although if I had to choose, I’d definitely say writing new material is most enjoyable. I like the studio environment and the fact we’re writing together again shows there’s a unity and freedom in the camp that has not been there for quite a while.

Some of the tracks pre-date your involvement with the band, didn't you replace David Swift, after tracks like Head for the Sun were originally played? Is it weird working on tracks that the rest of the band created so long ago?

Yeah, I replaced Swifty. It’s not too weird, I have free reign to put my slant on basslines and we have quite similar styles but obviously I’m much better looking....

The comeback seems to have created a bit of a buzz on twitter and facebook, was that a pleasant surprise after a few years away?

Definitely, we had to adapt quickly, as the increase in social media use means we have to be on the ball when it comes to interacting with fans. It’s great but time consuming..cos we all answer personally...eventually!!

I heard Clint and Steve, saying that there are no great expectations with the comeback, that just making music you enjoy is the key. But you must have some hopes of what might happen?

To keep enjoying being Inspiral Carpets and to carry on writing new material, both go hand in hand..anything else is a bonus. That’s not us being unambitious, it’s just that we’re a little older and wiser now, and we know what’s needed to keep creative.

You are starting off with dates in South America, how did that come about?

There was a totally random gig offer from Chile, we liked the idea and got our agent to get a couple of shows in Argentina, all unplanned, unpremeditated and uniquely Inspiral, Steve’s first gig since 1988 will be supporting Interpol in Argentina to 15,000 people!

(The tweets from the band whilst there and since back suggest it was a huge success and a great atmosphere. You will find footage of them playing the Samsung Studio gig here and here amongst others)

I think new single You're So Good For Me is great and has the hook that so many Inspirals tracks has that draws you in? What can you liken it to?

It’s classic Inspirals! There are elements of Inspiral influences like The Fall and The Seeds but also a little bit of LCD Soundsystem, especially in the rhythm section.

I’d written the song a couple of years ago, but it never felt right to introduce to the band. Things are different now, and we were aware that new material needs to be relevant and contemporary, yet ultimately Inspiral...I think we’ve succeeded!

You say you introduced it to the band, is it very much a collaborative writing process?

You're So Good For Me was a track that I'd written bass, lyrics and melody then presented to the band. Everyone then puts their ideas in and we kick them around...lots of Inspirals tracks are written this way..

I met you all in the bar of the Octagon, Sheffield post-gig in 2003 and what was great about that night was that you were all down to earth guys enjoying a beer and a laugh with us all. Do you think that helped the bands longevity and the fact that you are back together now - that you were all grounded guys without any attitudes?

I think so, you can’t get too far in this industry by constantly pissing people off, unless you are supremely talented! We all come from working class backgrounds, with a deeply rooted work ethic; if you wanted anything, you had to go out and earn it, I think that’s held us in good stead.

Your following always seemed to be a good bunch as well. Did you avoid some of the hooligan element that other bands attracted?

We seemed to, I think ecstacy was kicking in on the terraces, so everyone was too loved up to fight!

Although you were tagged as part of the baggy and Madchester movement, your sound always stood out as a different. Did the tag fit and were you comfortable with it?

I think the tag was good in drawing attention to the city overall. I don’t think we fitted in with the generic sound and lifestyle that was media created. It was funny that the press latched onto Madchester probably a good 2 or 3 years after the event.

It is fair to say your albums stand up against those of any of the other bands of the late 80's early 90's, yet I remember you also got harshly tagged by some critics as a" good singles band", did that rile you?

I think creating an album that stands the test of time is a hard task. Life (the band's first album), in particular, as a whole was a great album, not just a collection of songs. Once you get into the cycle of album/tour/album/tour it’s quite difficult to get albums that are coherent. Revenge of The Goldfish (the third album) I always feel is criminally overlooked.

(I would agree. Check out Saviour, Smoking her Clothes, alongside better known singles Dragging Me Down and Generations on iTunes)

What was the highlight of your Inspirals career, "that night in Barcelona" for you?

Playing the River Plate Stadium in Argentina was fantastic just for the immense scale and 100,000 people. I also remember doing a concert in Halle, in the newly unified Germany. Halle was in the East and gig tickets were twice the weekly local wage, we persuaded the promoter to drop the price and those who came were extremely grateful..the power of music can be global. It’s just a shame the falling of the Berlin Wall is synonymous with David Hasselhoff!

One of the noticeable features of Stephen Holt's return to the band is the increase in football banter on twitter, does it add a little edge to rehearsals and band time? How unbearable has he been since the Manchester Derby?

Yes it does add a bit of edge and fun. Steve and Craig have been very quiet since.........although I did change my mobile number on the Monday morning!

I know you support United and Stephen Holt supports City, both come through loud and clear in your tweets, what about the rest of the band?

Craig is another glory hunter, Graham supports Oldham and Clint really likes lots of sports and is a big fan of Sale Sharks.

I had this vision of Clint being a Purple, loving all of Manchester! Do you get to matches often?

Not as often as I’d like. The atmosphere at OT has changed a hell of a lot since the 80’s when I went home and away. At times it feels like a Dire Straits concert….

I remember pictures of a band trip to Old Trafford last season, how did that come about?

The photos were from an MUTV show we did. I go on the station every now and again, Terry Christian hosts some shows and he’s a good friend of the band.

What was your favourite football moment of your lifetime?

Nou Camp..Champions League Final v Bayern Munich….”and Solksjaer has won it!!”

Football heroes?

George Best and Eric Cantona.

I never had the opportunity to see George play but my Dad would rave about him. He (my dad) helped build the Cliff training ground and he would chat regularly with Bestie, he even got hold of an autographed ball which I promptly lost..I was about 6 years old though! Cantona I had the pleasure of watching, his comeback game against Liverpool and his FA Cup winning goal were memorable moments.

Maybe I should have just said football genii!? I saw first hand the quality of the latest young football talent at Old Trafford when they beat my team in the FA Youth Cup Final. Can you recommend any young Manchester music talent that we should look out for in the next 12 months?

I was at that game too. I have high hopes for Paul Pogba, Will Keane and Ryan Tunnicliffe.

In terms of Manchester music, keep an eye out for Ghost Outfit and Rubika.

Musical heroes?

None really. I’ve been privileged to work with some guys who influenced me to get into music. In particular Donald Johnson (A Certain Ratio), Peter Hook and Adrian Sherwood (On U Sound).

Which is your favourite Inspirals track, the one that you look back and think "fuck me, that's a belter" and why?

We’re going through some old tracks at the moment to include in the new set; Seeds Of Doubt with Steve singing sounds really powerful. Every time we play Sackville I always think that’s an era defining song.

(Sackville is a moody and atmospheric song, with a killer chorus, describing the red light area of Manchester. I remember the excitement of finding Sackville Street when in Manchester to see the Inspirals at the Academy. To those of us from outside of Manchester it was a mythical place in the song.)

Do any of you have any Cool as Fuck T-shirts still stashed away in the loft? Is the cow consigned to history?

I have many Inspirals artefacts in the loft…I sound like David Dickinson! I think the cow will still be used, maybe a little more subtly….....

A certain other band of your era somewhat stole your comeback thunder in recent weeks, does the Roses reforming excite you?

I think for our fans it’s great, many of them like us and the Roses.

I noticed on the Louder than War website poll that you were the number 1 choice (now down to 4th - I should add) to be on the bill at Heaton Park, would you be up for it if asked?

The only way I’d enjoy the day, would be if we were playing! I think we’d be a great addition to the bill!

So do I! I would like to thank Martyn for taking the time to answer my questions, it is much appreciated.

You're So Good For Me is out on Monday (21st November) and there will hopefully be some UK tour dates announced soon for early in 2012.


Sunday, 13 November 2011

Views From Opposite Ends - Wilder's Return

Sheffield United returned to take part in the 1st Round of the FA Cup for the first time in 14 seasons on Saturday. Familiar faces were amongst the visitors, with Oxford United managed by former Blades full back Chris Wilder and legendary Blades keeper Alan Hodgkinson also on the U's coaching staff.
It is fair to say that, apart from the return of two Lane favourites, the draw did little to encourage a disgruntled Bramall Lane faithful to come down. With prices of £10 adults and £3 concessions, a crowd of just under 8,000 must be seen as a disappointment. Especially with a healthy Oxford contingent of around 1,500 to 1,800.


Following the success of similar articles last season, it is a pleasure to welcome Matt Bruce, Editor of Oxford United blog "The Boys From Up The Hill" to offer a view on the the match and the Blades from an Oxford persective, whilst I cast an eye over the U's performance and a comfortable victory for the Blades.

A View from the U's

Despite pre-match optimism, Oxford were incapable of making the match a contest. Chris Wilder appeared to have done his old club a favour with his baffling team selection, leaving talismanic striker James Constable on the bench and choosing to play right back Andy Whing in central defence, leaving centre back Harry Worley on the sidelines.In doing so, he further weakened an Oxford side that has been left decimated by injuries and suspension. A weak team selection was compounded further by the decision to change from the usual 4-3-3 infavour of an unfamiliar 4-4-2 formation, and a feeling of dread was hanging over the away end before the match had kicked off.

Oxford fans were right to be worried and Sheffield United dominated the match, and the early stages in particular. I was surprised by how direct the Blades were, and it was disheartening to see Oxford's makeshift defence thrown into chaos by the simple ball over the top or into the channels. Cresswell and Evans proved too much to handle and picked their way through the defence with ease. Oxford, usually comfortable when in possession of the ball, were way too prone to silly mistakes and squandered possession cheaply, which usually resulted in the ball being pumped back up field for more pressure on the Oxford goal.

The match became more competitive after the half time changes (the aforementioned Constable and Worley taking their rightful paces on the pitch) and for a brief while it looked like we would get back into the game. But Sheffield United were very effective at slowing the match down, and after the substitution of our playmaker, Peter Leven, any Oxford threat was over, the match fizzled out and it was no real surprise when the third went in.

It was a strange atmosphere; with an empty Kop end and the ground only a quarter full it almost felt like a pre-season friendly. The only time the noise levels in the ground rose above this was when fans began trading insults across the divide. The turgid football on display didn't exactly help matters and it felt that any noise from the fans was created was in spite of events on the pitch, rather than because of them.

Sheffield United weren't pretty to watch but they got the job done, which must have come as a relief to Blades fans after defeat to Bradford in the JPT. The Oxford midfield was given very little time on the ball as Sheffield pressed effectively and were tenacious in the tackle. In a match as uncompetitive as this one it is difficult to judge the Sheffield United side, but it seems difficult to believe they conceded four at home to Exeter, because the defence looked assured and were rarely troubled this time around.

It was sad that the match was spoiled by Wilder's baffling decisions and the Blades fans that turned up today will have left with a low opinion of Wilder's Oxford, which is a shame as they are usually so much better than that. The overwhelming emotion in the Oxford camp is disappointment – not particularly with the defeat, but with the nature of it. Sheffield United barely had to get out of second gear and were by far the better side.

Massed ranks of Oxford supprt

A View from the Blades

I arrived at Bramall Lane expecting a very tight game and went home surprised at how little competition Oxford supplied for much of the match, content with the result and a little disappointed with aspects of United's performance.

In a match devoid of any atmosphere apart from the unswerving support of Oxford's fans, it was a very strange afternoon. Sat in John Street I was amazed at the number of fans around me who failed to get to their feet when we scored. Apathy rules at Bramall Lane at the minute and that appeared to stretch to our top wage earner pre-match. After the teams had come out, all of United's players went through a number of shuttle runs and warm-ups, with two exceptions. Goalkeeper Steve Simonsen I could understand, but Ched Evans? It appears, with the benefit of hindsight, he didn't need it.

Whereas central defenders Andrew Whing and Jake Wright could cope manfully with Richard Cresswell, they struggled to cope with the movement of Evans. He led the line well and was United's biggest attacking threat, linking to good effect with Quinn and Williamson in the wide positions. He could have had a hat-trick within the first 25 minutes, but for a borderline offside decision. Despite conceding two goals, U's keeper Clarke had a great half, keeping Williamson and Evans amongst others at bay. 

Ched Evan's free kick hits the back of the net - 2-0

Whilst they struggled a bit at the back, they had great difficulty making progress further forward. Peter Leven, who I expected to offer an outlet, was quiet and ex-Owl Paul McLaren was keen to get on the ball but offered little impetus from his passing until he was eventualy substitued. In fact the central midfield was a mess, with ball retention from both sides non-existent. Poor first touches and mis-placed passes ruled.   

Matt's comment regarding United pressing effectively is interesting. I was disappointed in Danny Wilson's team selection; Michael Doyle selected in a workman-like midfield alongside Nick Montgomery. Kevin McDonald seemingly being punished for not maintaining his man of the 1st half performance against Bradford, whilst Doyle was awful throughout. McDonald would have had a field day on Saturday.

Up front I was surprised to see James Constable not selected, I assumed a fitness issue. Even the Blades programme had selected him as the Oxford star man. Middlesboro loanee Franks was barely noticable and Dean Smalley was kept well in check by Harry Maguire. Smalley's ineffectiveness was surprising. Chesterfield fans were keen to see him stay at the B2Net after his loan spell last season and I can only assume Oxford offered decent wages to attract him. With one JPT goal to his name I am guessing Chesterfield, despite their problems, got the better part of the deal.   

With such a poor first half performance, where it could have easily been three or four nil , it was no surprise to see Wilder change things. The freeing up of right back Batt into a more advanced role and the introduction of Constable were key to Oxford having their best spell of the game, but apart from a header saved by Simonsen I didn't feel they offered a threat for the increased amounts of possession.

Constable offered a more physical battle, maybe too physical at times, and it was a good test for Maguire. It would have been interesting to see how well Oxford would have performed if he had been on from the start. The rare times Batt got forward in the first half, you sensed the expectation level rising amongst the away support and he certainly gave Marcus Williams problems in the second half. In fact if Oxford had really got at United's full backs from the start they may have had more joy.

In the end it was a bad decision from the otherwise imressive keeper that gifted the Blades a third and that really was game over. Oxford continued to try and press, but despite the obligatory (self-inflicted) hairy moment, which is par for the course watching the Blades these days it was a comfortable final period.

In writing a piece about Wilder's time at Bramall Lane for The Boys From Up The Hill I referred to the fact that many Blades fans considered Wilder a potential Blades manager of the future. He did little to state his case at Bramall Lane. He perhaps should be given credit for recognising it wasn't working and making the changes, but by then it was all over and from what Matt says it was only reverting to their usual formation anyway. Wilder made the decision to change shape before the match and it didn't work.

I am sure Oxford are better than that performance, I know we are, and I wish we could be more clinical when dominating games like this. The Oxford fans sung we'll play you next year, I genuinely hope they are promoted, but also hope we aren't playing them. Hopefully a clean sheet and three goals can help jump start our stalling season.  

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Danny Wilson's Half Term Report

If you were looking for a managerial appointment greeted with apathy, derision and not a great deal of expectation, than you could look no further than Danny Wilson's appointment as Sheffield United manager in the Summer.

Protesting in the car park, grumbling on the radio, muttering in their armchairs at home; it was hard to find a United supporter happy with the appointment of Wilson. Be it for his Wednesday connections, his recent success (or lack of) in management, the perception he was owner Kevin McCabe's holiday buddy and - for some - the fact that he wasn't Roberto Di Matteo.

Despite a successful start to the season, I tried to reign in expectations. I decided that the time to make a decent initial judgement on his performance was the end of October. Fixtures against Charlton Athletic, Preston North End, MK Dons, Huddersfield Town and the other Sheffield team would go a long way to assessing Wilson's impact on the club. So how does he rate in his half term report?

Transfer market dealings (C+)
Supporters knew deep down that Wilson would have little room to manoeuvre in the transfer market, unless one or more of the high paid senior players were moved on. Yet, by the end of the transfer window, all of those players remained and it was young striking prospect Jordan Slew who had moved on, to fill one of the many empty seats in the Ewood Park stands.

Wilson had little influence over the Slew sale and although the saving on salary, part of the Blades strategy to meet self-sustainability rules, was minimal, the £1m up front fee brought welcome financial succour. Fans were split on the sale;  some describing it as another example of the Blades selling young talent too soon, others saw it as a good deal for an 18 year old with raw promise, but no guarantee of future development.

With Slew's deal finalising late, in the final minutes of the window, Wilson had to act quick. His attempts to sign Rangers pair John Fleck and Kyle Hutton were ultimately thwarted by red tape and faulty fax machines, however it is difficult to see where those signings would have fitted in with the existing squad.

With his initial signings in the Summer, Wilson focused on the wide areas which most fans would agree was an area for investment. To be honest we just wanted to see proper out and out wingers, especially following the departures of Jamie Ward and Mark Yeates. Too often we had seen central midfielders shuffled out wide to limited effect.

Nathaniel Mendez-Laing arrived on loan from Wolves, following a promising loan spell at Peterborough last season, and ex-Liverpool youngster Ryan Flynn arrived from Falkirk. Unfortunately, despite brief appearances, neither have shown enough to warrant a continued run in the team. Flynn lacks pace to go past a man and looks particularly lightweight and easy to knock off of the ball. Mendez-Laing gained popularity with the fans; more through a deftness of touch on his keyboard (with his interaction on twitter) than for a deftness of touch on the ball. For me he hasn't used his obvious pace and strength enough.

Both are young and maybe need time, Mendez-Laing is currently out injured which will set him back further. However what we needed were wide players who could come in and make an impact. Sadly, neither have and until the arrival of Matty Philips we have returned to playing Stephen Quinn and Lee Williamson out wide.

Left back has been a problem position and with Andy Taylor, the only contracted left back in the summer, out until late in the year with a long term injury, Wilson acted quickly to tie up one of his former Swindon players Lescinel Jean Francois. The Haitian impressed in early games, but does have a tendency to daydream, losing awareness of his position at times. Suspension and injury has since seen Reading loanee Marcus Williams slotting in reasonably comfortably at left back, until a poor performance against Exeter.

Ex Burnley midfielder Kevin MacDonald, impressed in pre-season friendlies and the free agent was brought in, impressing on his league debut against Brentford. Performances since have been patchy at times but, given the dearth of central midfield 'footballers' we have currently on the books, he will remain a first team fixture.

Striker Chris Porter joined as damaged goods. Promising goal to game ratios at Oldham and in Scotland were followed by an injury-ravaged spell at Derby where Nigel Clough's parting comments suggested a player beset by mental problems as much as physical ones. Whilst  4 goals in 10 starts, in a rotating strike pool might appear okay, Porter is an extremely frustrating striker. With limited work rate, he is very much a box-finisher. That is fine if you create lots of clear cut chances, which we don't, and if he scores 25 goals a season, which he wont. 

The arrival of Matty Philips and Billy Clarke on loan from Blackpool have given new impetus to the Blades attacking performance. Comfortable interchanging positions out wide and down the middle, they are clearly better than League One standard. Clarke is particularly noticeable when dropping deep to be a catalyst for Blades attacks that he then finds himself on the end of. But for the arrival of these two; Wilson's grading on transfers would be much lower. The question is can we keep them beyond a month? If not, who can he find as adequate replacements.

Overall, Wilson has plugged obvious gaps but we lack depth in certain areas - for example there is little defensive cover across the back four until three players return from long term injuries picked up last season. We are left with a surfeit of midfielders, particulaly when you look at last season's "Development Squad" where players such as David McAllister and Erik Tonne have impressed when used in the first eleven but, along with Danny Philliskirk, struggle to make the matchday squad.  Wilson is certainly hampered by an inability to move on the high wage earners to free up money and squad places, but also the ridiculous decision by the Football League to revise the limit on substitutes back to five. 

Style of play (B)
One consistent throughout last season was that which ever of the four managers was in charge, the standard of football was terrible. Wilson was clearly tasked to change that and comments from Swindon Town and Bristol City bloggers pre-season gave me confidence that he was capable of achieving that. However, changing the style of play and getting the results required to get the fan onside is not so easy to achieve.

One pleasing feature is that we attempt to bring the ball out of defence a lot of the time. This can provide some hairy moments and you can't help feeling that unless we get it wide, or to a striker coming deep we will just end up playing it around the defence and midfield, patiently waiting for the opposition to crack and lacking the creativity to achieve that ourselves.

Wilson seems to like attacking full backs which is great when you are going forward. There is nothing like a galloping full back overlapping and delivering a great cross or finding himself attacking at the back post to get the crowd on their feet. However, this has made us susceptible on the counter attack and many is the time that Matt Lowton or Williams /Jean-Francois have been caught out of position, further exposing an already frail defence.

As pretty as the football is we lack proper physical strength. Even the big players that we have; Maguire, Collins, MacDonald and Cresswell have a tendency to be knocked off the ball too easily and with a physically weak spine it is no surprise that we struggled against the direct, physical style of Wednesday and Huddersfield. The latter being surprisingly direct, but effective playing off Alan Lee and Lee Novak. Two players who we failed to handle all match.

Tactics and substitutions (C+)
Wilson has generally applied a fluid system, looking like 4-4-2 on paper but adaptable to 4-5-1 and 4-3-3 during a game. The recent game vs Exeter City saw us playing with what appeared to be a 4-2-1-3 in more attacking phases with Stephen Quinn playing in the hole. Wilson has made no secret of the fact that he rotates his strikers and tactics according to the opposition.

Generally, this variation has worked well and to reasonable success and 4th place in the league confirms that, yet it ought to be so much better. It is true that player error has played a massive part in us dropping vital points (6 points dropped in the last five minutes of matches, over three consecutive weekends), but to pass each instance off as unfortunate and unavoidable misses the point. It happens too frequently to be dismissed as unfortunate one-offs and seems to bely a more fundamental problem of organisation, communication and understanding. 

It doesn't appear something that Wilson is acknowledging or tackling. Then again, how do you tackle the problem if you lack a leader in your back four and don't have a vocal organiser? In the absence of Chris Morgan and Jonny Ertl there is no leader and no-one is available to give Maguire a rest. We are relying on a 17 year old goalkeeper, as we cannot trust one of our highest paid and most experienced players to do his job in goal. If there are no funds for Wilson to act, then fair enough, but at the minute he appears impotent or reluctant to act. Which is it?

One final point around the anxiety when protecting leads relates to Wilson's substitutions. At times they have removed the impetus we had when taking the lead, probably causing us to sit deeper, invite teams on and anxiety spreads from stands to pitch. Interestingly neutral supporters I know who attended the matches against MK Dons and Exeter both commented how the fans' anxiety transferred to the players. The problem being that in both games you could question the need to make a change, nevermind the choice of players interchanged. The negativity increased as the crowd became more pensive.

Top 8 clashes (C)
Of the teams around us, the only team we are yet to play is Notts County. Against the other six our record is
P6 (5 Home/1 Away) W2 D2 L2  GF 11 GA 11

With such a bias towards home games you have to hope for a better outcome than that.

Looking at it in more detail, the two victories have come at home to Brentford (2-0) and MK Dons (2-1). Draws with Wednesday at home and Tranmere away, saw us letting slip leads. Throwing away a two goal lead in the final 10 minutes against Wednesday being particularly painful.

The two defeats, both at home, to Huddersfield (3-0) and Charlton (2-0) were again full of naivete at the back and mistakes. To be honest we were looking the better side against Charlton until lacklustre marking and a horrific defensive error cost us two goals in two minutes and there was no way back. Huddersfield was a closer match than the margin of defeat suggested, but again we are failing to pick up the points required at home. 

Dealing with the media (B+)
I think fans appreciate Danny's honest, straight-forward approach when discussing performances. Too often in the past we have been treated like idiots as managers try to tell us how well we have played and how unlucky we have been, much to the derision of supporters who viewed the performance as unacceptable and lacklustre.

Whilst lacking the bluntness shown by Micky Adams, who often let his emotions and frustrations take over, you see a considered and thought through opinion. He doesn't try to mask inadequacies and neither will he make promises he knows he cannot keep. Whilst other managers in the division seem to want to provide soundbites for attention, Wilson quietly goes about his business in a positive and approachable manner.

Dealing with the fans (A)
As with his dealings with the media, Wilson and, to be fair, the club have been quite savvy in their dealings with the fans. With fans interest groups now having a forum with directors and senior management, supporter forums taking place which Wilson has attended, the club has made significant improvements in re-connecting with a disenfranchised fanbase.

It says a lot about Wilson that he was willing to meet with the car park protesters baying for his blood on his appointment and has continued to interact since. Certainly the club's improved social media prescence helps, with Wilson's press conference comments shared with the fans as it happens. You hear a lot more from Wilson than previous managers. Or maybe you hear less in quantity, but more in terms of pertinent comment.

There will be those who will never accept Wilson. There are those who are just waiting for a significant slip-up. I for one think he could do little more at the moment in terms of fan engagement, without distracting him from his primary task. 

Overall (C+)

This may seem a harsh mark for a manager whose team is sitting 4th in the table and 4 points clear of 7th. Expectations were not high at the start of the season and I expected us to finish in the top half, but outside the play offs. Despite having what must be the highest wage bill in the division, most supporters expected at least two or three senior players to move on. Combined with the disruption caused by new players being integrated and the imposition of a new style of play this would mean a season of consolidation. With those expensive players largely in situ, I can only assume potential suitors are deterred by prohibitive salaries, I think 4th is where we should expect to be.

The drop in standard from the Championship has been notable and it is only our own failings that have stopped us achieving a higher position. There is still plenty for Wilson to work on and where we end up this season will largely depend on what he has to work with in terms of a squad come the end of January and an ability to wheel and deal in the loan market to provide adequate cover when required.

Wilson's time at Swindon turned sour when some of his better players were sold on. He needs to ensure the same doesn't happen at Bramall Lane.