Monday, 31 December 2012

Do The Right Thing

It started as a simple question on Saturday night; “If your club had a player shown two yellow cards, but no red, would you expect them to do the right thing and walk?”
 The responses I received were very interesting and once you put aside those comments driven by football rivalries i.e. applying it to the case in hand rather than, as I asked, if it was their club’s player, they showed a lack of belief in fairness and sportsmanship in football. The general tone being; If officials don’t do their jobs properly then why shouldn’t players/teams exploit it? On Saturday, gamesmanship took over from sportsmanship, a majority of fans who responded seemed happy with that precedence.
For me, it doesn’t sit right, but I can see where they are coming from. Taking Saturday’s incidents at the John Smith’s Stadium as the example, Sheffield Wednesday’s Jeremy Helan received his second yellow card after 20 minutes.  In effect, Huddersfield Town should have had a man advantage it what proved to be a tight Derby tussle for around 70 minutes. You could argue that the referee’s failure had a significant influence on the potential outcome of the game and Huddersfield’s anger was understandable.
However, I guess there are incidents like that in every game, where the outcome changes on one decision. Be it an incorrect offside call, a handball that is missed, or the Stuart Atwell goal incident at Watford, the official are potentially culpable in determining the outcome of game. Many of the responses on Saturday night, including several from Terriers supporters took this view. The referee has made a mistake, by all means complain, but if he refuses to reverse his decision or acknowledge his mistake, move on and get on with the game.
What makes Saturday’s situation even worse was that there was a fourth official and two assistant referees who witnessed the decisions. The fourth official in particular was the recipient of Simon Grayson’s ire and that of his coaching staff. What stopped him realising the mistake. For one official to get a decision wrong is one thing, for it to be compounded by the failure of three others is something quite unbelievable.
So Saturday and the response of fans afterwards tells me that we are quite happy to accept gamesmanship when the officials fail in their duties. That we are content to watch players shuffle away with a wry grin, for benefiting managers to pass it off post match in interviews. The very same manager who for the last couple of months has done nothing but complain about unfair refereeing decisions as his side went on a long and fruitless winless run.
That end of the last paragraph isn’t meant as a dig at the manager involved on Saturday. I can think of many managers who would have done the same, including those who have stood on the Bramall Lane touchline.
Maybe I am foolishly hoping for a utopian footballing world where sportsmanship actually wins over. Where the player voluntarily walks off to the tunnel, knowing the incorrect decision has been made. Where his manager wouldn’t condemn him for his action, but acknowledge the claims of opposition manager and fans and tells his player to come off. But hey, as someone pointed out on Saturday night, it’s just not cricket. Or Snooker. Or Rugby.  Or other sports where you see sporting acknowledgement of incorrect decisions of those that the referee/umpire misses. Not always, I grant you, but it is still a more frequent event than at a football match.
I can think of few occasions when sportsmanship has stood out over gamesmanship in football; Di Canio catching the ball as Everton goalkeeper lay injured and the empty goal was beckoning in December 2000, some may suggest the Arsenal offer of a replay to the Blades following Marc Overmars’ controversial goal in the 1999 cup tie, but I beg to differ. Arsenal could have let United equalise and then play on the rest of the match with the scores level, as they were prior to the goal. The offer of a replay benefited Arsenal as much with home advantage, gate receipts etc.
More recent examples show that when advantage has been gained, the benefiting team rarely recognise their advantageous stretching of fair play and there is little the officials could do. Ask Nordsjaelland or even Sheffield Wednesday themselves. The fact that so few stand up for fair play, seems to make it less and less likely other teams will set the example, particularly when they have suffered an injustice previously.
Maybe football could try and set new standards. Maybe Reading players should have admitted to Stuart Attwell that the “ghost goal” he awarded them in 2008 was nowhere near the Watford goal. Maybe the Shakhtar Donetsk players and management together should have acknowledged that Luiz Adriano’s goal was out of order and properly stood aside for Nordsjaelland to score from the kick off, instead of being split on what they should do. Maybe the Yeovil players last season should have stood aside to allow Wednesday to score; their player manager was on the pitch and could have instigated it. Maybe Jeremy Helan should have walked off the pitch on Saturday. Instead he lingered, saw the red card hadn’t followed and sheepishly shrugged and walked back into position.  Maybe his manager should have hauled him off, or supported Simon Grayson’s claims to the fourth official.
And maybe football won’t. In fact I know it won’t. Football over the last 20 years has been corrupted by money, to a greater extent than any other sport. Money places enormous pressure on managers and players. Pressure to win, pressure to succeed whatever the cost, every point and every place has a huge financial reward. Morals are marginalised and a generation of fans see the boundaries of acceptable behaviour stretched, more so if the officials and authorities are inept at dealing with those incidents when they occur.
Do you know what? In a year of depressing incidents in football, that makes me a little sadder and a little more disillusioned with the game. I doubt 2013 will do much to change my view.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Things I have learned about football in 2012 - No. 2

For the second in this end of year round-up of posts, a few thoughts on the Portsmouth FC situation and the response of some of their support.

Pompey Chimes Out of Tune

Portsmouth FC fans ought to deserve some sympathy and, for a while, I have given it to them. But over the course of the year they have started to grate with, rather than ingratiate themselves to, some fellow football fans; me included.
What has happened at Portsmouth could happen to any club. Over time, clubs have been set back or destroyed by the unscrupulous actions of local businessmen or tainted by much vaunted foreign owners. The continued failure of Fit & Proper rules for ownership should be a constant source of embarrassment to the footballing authorities and one can only hope that the financial fair play rules are more adept at preventing the financial meltdown of clubs funded well beyond self-sustainable means.
But as the Portsmouth administration lingers on for the second time, I have grown tired of the self-righteous bullshittery mouthed by certain supporters of the club. When questions were raised about the high profile (for League One) short term signings being made by the club at the start of the season; including a player who, prior to signing for Pompey, couldn't negotiate a deal with a club with 18,000 crowds and a salary cap to meet, they couldn't see the problem. Detractors were chided for knowing nothing about the financial state of the club and generally being "clueless". True the administrator should not be running the club so close to the financial precipice, but who really knows?
There was nothing to stop Portsmouth signing professional players to pep up their squad this season, but with many local businesses remaining unpaid or receiving pennies in the pound, the irony of signing Championship and League One players appeared lost on many. You can point the finger at previous owners, but the one constant that remains, for now, is the football club and as one commenter on this excellent post at The Two Unfortunates was quick to point out, the administrator of the football club was sitting on a £6m bank balance.
Whether the amount is a fact or not, the problem remains that yet again a football club hits financial meltdown and leaves a trail of destruction for local businesses in its wake, yet they still have funds to pay players' wages. To creditors offered 20p in the £ in the first CVA (and never saw it) and potentially 2p in the £ now, that £6m that Pompey have burning a hole in their bank account (and are using to fund good League One players) must provide great succour as they struggle to keep their business running and cut jobs.
Accusations of jealousy abounded on social networks;
"You were only hoping for an easy three points" - No we are looking for fairness in the way clubs are treated and special cases not being made for others.
"We have a right to sign players to be competitive; it's in the Football League rules" - What rules are these then? The Football League rules state:
"Each club shall play its full strength in all matches played under the auspices of The League unless some satisfactory reasons are given."
That is the strongest available side. If you can only sign League 2 standard players or use your youth players that is tough.
"It's just not fair on Portsmouth" - Who said football, and life for that matter, is fair? If you are dealt a duff hand, then you just have to play it. Cup finals and AC Milan at Fratton Park - shall we disregard those then, given you, in effect, achieved them through financial doping?
"You just don't understand, it is a lot more complicated than a simplistic narrative" - I am sure it is, but the fact remains how certain fans behave now they have got here is causing people to lose any compassion or understanding they might have had for the circumstances.   
I have even heard the "big club" card being played by Pompey fans this year, the joker in the pack that belies a multitude of sins. How are they measured as a big club? Crowds of less than 20,000? An FA Cup in 2008? A Europa League campaign? Two League titles over 60 years ago? The chiding of other club's fans demonstrated an arrogance that saddened me. The use of "tin-pot" to deride fans of other smaller clubs; the last desperate cry of fans who cannot accept their club has found its rightful place, below where they perceive they should be and they refuse to accept it.
Underlying the questions being asked is a belief amongst supporters of other clubs that Pompey are getting opportunities that were not afforded to clubs in similar positions before. Smaller clubs have been to hell in a handcart for less. Pompey's points deductions have been nowhere near those suffered by Luton Town or South coast rivals AFC Bournemouth. To think there was talk of an appeal against the ten point deduction when they eventually exit administration (again) was some sort of sick joke.
The fact that football remains the exception in terms of insolvencies, thanks to the ridiculous football creditor rules, is one thing, but to see varying punishments being doled out by the authorities following CVAs and administrations is quite another. Portsmouth fans should be thankful that they haven't been treated any worse. Other clubs have.
Much reference is made to the wonderful support of the South Coast club and whilst the Pompey Trust deserve enormous credit for their efforts to salvage their club, the tribal and aggressive rhetoric of a number of their supporters in defending their club and its current undertakings, leaves me cold.
I don't wish ill on Portsmouth FC, I really do hope they find a long-term solution to the club's woes, but forgive me if I cock a deaf 'un to the sanctimony. If Kevin McCabe ever properly pulled the plug on the Blades' funding, or sold out to a miscreant businessman, I'd like to think I'd accept our situation and deal with it with a greater deal of maturity and lesser degree of arrogance than that demonstrated by some of the Portsmouth support in the last twelve months.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Things I have learned about Football in 2012 - No. 1

It is rare that I write about non-Blades related subjects these days. So, to round off the year, I thought I would cover off a few thoughts about wider football issues in 2012. To begin, a few thoughts on the adoration and adulation for Lionel Messi.

Messianic Status

Lionel Messi is a great footballer. At times he is simply unstoppable; an irresistible footballing force, cutting through opposition defences with precision and an incisiveness capped by an un-erring ability to find the back of the net.

He is the greatest player of his generation and probably in the top 3 players of my lifetime. So much to admire, with very few elements of his game that would cause annoyance or frustration. Sadly this year the media obsession with the diminutive Argentine has driven me to distraction.

With so many media channels; both written and spoken, online, broadcast, published and 24 hour news channels with content to fill. Everyone needs a new angle, a new fact, to elevate a player to messianic status and beyond.

Then it came. Messi had set a new record they said. "Most goals scored in a calendar year." Calendar year? Since when does football refer to calendar years? The only thing "Annual" in football were the Shoot! and Topical Times Football books I used to receive each Christmas.

"He takes the record from Gerd Muller who scored 85 goals for Bayern Munich in 1972" the reports stated. Much to the surprise of the majority of football fans, who knew little of the record, and I am guessing Der Bomber, who would have perhaps enjoyed the acclaim of such a title had it been properly bestowed on him before it was taken away.

Then came reports that Muller didn't actually hold the record. It was claimed that Zambian Godfrey Chitalu had scored 107 in 1972. This dispute led to FIFA taking their usual Ostrich like response, but for once I actually agreed with them. They claim not to keep records on annual basis or for individual countries. That is because it is a work of faction. Numbers and facts used to create a story, build the myth. The thing is, it is wholly unnecessary.

To manufacture or resurrect contrived records to somehow accentuate his achievements, actually diminishes his feats. He scores lots of goal, many more than most, many of them that others would struggle to score. That's it. If he top scores in a season - great. If he sets a record for the most goals in a season - brilliant. And to think, the likelihood is that you have had the opportunity to see every single one of them. 

I grew up in an era when, to see Maradona, Platini and Zico we were left with sporadic viewings on Midweek Sports Special, On the Ball or The Big Match. We saw their "best bits", assuming a camera crew was there for the game in question. If the cameras were there the wrong week, your luck was out. If there was an amusing clip from an African Nations Cup tie for Jimmy Greaves to chuckle at, we got that instead.

How many great goals, mazy runs and wonderful trickery from those three and others were seen by those in the stadium but few others? If the coverage of football was as limited in Italy, Spain and Brazil as the Football League was in England, then that would certainly be the case. 
We are fortunate to see Messi week in week out, the great, the good, the infrequently ugly. Let us just sit back and soak it all up. Watch in awe, sit mesmerised and clap and nod in approval. Don't bother looking for the next superlative, don't compare, don't look to create meaningless titles and records.
Just enjoy.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

An Unwanted Record

Following last weekend's Premier League fixtures, the BBC Sport twitter account decided to share a fact with their followers. Sadly it was one of those flawed facts that assumes that top flight football has only existed for 20 years and everything before it just isn't relevant.
Everything these days is referred to in terms of "the Premier League era", however the record for the worst start in top flight history was not set last week. QPR equalled it. Not that the club involved would want that tag, but I guess a happy ending makes it more palatable.
Just under two years before the Premier league kicked off, Sheffield United reached the 22nd December 1990 sitting bottom of Division 1 after 16 games and with just 4 points to their name. They were 8 points behind QPR , who sat one place higher and, given their awful goal difference, some 12 points from safety. The visitors to Bramall Lane that cold and misty afternoon were Nottingham Forest and the victory that followed kick-started United's season. Ian Bryson scored two and Brian Deane the other in a 3-2 win.
Bryson coming close to what would have been his only career hat trick, as the ball hit both posts and came back out again. When United took the lead; Bryson became only the 4th player to score a league goal for United all season. However the joy was short lived as Forest scored from the re-start without a United player touching the ball. Future Blades player Franz Carr playing in Roy Keane for the equaliser.
Keane then played Stuart Pearce in for Forest to take the lead and that first league victory seemed a distant dream. Then two brilliant crosses from the right wing and the boot of Carl Bradshaw, led to pinpoint headers first from Bryson and then from Deane.
The final whistle brought slightly surreal scenes, as unbridled relief led to a celebratory pitch invasion from jubilant fans. It had the feel of a promotion clinching match or a cup giant-killing. As two goal hero Ian Bryson described it;
"It was a great relief to get our first win and the fans obviously felt the same, we felt we had been playing well but we just couldn't get the win. Once we won that game the confidence within the squad grew and we gradually moved up the table."
The victory did have a positive effect, United winning 1-0 in their next game away at Luton Town, but it then took until late January for United to put any kind of form together. Through to the beginning of March they went on a run of 8 wins and a draw in 9 games. By season end they had won 13 games and eventually stayed up in 13th place. That was 12 points clear of the relegation places (only two teams went down) and 9 points clear of third bottom (ordinarily the last relegation place). Interestingly, QPR the team directly above them just before Christmas also survived finishing one place lower.
Brian Deane also explained how United and manager Dave Basset fashioned that change in form.
"It was an era where things were changing in football. Dave Bassett knew that he didn’t have a team that could compete technically with some of the better teams. We couldn’t afford some of the players that some of the other clubs had, they wouldn’t be attracted to come to Bramall Lane and play. But we found ways of equalising the situation by being a little bit more scientific in our approach to games."
"I can’t say we were the first but we were certainly one of the first. If you look at what happened up to the point of us having four points just before Christmas; we actually introduced a new diet, we introduced new training methods, we had a fitness trainer (Ed Baranowski) come in twice a week and we became fitter and stronger than other teams. We scored more goals in the last ten minutes than other teams and they struggled to cope with us. In the end we survived because we adapted and changed and no one else had cottoned on to what we were doing. If they had been doing it, then the probability is that we would have struggled."
So can QPR take comfort from the Blades' turnaround that season? Speaking earlier this season Bryson told me;
"Although the league is different now, I don't think anyone will survive from that kind of position again."
Yet I think this season could prove the exception to the rule; despite the fact QPR sit bottom on 7 points, some 8 points from safety. So why do I think they are the team that could achieve this and are there any similarities between now and 22 years ago.
Whilst it is true that money has distorted football in recent years, you would have to say that QPR are in a position to turn this around. In fact they are financially stronger than many of the clubs they will be battling with in the fight for survival.
United benefited from the fact that they had many teams around them that you would claim are beatable. The fact that they went on to beat Manchester United, Everton, Villa and Chelsea certainly helped their cause, but United must have felt that they stood a chance against the likes of Luton, Derby, Coventry and Sunderland. QPR could legitimately claim the same. On paper they have a squad that should at least be a match for many of the teams around them. The importance of starting a run of wins and the impact it can have is exemplified by Norwich, now 12th after 9 games without defeat.
It strikes me that team spirit is something lacking in modern day football. maybe it has been "poisoned" by the money? After all it is rare you get a team coming up that don't sign a few established star names, often to the detriment of the overall team and the players who earned their promotion. Few of  Dave Bassett's signings that season came from the top flight and for most it was the first taste of top flight football. You could even argue that his biggest signing, Vinnie Jones, caused as much disruption as positivity.
Talking to the players of that time, there was a real "in this together" mentality, a closeness of team, club and fans that you only rarely see in football these days and certainly not in the Premier League. The nearest you can see to it now is perhaps Stoke, combining a team ethic with a stoic belief in what they are doing. There are few egos in that Stoke side, however there are plenty dotted throughout  many of the other teams in the Premier League, including those in the bottom quartile and in particular at Loftus Road.
Whilst, as Brian Deane explained, United benefited from innovative thinking in terms of preparation, training etc. it is hard to see where the Hoops can do anything revolutionary. However, they are in a position to do something different. A change of manager, should bring new ideas and whilst that might not necessarily translate into results straight away, there is potential for long term improvement. QPR have certainly not seen the immediate boost that "new manager syndrome" often provides, but it is hard not to believe that Harry Redknapp's influence and potentially changes of system and roles won't have an impact soon.   
There was a different expectation level placed on managers 20 years ago. Following back to back promotions, there was little clamour for changing the manager when the team were struggling to adapt at the top level. I think that managers would not get the benefit of such time these days, that has been shown at QPR, albeit on the back of one season of Premier League football already. I just hope that Southampton show the patience Nigel Adkins' hard work and success deserves, in similar circumstances to Dave Bassett 22 years ago.

So can QPR survive? In some ways, and despite the huge changes in football since, I actually think that they are in a better place than United were. Redknapp has talked of not spending in January, although I will believe that when I see it, and that will certainly allow him to pep up a squad with his kind of players. A new broom and the capability to change the squad could be the difference. 
Saturday's game at home to Fulham is a great opportunity to kick start the survival push but, even if they fail to win and take United's unwanted record outright, I wouldn't bet against them staying up. 

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Why "The Worst Manager" Escapes Vilification

We live in an ever demanding football world. The past is soon forgotten, as runs of bad results immediately lead to cat-calls from the terraces and managerial obituaries written by keyboard warriors. When past success has been obliterated from the memory, all that is left is the resonating sound of the failures that brought a managerial reign to an end. Either a mournful last post or a rousing anthem of uprising and anger.
Fans have long memories. Very few managers leave and are remembered fondly. When they do, there is always the denouement which tarnishes it. Dave Bassett took United to successive promotions and back to the top flight for the first time in 14 years yet, in the latter days of his reign, United's poor form following relegation and his inability to address the issues led to infighting amongst fans at matches. There are few things as divisive as a dip in form from a worshipped manager.
Bassett is lucky, fans will look back on his time fondly and he is guaranteed a great reception every time he returns to Bramall Lane. Others will never be that lucky. Returning manager's receptions are either black or white, you either loved them or you didn't. Rarely is it a grey area. Saturday demonstrated the exception to the rule.
Micky Adams returned to Bramall Lane, as United faced his Port Vale side in an FA Cup tie, just 18 months after he had departed having presided over the final instalment of one of United's worst seasons in recent memory. He had joined a club in turmoil, much of its own making, thanks to sacking Kevin Blackwell just three games into the season and then giving the late Gary Speed his first managerial experience before he left after 3 months to take the Wales job.
Few shed any tears for Blackwell, although the timing of the decision was widely condemned as ill-conceived, and once he had gone the club was only ever going to promote Speed; a man finding his way in the job. By the time Adams took over from caretaker boss John Carver on 30th December 2010, United sat in a disappointing 19th place, two points above the relegation places. United were fighting to get the club back on an even keel, paying the price for maintaining a Premier League infrastructure, paying players extortionate salaries in a sign at all costs mentality and a misuse of the loan market.    
A Blades fan from childhood, Adams' appointment received a mixed reception from United fans. Some saw him as a relatively safe pair of hands, an unimaginative, but steady appointment. Those last two adjectives also being barbs aimed by his detractors and those of the board who wanted United to show a little initiative in their appointment. Maybe he could be the man to put a bit of passion back into an apathetic club, limping along in the Championship.
The immediate, and often short term, boost in form from the appointment of a new manager never happened and the appointment of Dave Bassett as a consultant, to advise and share the burden, just over a month into his reign was a sign he wasn't up to the job. Far too often winnable games, slipped away. Rumours quickly spread of player dissention and disciplinary issues.
The beginning of the end was a week in February when United played relegation rivals Preston, Palace and Scunthorpe and picked up no points. The Scunthorpe game saw United 2-0 up at Glanford Park, before eventually losing 3-2. Post-match, in an emotional interview with local radio, Adams referred to issues behind the scenes that were not helping him in his job. He suggested that it was 'about time the players took responsibility because you can’t fool the public all the time.' He sounded at a loss as to what to do next.
Having had a small advantage over relegation rivals on Adams' arrival, United made as much progress as an asthmatic ant with a large bag of shopping. United finished second bottom and were seven points from safety. Adams' United took 14 games to get a win and by the season end had won 4 games in 25. United had incurred one of the division's biggest wage bills and used 40 players.
Saturday saw a muted reception from the Blades fans as Adams appeared on the touchline. All the noise being made by the Vale fans still supportive of a manager who had left them for the Blades, only to return and successfully steer the financially stricken club to second in League 2. The only time United fans joined in the "One Micky Adams" chants was ironically as Shaun Miller stole it for the Blades in the final seconds of injury time. As the fans chanted "Na, Na, Na, Na, he's a Blade and he's a Blade", a little bit of you felt for the man stood staring in disbelief on the touchline.
As we watched the highlights of the FA Cup on ITV at the weekend, Adams appeared for a post-match interview. His rabbit in the headlamps stare was something we saw so often saw in his previous time at Bramall Lane. He had a general look of bewilderment at the events that had unfolded and looked like he was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. He talked about his love of United, how glad he was to have received a warm welcome and how he hoped United went on to further success. The edit removing any comment on his new club and how they had performed.
"Aww", said my wife. "I just want to give him a big hug. He looks like he needs one."
I saw a similar comment from a fellow (female) Blade on my twitter timeline the next day. And there you have Micky Adams in a nutshell.
A man who got his dream job, in the most trying of circumstances and just wasn't up to it. A majority of fans bear him little malice. They recognise he was one of us. No-one doubted his efforts, no-one could believe he didn't do anything but his best, but his best just wasn't good enough. He came across as the little boy lost, deep in his own thoughts, chastened by his experiences and unable to foster the respect and toil required of his charges. A man you would happily share a pint with, but wouldn’t necessarily leave in control of the family crockery, you know, just in case he dropped it. A man who looks like he needs a hug.
Past managers have dismayed Blades fans with their attitude (Steve Bruce), their ineptitude (Adrian Heath) or both (Bryan Robson). Bruce deserted when money became tight, Heath's man- management and results were awful and Bryan Robson squandered probably the biggest budget and most talented squad in recent memory, yet aimed his barbs at the fans rather than recognising his own failings. None would get anything near a warm welcome at Bramall Lane. None would receive the dispassionately neutral response Adams received, yet statistically Adams was the worst manager in United's history.   
Back in 2010-11 Adams was a loyal and committed sergeant leading his troops over the top on an risk-laden mission, compromised by events that had gone before and the plans of the generals and tacticians above him. At the same time he was unable to organise his troop of deserters and people just not up to and up for the charge. The outcome had been depressingly predictable for some time. Few will forget those events, few will look back fondly on Micky Adams' time at Sheffield United, but few will doubt his commitment and effort.
I can imagine he made a note in his diary as he headed to Bramall Lane for the final home game against Barnsley, fate all but sealed, that simply said "Bugger!". It was only a surprise that he never appeared on camera with two pencils up his nose and his underpants on his head shouting "Wibble". Mind you I doubt it would have helped, I mean, who would have noticed another madman round Bramall Lane that season?

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The Blades "Creweprint"

Tuesday night saw the return of a fixture that I have not had the pleasure of watching for some time. Crewe Alexandra visited Bramall Lane; a match where you are guaranteed to watch at least one side play football and at times in the past that has been The Railwaymen. Thankfully, both teams on Tuesday night played "the right way" and the 3-3 draw that ensued will have been fine fare for the neutral, if a little frustrating for the fans of both sides as leads were thrown away and contentious refereeing decisions played a part in the eventual outcome.
It is fair to say that Crewe Alexandra are the best side I have seen so far at Bramall Lane this season, playing with a swift incisiveness across the pitch and a movement off the ball that has it's foundations in stability, a strong academy system and a belief in a certain way of playing that has been actively pursued over the last 30 years. They moved the ball around the pitch with a crispness and pace that to me was clearly sharper than the Blades attractive, but more pedestrian, play.
On Tuesday night, the average age of the Crewe side was 23. A look through the programme reveals an average squad age of 21.5 with 15 of the 27 players having come through the club's youth system. The importance in the academy pipeline emphasised by the continued investment in the required infrastructure, facilities and coaches required under the new academy infrastructures put in place by the Elite Player Performance Plan. 
Crewe have successfully achieved Category 2 Academy status, a rare achievement compared with other clubs of similar size and stature. It puts them on a similar footing to many Championship and some Premier League clubs and it is to their great credit that they see the continuation of youth development as so important, especially against the backdrop of the deserved controversy that the EPPP has generated. Chairman John Bowler told the Crewe Chronicle;
"That's the kind of standing we feel we deserve and we have a right to be in that group. We want to be because we want to be associated with those types of clubs". Confident that Crewe will attract and in the short term retain good young players who recognise the club's ability to successfully develop their career."
The sale of players has always been important to Alexandra; funding both squad strengthening, underpinning the running of the club and also the ongoing success of the youth production line. That production line was tested again this summer when, after the success of promotion at Wembley, the club sold two of its latest young starlets in Nick Powell and Ashley Westwood to Manchester United and Aston Villa respectively. In that context, the start they have made to this season, establishing themselves mid-table in League One, is all the more impressive.
It ought to be noted that the club's plan is not without its ups and downs. In recent seasons the club has spent 3 seasons in League Two, following a spell of 3 years in League One and a prolonged spell in the Championship.
Crewe have supplemented their side with loan players and you can see that they have made an impact, slotting into the side. In fact two of the impressive front three on Tuesday; Lauri Dalla Valle and Chuks Aneke, have arrived from Fulham and Arsenal respectively. The other member of that trio Matthias Pogba was signed from Blue Square Premier club Wrexham and is a fine example of the quality that can be picked up in the lower divisions of English football and the upper echelons of the pyramid.
Where Crewe suffer, and this probably explains their current mid-table position, is that they have a soft underbelly. A team, lacking experienced leaders on the pitch can be defensively susceptible and no amount of hard work and a good team ethic is going to prevent that. They are also prone to making mistakes, something acknowledged by manager Steve Davis.
Development from within has been on the Blades agenda for the last couple of years and it shows. The Blades starting eleven on Tuesday had an average age of 24, just a year more than Crewe. The challenge for Jamie Hoyland and the further new recruits to the academy coaching team is to maintain the good work put in place by Ron Reid and John Pemberton; a task which we shouldn't under-estimate the size of in the current climate. Despite United's recent Youth Cup and Milk Cup success, the academy has only been given provisional Category 2 status, pending an ISO Audit in the new year. The arrival of Hoyland and others all part of the investment in the quality and quantity of coaching required by the EPPP rules.  
Where United have a distinct advantage is in the relative size of the clubs. The difference in crowds between clubs in this division is immense. United's average last season delivered Turnover of some £4.5m in gate receipts. That in turn allows us to sign experienced players, particularly down the spine of the team. That is not to say United are not without an emphasis on young talent. Development from within has been on the Blades agenda for the last couple of years and it shows. The Blades starting eleven on Tuesday had an average age of 24, just a year more than Crewe.
Where I think United have struggled is integrating loan players, with an understandable reluctance to utilise the loan market unless absolutely necessary, having had our fingers burned during the Championship relegation season. When we have, the success stories are rare.
United are at a crucial time in their recent history. Looking at the accounts, it is clear that promotion is vital this season. Kevin McCabe's stated aim of a financially self-sufficient club clearly is dependent upon Championship football. Whilst achieving the salary cap of 65% helps move the club in the right direction, the other costs of running a club and stadium the size of Bramall Lane should not be under-estimated. Unpicking the football club results from the plc accounts, with all that has gone on in recent years is not that easy, but what you can see is a club that lost £13m (before tax) on its football operations last season.
On top of this, we can also see that taking the step up to the Championship isn't straight forward. Even the self-proclaimed biggest clubs outside of the Premier League have struggled to push on to the upper echelons of the Championship. For others, maintaining their recent success after a prolonged unbeaten run is proving troublesome, their difficulties coming after signing several players of clear Championship ability to bolster a successful League 1 squad.
Therein lays a problem. Whilst United will have a better ability to build an improved squad than most other challengers for promotion, the likelihood is that we will still see a few lean seasons financially in the Championship. Whilst parachute payments make the gap between top and bottom even wider, the club will still be bridging a gap between loss making and break-even. Whilst there will be increased income as a result of being in the Championship, from TV (the fall in TV income in the last 12 months was £3.5m), gate receipts and commercial enterprise; the emphasis on youth development, stability and a way of playing that permeates all levels of the club structure is vital.
This might not bring the immediate success Unitedites crave and we might have to suffer some ups and downs as Crewe have, hopefully not with the movement between divisions! I can see this is the only way to long term stability, and the structure to deliver a return to the top flight. I am no McCabe apologist, as those who regularly read this blog will know, but in his Chairman's Statement in the accounts he refers to the transition, through the recruitment of young players, to comply with the Salary Cost Management Protocol. In the Business Review, Scott McCabe talks of, "the professional squad gradually reducing in size while rationalizing it to support a more fluid progression for home-grown players from the Club's Academy and for young acquisitions from the transfer market."
Ordinarily, this financial straightening would have started last season, but for players still being under expensive contracts that other clubs were unwilling to take on. Things were that bad, we have had to pay players to leave this summer and we have accepted transfer fees for others with a value and staged payments that fans have looked on with incredulity. In effect we are a year behind in this adjustment and we might have found that the club would have still undergone a serious level of change even if we had achieved promotion last season.    
Sheffield United going forward are going to have to be a bit like Crewe. To the more arrogant elements of our support, that might seem like heresy. I can think of several clubs where the wider support would dismiss such talk as" tinpot" thinking. It does sit contrary to the want it all, want it now, want it yesterday mind-set of modern society and the money-fuelled upper echelons of the game.
Some might say, well that just means we develop great young players and sell them as we always do.  That might well be the case and at times, in the past, given the relative position of the club at the time, I have been suitably aggrieved at this. However, we need to look at where we are now, where football is now. Youth development and the profit on the sale of those players is going to be an important source of income for the club; up until and probably even after we make it back to the Premier League. In many ways, it will be as important as it is to a club the size of Crewe, but for different reasons.
A long term strategy, with stability, an emphasis on youth and a core culture to the club and its coaching might not bear fruit tomorrow, but it will reap a rich harvest for clubs like United and Crewe in the future. We might just have to sit out a failed crop or two in the short term.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Danny Wilson's Half Term Report - Year 2


Twelve months ago, I posted a Half Term Review of Danny Wilson's initial spell in charge. In what was a tense time, with supporter opinion divided on the new man in charge, United were hitting a bit of a blip in terms of results and were struggling for form against those clubs around them. Rolling  forward 12 months and some of the comparisons are interesting and common themes emerge.


Transfers (B-)
United started last season with much of the previous season's squad intact and that certainly played a key part in the relative success we enjoyed last season. This season it is very much different. With the departure of four key players, three of which were wholly necessary to enable the club to comply with the SMCP (salary cap) rules and another at Her Majesty's Pleasure, Danny was always going to need to work miracles in the transfer market. At the same time, the onus was on blooding young players.
Of those coming in, three have settled into first team action. Tony McMahon was seen as a great signing by many and has taken up the right back slot vacated by the departing Matt Lowton. And therein lays the problem. As steady as McMahon has been, he is not Lowton and the absence of marauding runs forward like Lowton offered, probably tars opinion of the new man.
Nick Blackman is the Blades top scorer and certainly possesses more than enough talent to be a success in League One. But as Irecently suggested to the Football League site The Two Unfortunates, you can't help feeling he could be achieving so much more if he applied himself and his energies better.
Dave Kitson was an unusual signing and one that the manager seems to have had little influence in. After all, we had five strikers on the books when he signed his short term deal until January and at the time fans wanted the diminishing salary pot used elsewhere. Also a friendship with the McCabe family seemingly had a defining impact on his decision to join. Until his injury he has looked the pick of our strikers. Whilst the legs have not always been able, he has still worked incredibly hard, across the front line and tracking back, offering an outlet ball and someone to hold the ball whilst others joined in support. His footballing brain has set him apart as a class above from many of those around him.
John Cofie started the season with plenty of energy, but has lost his way and his place in the team, displaying a disappointing level of physical strength on the ball and a naiveté when taking up positions and running at opposition defences. His lack of senior football clearly playing a part and whilst all players have to make that step up somewhere, I don't feel that we have the time and can be patient enough this season.
Shaun Miller has demonstrated a striker's intuition when making rare forays from the bench and took two magnificently finished goals at Notts County in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy. His chance must come, sooner rather than later. Whilst Darryl Westlake has had rare opportunities, playing out of position in midfield to plug gaps, but may now have a run in his natural right back position following McMahon's injury at MK.
Overall, Danny has done okay with his signings, but the failure to address clear deficiencies in wide areas, aside from the short term loan signing of Paul Gallagher, are my main criticism.
Faith in Youth (C+)
One of the most exciting factors of our pre-season was seeing the opportunities being given to graduates from our FA Youth Cup final squad of 18 months ago. Tenacious and attack minded midfielder Elliot Whitehouse impressed until a broken foot ruled him out of the start of the season. Whilst he was unlikely to have dislodged Doyle and McDonald from the first XI, he would have been a natural fit when Doyle suffered a three game suspension and may have offered impetus off the bench late in games.
Callum McFadzean would add something badly missing out wide and I fail to see how he could not improve our play in that area. Not least because he would be a round peg in a round hole! George Long has taken his opportunity magnificently following Mark Howard's injury, keeping clean sheets in 5 out of 9 games and pulling off some saves that bely his age and experience. Yet you get the feeling that this has surprised Wilson who would have been just as happy bringing in a loan player, only for the youngsters form to negate the need.
Over the last couple of years much has been made of our "Development Squad", but many of these players are not given a chance, even in cup games. There also appears reluctance from other clubs to take them on loan and when they have it has hardly been a measured success. Some are now approaching an age where if they are going to forge a career they ought to be pushing for the matchday squad.
For many you don't sense that is the case and if so it is questionable why some have deals to the end of the season and beyond. Whilst they will be on relatively low salaries and take up little of our budget, you can't help feeling that this money could be better used on a loan winger. Their movement onwards would also free up opportunities for younger academy players to join the Under 21 squad.
Style of Play (C)
If you lose quality players and have little funds to replace there will clearly be a deterioration both in terms of style of play. You can try to do the same, but when you lack players like Ched Evans, Stephen Quinn and Lee Williamson, you also lack the creativity and imagination that these players brought to our play last season and not least their goals.
Whilst United went goal crazy last season, there is a relative dearth of goals and chances this season. Of the 92 goals last season, 52 were scored by the now departed quartet of Evans, Williams, Lowton and Quinn. Together these four players set up 35 of them. Take them away and it places a huge onus on the shoulders of Kevin McDonald as our chief creator and Ryan Flynn on the wing.
There has been mumbled criticism of McDonald this season, his influence not as noticeable as last season. This is down to a number of factors including the deterioration in quality and movement around him and the tighter marking he now receives as the single focal point of our team. 
Tactics and Substitutions (C)
Having already touched upon Danny Wilson's reluctance to play youth, what makes it all the more frustrating is his insistence in playing square pegs in round holes to plug the gaps. This has seen Marcus Williams deployed in a left wing position, Darryl Westlake played in central midfield and David McAllister played wide. Whilst not wanting to decry their effort, which cannot be faulted, they are not natural fits and the team play suffers as a result.
A major frustration last season was the use of substitutions late on in games and our tendency to sit back on leads. I described it as thus;
"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."
Sadly we are seeing it again this season and when the margins are so tight it makes it all the more annoying. Whilst defensively we appear more solid this season it only takes one lapse in the final seconds for 3 points to become 1 and 1 to become 0. The focus on strengthening the backline has left fans feeling that we have set up in a much more negative manner this season. I suspect there is an element of being more defensively minded, combined with the lack of creativity that we had last season.
The stats back this up. Relatively shot shy at home and the least attacking side away from home, it is our defensive stability and fortitude that leaves us where we are.
Divisional Rank
Divisional Rank
Divisional Rank
Ave. Shots For
Ave. Shots Against
Overall League Ranking
* Figures taken from PA data as published on BBC Sport and kindly compiled by Ron of the Swindon Town site The Washbag
Top 8 clashes (C+)
Last year our record against the teams around us was patchy and poor. This season, in what many agree is a weaker division; it is much harder to judge. Of those in the Top 8 United have faced just four; disappointing home draws with Notts County and Doncaster and away draw and a defeat at Swindon and MK respectively. Further tests come in the next month or so, starting with a home game against Stevenage on Saturday. Games against Tranmere and Crawley follow in December. Where United find themselves mid-December could well set the standard for what we can expect this season. The one positive is that only one team has gained on us from these games so far.
Dealing with the media (B+)
I have only really disagreed with Danny once this season. On the whole his dealings with the media have demonstrated a level of pragmatism and an acknowledgment of the grim reality of managing a club with financial issues to address.
That pragmatism, although not widely shared amongst the fan base, sees Wilson taking the positives from a grim 1-0 win, i.e. it is a win, rather than being bogged down in public debate over what could be improved. We all know money is not available to fix some of the frustrating things we have seen on the pitch this season; it will require continued hard work on the training ground.
My disagreement came in the wake of a particularly sterile 0-0 home draw with Doncaster. Having watched United pump long diagonal balls on to the heads of defensive giants Jones and McCombe all evening, I failed to see how he could say that was our best tactic, given we rarely tried to take the ball wide past their full back and hit a low cross from a more difficult position for the defenders to deal with. We had just played into an average side's hands for 90 minutes.
Overall (B-)
I have said it on twitter a few times in recent weeks, but United really remind me of Charlton Athletic last season. Didn't overly impress when I saw them, but efficiently did the job. There was little between the two sides at Bramall Lane, but a couple of defensive lapses cost us. Away, we probably deserved a draw and should have had one but for a goal ruled out for offside. What Charlton did to us and others last season, we are doing to teams in this division. If anything we lack the ruthlessness up front that Charlton displayed.
It is true we have dropped points particularly at home, but our away record more than compensates and all this without ever feeling like we have hit top gear. This could be United's season; automatic promotion is in our own hands. Playing the way we are few teams will beat us, the important factor will be converting tight games into victories. Teams miss out on promotion and some are relegated, by drawing too many games. Throughout Huddersfield’s long “unbeaten run” they were drawing lots of games; in the end it cost them.
It is a fine line we are treading. As the match at MK showed on Saturday, you can be seconds away from a good away draw and one mistake, be it from an official or player, can cost you. There is an argument that says one point from Swindon and MK away might have been three with a more positive game plan.
Having said all that, we have 32 points after 17 games and sit 2nd; 3 points and 3 places better off than we were at the same stage last season. 32 points last season would have placed us 4th, still a point behind Wednesday in 3rd. These facts lend credence to the argument that the division is weaker this season. Sadly, so are the Blades.
Last November, I suggested the following:
"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"
I think the same applies this time. We are reportedly at 60% of turnover in terms of wages, against a limit of 65%. The board are saying that, although there is little we can do now, there may well be movement in January. There needs to be movement for United to progress, however that movement shouldn’t mean losing our best young players.
I fully back Wilson to deliver promotion this season. I have seen nothing so far to suggest we cannot achieve it, but we need to do more to ensure that we tip the scales slightly more in our favour. Fortune favours the brave and so far we have been more than a little timid.