Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Five thoughts on why 90 points wasn't enough

Any Blades fans would have taken a 90 point return at the start of the season, it has only failed to deliver promotion once before. Sadly, someone had to join Sunderland in this depressing, but exclusive club at some point.

I know the obvious answer to why 90 points wasn’t enough is that Wednesday got 93 points and finished second, but it is worth looking at a remarkable season for Sheffield football and five factors that I think led to late failure of the Blades’ automatic push and ultimately Wednesday’s success.

Some people may disagree. If you do, why not add your thoughts in the comments below....

A crazy 45 minutes on a Saturday afternoon in March

United have scored 92 goals this season, a phenomenal scoring record. Much is made of Ched Evans' contribution but with 13 goals for Lee Williamson, 9 goals from Richard Cresswell, defenders contributing a further 9 it shows that goals have been delivered from across the team. This willingness to get at the opposition, whilst exciting to watch, has left United open at the back at times. Whilst for much of the season the back four has been impressively solid, the concession of a goal has often led to edgy and nervous performances of which there had been no sign up until the goal.
With a relatively inexperienced and not too vocal defence, in front of a keeper who struggles to command his area, mistakes were always likely and have at times proved costly. It would be easy to point to the home match against Wednesday, the home game against Exeter - where United came from 2 down to lead 3-2 and then 4-3 with five minutes to go, before eventually drawing 4-4. However, the events of Saturday 3rd March against Oldham Athletic, in particular those events between 4pm and 5pm, are a key reason as to why United finished 3rd.

Going into the match United were in 2nd place, 5 points clear of Wednesday with a game in hand and 45 minutes in all looked rosy. 2-0 up at half time and relatively comfortable, United had managed to cope with disruption to a back four that was starting to settle into being a compact unit. Neil Collins was missing his first game for personal reasons and so Andy Taylor made a return from long term injury at left back, as usual incumbent Lecsinel Jean-Francois shuffled into the middle. Then, late in the half, Jean-Francois was stretchered off after a collision and Johnny Ertl came on at centre back.

The second half opened nervously, although United continued to create openings. Then a crazy five minutes found United down to 10 men and pegged back to 2-2. An Oldham corner led to Cresswell putting through his own net. As Lowton took the ball back for the kick off, the antagonistic Chris Taylor tried to hurry him along and a confrontation led to yellow cards for both players. Shortly afterwards Lowton lunged for a loose ball on the edge of the Oldham penalty area and picked up another yellow, which was followed by the red. Oldham equalised within a couple of minutes and then with the game heading to a draw, two minutes into added on time, Harry Maguire brought down Reuben Reid in the box. A red card was issued and Kuqi dispatched the penalty for a 3-2 win for the Latics.

The following Tuesday at Walsall United showed they had little problem scoring, but a makeshift defence - now without any of the first choice back four and containing two loanee debutants – was troubled. Twice United came from behind, before succumbing 3-2 to a team that only escaped relegation late in the season. Although United still had a game in hand, the gap was down to one point and the pressure was on.

The sacking of Gary Megson

Oh how we laughed as the news of Megson's sacking filtered out in the aftermath of the Blades' derby day defeat at Hillsborough. Mouthpiece of a Wednesday PR machine that, like those spam emails you receive, was focused on claims of size rather than actual performance; Megson epitomised all that United fans disliked about the club across the city. The fact his departure came on the back of beating the Blades seemed all the more laughable to many outside of the city, but the fact remained that the latter part of his tenure was strained and his public bleatings and inability to recognise his failings were increasingly resembling the rambling of his arch-nemesis Neil Warnock.

As Wednesday fans called the local radio stations in shock and disappointment, Unitedites revelled in their torment. Then Dave Jones emerged as the favourite for the Hillsborough hot-seat and feelings changed, both of Wednesday fans, quick to forget their upset and anger, and of Blades fans recognising the relative quality of Megson’s replacement. In Jones, Wednesday were appointing a well-respected manager, one I would have had no problem being appointed at Bramall Lane in the right circumstances. His first few games saw tweaks to the way Wednesday played and a successful start with the apparent impetus that a new manager brings. What could never be envisaged was the length of run that his team went on.

From the victory over Scunthorpe, which coincided with the announcement of Megson's sacking United's record was P15 W8 D4 L3, a reasonable return of just under two points per game. Two of those defeats coming in the aforementioned games against Oldham and Walsall.

Since Jones was appointed Wednesday have P12 W10 D2 L0; a phenomenal record that no team has matched in League One all season. United have been good, although form has slipped in the final push, Wednesday's record will rarely be repeated. The team may be largely made by Megson, but I struggle to believe that he would have dragged this level of performance out of them, even on the back of a derby victory.

I am not suggesting that United should have followed Wednesday’s lead. I would never have envisaged calling for Danny Wilson’s head at any point this season, even when we have wobbled. I won’t be doing it if we miss out in the play-offs over the next couple of weeks. But Mandaric recognised that things were not quite what they needed to be at Hillsborough and he made a massive call. I don’t think he ever anticipated how successful it would be.

Use of the loan market

Wednesday used the loan market well; out of a necessity to fill gaps in the starting eleven, rather than strengthening the squad. The goals and supply line provided by first Ben Marshall and then Michail Antonio and Keith Treacy have been a key factor in Wednesday, both maintaining a Top 6 place up to the turn of the year and propelling their subsequent push for promotion. The further addition of Nile Ranger, whilst a wildcard in more ways than one, gave Wednesday further top level experience amongst League 1 specialists Lowe, O'Grady and Madine.

With United maintaining a position in the Top 3 for most of the season, there has been little need to pep up the team with loans. You would question the need to bring players in if all they are going to do is sit on the bench. Very few clubs and players will agree to such a move if that was likely to be the case anyway. Where United failed, was to adequately replace midfield lynchpin Kevin McDonald when injury kept him out for 7 games from the Hillsborough derby match in February.

United won just two of those games and picked up 8 points, as the uncertainty over the length of McDonald’s absence passed from one week to the next. Lee Williamson failed to adequately fill his boots and we don’t know if Danny Wilson’s reticence in the loan market was due to financial restrictions, lack of suitable candidates or an unerring belief in the players he had. I suspect that the reality is a combination of the first two factors.

Many point to the failure to replace Ched Evans, yet it can be argued that United made contingency plans there. The much derided Chris Porter had started the season in the first eleven and contributed to United's strong start. Also within the squad, Danny Wilson could call upon the experience, but limited fitness, of James Beattie. For further back up Wilson signed the flawed, but talented, Will Hoskins on loan from Brighton and coming off the bench to score on debut was quite an introduction. He also borrowed young Bolton and Scotland U-21 forward Michael O'Halloran, although there appears to be confusion about where is his best position down the middle or out wide. Either way, he is a player who will need a lot of coaching if he is ever to make it in the professional game.

Some have suggested United needed better cover and maybe if we hadn’t signed Beattie to largely gain fitness and warm the bench, then that might have given us more room for financial manoeuvre. The over-riding feeling remains that the signing of Beattie was a board signing to boost the fans and not a Wilson signing. Whatever it was, history will show that it didn’t pay off. However, at the time, this should have been adequate cover.

The jailing of Ched Evans

My views on the Ched Evans situation are published here. What is clear though is that it isn't purely the on pitch absence of Evans that led to United’s downturn in form over the last three league games. Accusations of United being a one man team were made all season; ignoring the goals that came from elsewhere and the strong start to the season made in the absence of the injured Evans.

As much as his on-field threat was sorely missed, it was the impact on the team spirit that stood out. The performance at MK, just 24 hours after Evans was sent down, was clearly affected by the court's decision. Let's not forget the players had seen a friend and teammate sent to prison, some may well support his case. Mentally detaching yourself from this would be hard, especially so close to a game.

I've read comments which have said that Danny Wilson should have been on top of this, that he should have got the players prepared and motivated. I am not sure what part of the managerial handbook best advises you on dealing with such a situation. I certainly find it hard to blame the manager.

The other reason United felt the absence of Evans more strongly was a catalogue of events that led to all good contingency plans going to waste. United’s other key striker Richard Cresswell, so often the selfless and tireless runner creating space and opportunity for others, was injured and has then played on with three injuries. Will Hoskins, having had limited run-outs before suffering a virus, then lasted a half at MK Dons until it was subsequently discovered that he needed a hernia operation and that was the end of his season.

When you consider that left United’s hopes pinned on players who Wilson seemed reluctant to give game time to, even when adequate opportunity presented itself during the season, it didn’t bode well. This meant that Beattie, O’Halloran and Porter lacked the match sharpness to take the opportunities that presented themselves at MK, at home to Stevenage and at Exeter. Beattie’s subsequent, reckless red card at Exeter leaving a further hole in the Blades attacking options for the play offs.

Form against the Top 6

MK Dons

To truly succeed in this division you have to take points off those strong sides around you. United’s goal haul and points haul largely claim from teams who were not challenging for promotion; although 15 points were taken from a possible 18 against Brentford, Carlisle and Notts County who were challenging Stevenage for the final play off place.

If you consider the two points dropped in the final ten minutes against Wednesday at Bramall Lane, that three point swing could be viewed as vital. But defensive mistakes gifted Charlton two goals in an otherwise tight game at Bramall Lane, two deflected goals gave Stevenage a lead before United came back for a draw. Despite the lack of points very few of the top six teams comprehensively out-played United. In fact, the best side seen at Bramall Lane this season was probably MK Dons, who provided one of United’s two victories.

However, complaints of bad luck cannot mask the fact that in head to head games against the top 6 United were by far the worst performing team. A goal difference of -7 for such a high scoring team, highlighting a difficulty in breaking down their near rivals’ defences and a difficulty in containing the better forward lines and attacking midfielders. Whether bad luck on the day or tactical inadequacies, these matches have proved costly.   

This leaves United in the Play-Offs, facing a Stevenage side that have taken four points off the Blades this season and have the second best record against fellow top 6 sides. It doesn’t bode well, but then the play offs more often than not don’t reflect the results during the season. Sadly for United, they cannot be viewed as being in the best of form either, often another factor used to assess play off potential. Now is the time when Danny Wilson can really earn his salary, in challenging circumstances. Let’s hope he has more luck than he did at Swindon.

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