Wednesday, 25 July 2012

My Favourite Blade (Number 8) - Joe Shaw

One great thing about starting a series like this is when you receive a contribution like the one below from Pete Moxon (@mox53). Not only is it well written, it is about a player I am too young to have seen and so offers great insight into the player; a player who was a one-club man; a player who has the record number of appearances for United; a former captain and club legend. A player I was fortunate enough to hear about from my Dad and my grandparents who saw him play. I’ll let Pete tell you more......     

Fifty one years since I first took the magical journey to Bramall Lane and considering the multitude of matches I’ve viewed there, and at other grounds,plus the thousands of players I’ve seen pull on the red and white stripes,isolating one particular player as my favourite is not an easy task!

I rarely sit down and think about such things, but obviously in the past I’ve had many ‘favourites’ for one reason or another, not necessarily because of their ability. Over the years, obvious ones have thrilled me with sublime skill (TC, Glyn Hodges), thunderous shooting (Woody), tenacious defending (Dave Powell, Morgs), dogged attitude and making the most of limited ability (Monty, Bob Booker) and because they were characters (Hodgy). So to name one player as an all time favourite is something I’ve never pinned myself down to. However, in the interests of ‘A United View’ and to satisfy my own mind, I’ve isolated one player who, for several reasons, I’ll put forward as my all time favourite Blade.

For those of us old enough to have seen him play, no-one could have failed to be impressed quite how a 5’8”, of average build, bloke, could execute such a commanding influence in the position of centre half (as it was termed back then) or central defender as it is today. Centre halves of the 50’s & 60's were generally big, rough, intimidating so and so’s who usually incurred the wrath of opposing fans with their treatment of the centre forward they were up against. An early kick/hefty tackle was the message to the centre forward of the treatment he could expect for the next 89 minutes or so. Referees offered little protection as this was ‘part of the game’ in those days. Centre forwards just got up, moaned ever so slightly, and got on with it: today, well..... the modern game is blighted with the writhing, whingeing cheats trying to con officials and fans, I hate this facet of football, but I digress...

Joe was different; small in stature for his role (he started life as a winghalf/inside forward) at centre half, his strengths were timing, anticipation, skill, the ability to read the game better than most and modesty (no histrionics or brashness from Joe). As my dad used to tell me before he finally took me to BDTBL, "Joe is the best uncapped centre half in the country, it’s only ‘cos he plays for United that England won’t pick him."(I’m not sure whether that was the case in those days?).

So I had already been primed before I saw him play and of course once I began to go and decide who was good and who wasn’t (instead of listening to others), it was obvious Joe had class and his size was rarely an issue against some big tough strikers (Derek Dougan named Joe as his most difficult opponent in one magazine article, that made my day!). Joe won no England caps but went on some FA tours abroad which kind of gave him some recognition for his contribution to the game and when he finally retired well into his thirties (quite old in those days),he was taken on to United’s coaching staff.

That's where I encountered Joe the man, as opposed to Joe the footballer, and the defining reason which singles Joe Shaw out as my favourite Blade.

In my early youth I was a reasonable footballer, good enough to represent my city at schoolboy level and be courted by a few league clubs (Huddersfield, Mansfield and Chesterfield) and eventually get the call from my beloved Sheffield United for an extended trial. The first session I attended at the Ball Inn ground (United’s training ground at the time and across the road from my childhood home), I came under the tutelage of Joe Shaw. I was of course, as a fifteen year old, awestruck! In the warm up, Joe put us through some (for me anyway) torturous sprint routines. Bearing in mind this was my first session, I was keen to impress but I’d never been pushed so hard before and eventually and embarrassingly, I was physically sick. I was mortified and could feel the other lads looking mockingly at me, this new kid, spewing up within the first twenty minutes of his first session.

This was where Joe the man came in. I was expecting the ‘come on, pull yourself together, we’ve only just started’ treatment from the hardened professional of 632 league games! Instead, Joe came over, made sure I was ok and then took timeout to take me to one side and talk to me about physical training and its effects on the body. He went on to tell me this had happened to him several times in his youth and not to worry or be embarrassed by it. He was, quite plainly, a real nice fellow and made me feel so much better. He remembered my name from that point on and over the following six weeks always took time out to speak and enquire as to my wellbeing.

That very personal encounter, plus his outstanding ability and contribution to SheffieldUnited Football Club makes Joe Shaw my favourite Blade.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Grounds for Divorce

It came in a letter. A photocopied letter, not even an original. It came not from Bramall Lane, but from Bastion Place, Level 20, 5 Place du Champ de Mars, Brussels, the Head Office of Sheffield United PLC. It came in the name of "The Seldom Seen Kid" - Kevin McCabe, majority shareholder in Sheffield United plc, itself the 100% owner of Sheffield United F.C. In four brief paragraphs it cast a dark shadow over the start of Sheffield United's season at a point when the club's financial situation is provoking as much discussion as on-pitch affairs. With limited detail provided in the communication, fans are already trying to fill in the gaps.

The letter, reproduced below, informs shareholders oft he intention to transfer the Fixed Assets of Sheffield United F.C. to Sheffield United plc. Without further detail we are to assume that this will be the Ground and the Academy, as properties such as the hotel and business centre have been transferred in recent years.

How have we arrived at this position? Some disastrous boardroom decisions have seen United fail to hold a position in the Premier League, make disastrous managerial appointments, fail to bounce-back within the parachute payment period, throw money at the problem in the hope that high transfer fees and above average wages will attract players capable of lifting the club. The aforementioned over-paid players under-perform and, alongside a managerial merry-go-round, United are relegated to League One. With the club committed to a cost base of a decent sized Championship club and diminishing turnover, the club is subsidised by businessman and fan Kevin McCabe, who for several years has been looking for a back-seat or a way out. We don't bounce back at the first attempt and now face difficulty making the SCMP ruling for League One clubs.

With a combination of debt and equity (recent debt to equity conversions have reduced the debt owed to McCabe and his companies) tied up in United to the tune of around £50m, McCabe isn't going to recover that in any sale of the club. He will be lucky to get a third of that amount. Despite claims to the contrary in the letter, my first assumption was that, with this transfer, Kevin McCabe is securing his investment.

The lease costs charged to the football club will provide an income stream into the plc and a means of establishing a return on investment over a period of time. The question remains how much will the rental charges be? How will they be calculated? For what period are they in place?

We know of clubs where this situation has proved costly.Leeds have a rental millstone of approximately £1.85m a year round their neck. For other clubs, such as Crystal Palace, Wrexham, Rotherham United, the separation of ownership of club and ground has brought them to their knees financially. The difference here is that isn't a separate party owning the ground - well not until the football club is sold - as was the case at Wrexham and Rotherham. Neither is it in the hands of a British Virgin Islands company, like Elland Road is. That should, perhaps, give us some comfort.

The claim that it is aimed at making the football club more attractive for investors is a strange one. Why would you invest in a football club with no ground rather than a football club with a ground? What are you investing in? A loss making business with no real estate and an ever-decreasing amount of goodwill? People have suggested that things will be more comfortable financially as we have to limit spending on players' wages to 65% of turnover, ignoring the vast amount of other costs expended by the club and the clear difficulty the club is having in achieving the cap. The SCMP does not guarantee a break even business, never mind a profitable one. It is there to limit the extent a club overstretches itself, chasing success.

Even if someone sees it as a cheap investment with potential of making something back when Premier League status is achieved, there is plenty of proof that throwing money at it doesn't work; Leicester City, Cardiff City, Nottingham Forest. We have also proved this, given the size of our wage bill when relegated was north of £13m. And now, the Financial Fair Play rules further up the line in the Championship mean that benefactors pushing cash into wages and transfer fees is not going to be the answer.

Certainly investing in the property market is not what people want to do in a recession. So allowing potential investors to invest in the football business without the downturn in property prices affecting their investment negatively is a positive. It has the added bonus for shareholders in Sheffield United plc that they retain the position they had before. However, given the lack of assets and lack of ability to pump money with no guarantee of return, is it really that attractive a prospect?

Another view and one expressed by a fan of a club who have been down this route themselves, is that this has all the hallmarks of asset stripping prior to an administration. Thus protecting the valuable assets before wiping the slate clean, leading to a ten point deduction and a more stable financial starting point. Previously administration has never really been considered as a possibility - why would Kevin McCabe receive even less back on his "investment" than he would by an eventual sale? Yet now, what does he have to lose?

One train of thought could be that he has a view to another site, maybe Don Valley Stadium? Maybe the failure to achieve Premier league status and develop the stadium, alongside the knockback of failing to make the shortlist for the England World Cup bid stadia was a final straw?

As much as the idea abhors me, this possibly has more legs than you might imagine. The DVS to me is a bit of a white elephant in the city. Since it lost Grand Prix B class events to Gateshead/Birmingham and doesn't even attract National Championships at anything above school or University level, we have a top class, 25,000 capacity sports stadium that holds the odd pop concert, some Sheffield Eagles matches, was a temporary home to Rotherham United and is a base for local athletes to train. For a vast majority of the year it has 20,000 unused seats, under-utilised potential and a running track.

Yet to someone interested in an easy development, it is has decent transport links with the tram network and being close to the motorway,it requires limited development to take it to a similar or higher capacity than Bramall Lane. Why would they worry about the running track, the distance from the pitch? Meanwhile the Bramall Lane site already has an office dand hotel evelopment on it and sits less than a mile from Sheffield city centre. By no means prime development land, but still an attractive prospect.

Having considered all these scenarios and more I think I would be more worried if the club was in the hands of a person who doesn't profess to be a Blade, Mike McDonald anyone? But in the absence of any detailed statement suspicions are going to be aroused. Not least on the back of mooted cost -cutting and redundancies at the club.

Fans are not asking for a multiple page report on why this is being done and the implications for the football club, but surely a couple of paragraphs or a page at the most would suffice? All this letter has done is create a lot of worry across the fan-base, with varying opinions and perceptions of what it all means and many questions unanswered. I have shared a few of those possibilities here. Is it not asking too much to have these questions answered in Layman's terms?

Will there be clauses/agreements in place to ensure that the ground is to remain in use for football in perpetuity?

Is the rent a peppercorn rent or commercial rent?

Will the club remain responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the stadium and academy?

Will the rent be charged until his debts are paid off?

Will the rent be seen as income for his family after debts are paid off?

Is there an intention to sell off the land for developmentat any point in time or their interest in the plc?
Will a potential buyer of the football club have the opportunity to move the club elsewhere or will it be a condition of any sale that United remain at Bramall Lane?

In the ultimate irony, the letter from Brussels has a statement across the top.

"Bramall Lane -The World's Oldest Professional Football Stadium"

Let's hope it is a claim to fame we can still make in 10 or 15 years' time. For now, none of us can be too sure and all we have are basic facts and supposition.

Friday, 13 July 2012

My Favourite Blade (Number 7) - Chris Morgan

For Number 7 in the series, it is a debut on A United View for Nick Brown (@LordBrown77) who explains why Chris Morgan is his favourite Blade.

I've had plenty of Blades heroes in the past. From my boyhood heroes of Keith Edwards, Colin Morris, Brian Deane, Tony Agana to numerous others who lived the dream, who played for the club I loved then just as much as I love now. But the player I choose as My Favourite Blade is a player almost universally respected by most United fans, a man who has given his all to the club, and one of the few current players that owe the club nothing after years of strong and sterling service. I give you Chris Morgan.

One of the things that I like about Chris Morgan is that he is similar to me. We are days apart in age - Morgan is a week older. We both grew up in small towns on the outskirts of Barnsley - I'm a Chapeltown lad, Morgan is a Penistone lad. We are both the same height, both play the same position (although I never progressed from a bit of park football in my teenage years), and if there is something I like in a player, something I hoped that I had in my locker when I was playing, it was the sort of attributes that Chris Morgan brings to the game. In many ways he has lived the life I wanted to lead growing up.

Chris Morgan first came to my attention a few years back when Barnsley played in the Premiership, and I remember him getting sent off quite early in his career against Liverpool. Back in those days, before the internet was so widely available, I used to read the Green 'Un cover to cover and as a result I knew quite a bit about all the local clubs. The Green ‘Un  was how Chris Morgan appeared on my radar. I remember his disciplinary record being poor (some things never change), and for a while he was regularly linked with higher profile clubs than Barnsley. He made his first steps in professional football as a Premiership player when Barnsley were riding the crest of a wave and over the subsequent years, as they fell away and dropped a couple of divisions, he was still there.

In the Summer of 2003, Neil Warnock brought a few signings in, his usual free transfers. Some worked and some didn't, but this was the stand out signing of that summer, although it didn't seem that way at the time. On the face of it I was undecided whether he was a player who had slipped a bit and needed a new club to kick start his career again, or was a typical lower league journeyman who Warnock did seem to have a penchant for signing.

When we got off to a decent start in the 2003/04 season Chris Morgan was at the heart of it; strong in the air,dependable on the ground, and not afraid to get stuck in. His major flaw was his disciplinary record which was still poor; this was shown when he was sent-off at Forest for striking at Gareth Taylor in retaliation for an elbow. He just seemed like one of those players who after a few games seemed to fit right in to Sheffield United and it was like he was part of the furniture straightaway.

The best memories I have of Chris Morgan are during the promotion season of 2005/06 and in particular the game against Stoke on New Year's Eve, when our promotion bid was spluttering a little bit. With the scores locked at 1-1 going in to injury time, he rose the highest from a corner and planted the ball in the back of the net in front of a relieved Kop. Then came the following season where most people seemed to think that the top flight might just be a step too far, but he adapted his game, and showed the strong work ethic he possessed and his desire to do himself justice in the top flight.

With Chris Morgan, what you see is what you get. An honest, whole hearted footballer, who never went on the pitch without being prepared to give it his all. You knew that when Chris Morgan was on the pitch he wouldn't hide and would always stand up and be counted. He was always a player with limitations; he was never the quickest, prone to regularly appearing in the referee's notebook and liable to get sent off for stupid, petty incidents. But then you had to accept these limitations, because he was one of those players who, at that period, made the Blades a team whose sum total was greater than the component parts.

A huge shadow was cast over his career following the incident where he appeared to elbow Iain Hume and fractured his skull. He received a lot of negative press for this; there were calls for him to be banned for life, imprisoned for his actions, and for a few weeks he was one of the biggest hate figures in the game. What I really admire about Chris Morgan is that the following week he didn't hide, he went out and played for the Blades, put in an excellent performance, and I think that incident changed the way Chris Morgan played the game a lot. He seemed a lot more mature, less prone to making silly rash mistakes and a lot more rounded. In the months that followed he played the best football of his career.

It now appears that his career is coming to an end through injury, the career ending injury not coming solely from a bad tackle, or unfortunate break, but the fact that he tore the cruciate ligaments in his knee early in a game against Coventry City, at home, but he stayed on the pitch, battling and giving it his all, before going off at half time. By playing through the pain barrier for that extra 20 minutes, he did further damage and that damage could well be the difference between coming back as a player and retirement.

With the appointment of Danny Wilson came the newest challenge of Chris Morgan's career, with his appointment as player-coach. I think this was the right move, because over the last 9 years Morgan has been a rock at this club and he is one of the few players that I feel Sheffield United owe something to, rather than the other way round. I think that, in the longer term,  he will be one of those blokes who end up being a true club man with years and years of service to Sheffield United in various roles. I think that, as supporters, it is something that we all want to see. We can be proud of having a man of Chris Morgan's stature playing for the club, because men like that are very few and far between in the world of football nowadays.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

EPPP - No Profit for Young Men

So on Friday another young and talented Blade left the club and was thus the cue for much gnashing of teeth, shaking of heads and barely hidden frustration at how it has happened again.


Ask any Blades fan and they will tell you that Matt Lowton is the latest example of the club selling off its prized asses, going way back to the late 60's and Mick Jones leaving for Leeds. A text from my Dad on Friday night only just fell short of listing them all but included the line;

"We are just an academy supply line for other clubs, it pisses me off!" 

Yet the modern day reality is that this situation will only get worse and the rewards from doing it will only diminish.

Again, whenever these sales occur, phrases like "lack of ambition" are bandied around and the board and Chairman are targeted for some stick. There is a belief that we are the only club operating in this way, yet if clubs such as Arsenal cannot hold on to their best players, what chance a League One club? Because, regardless of size, crowds, history, that is what we are. Yes, Tottenham held on to Luka Modric when everything pointed to him leaving for Chelsea or elsewhere, but a strong financial position and the possibility of success and trophies helps.  

And when a Premier League team come a knocking you either accept a price or keep an unhappy player. We all know the one at work, who is desperate to leave but for whatever reason can't. Whinging, whining, dragging everyone else down. Should we expect it to be any different at a football club? Especially when the aforememtioned employee was a key to the club's recent relative success and reportedly expressed a desire to play at a higher level.

Whilst there are clear financial benefits to the club from selling Lowton, the move doesn't massively help with the most pressing financial issue (assuming we are not facing cash flow issues) and that is the wage cap we are struggling to meet. I cannot believe that Lowton, who only broke into the team 18 months ago, is a high earner and so his saving is going to be small beer given the savings required. It is not as if the income from the sale hits top line turnover. Instead it is recognised as a profit on player registrations below operating profit, or in our case operating loss. £12.9m of loss in the 12 months to 2011 in case you were wondering. 

So what it does give is help in managing the books. Too few clubs operate in a sustainable manner and despite pledges from Kevin McCabe that this is his aim for United, I think he is finding it a much longer road than he anticipated. Trevor Birch, a man brought in on the equivalent of a high League One player's salary to manage this transition, lasted 18 months and departed with a £0.5m pay off for achieving very little. Certainly another season of third tier football will not accelerate that transition

Other sales are bound to follow. There is a need to reduce the wage bill and senior players may be offered for low fees to try and negate the deterrent that their wages generate. That will help with the salary cap. The younger players offer little savings in wages but generate pure profit and help plug the gap between costs and income. But how much longer can clubs guarantee that the gap will be plugged in this way?

Will the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) mean that the next generation of players such as Kyle Naughton, Kyle Walker, Jordan Slew and Lowton are gone before they make their first team debuts? Before they can make their names? Before they can generate anything between £10-£15m of transfer fees? The imposition of EPPP on the Football League, was an act of sporting coercion and blackmail that only the current machinations of the SFA and SPL can possibly emulate or outdo.

The blackmail arising from the Premier League threat to withold the £5m that it is due to pay the clubs of the Football League to help cover the cost of funding youth development until it voted in favour of the decision. This now remains in place for four years, but the ultimate pricepaid in return is much more.

The geographical limitations which prevented clubs from signing players from a radius greater than ninety minutes’ journey from their own ground are removed; creating a “free” market in which clubs take players on from anywhere. Alongside this the amount of money that they will have to pay in compensation has been drastically cut and is now determined by a fixed tariff card.

Compensation  levels are set dependent on how long the player has been at the selling club. For example, the fee is fixed at £3,000-per-year for a player's development from nine to 11-years-old. The fee from 12 to 16 is dependent on a club's academy status and range from £12,500 to £40,000.

Academies apply for a status based on criteria including financial investment in the academy. The status levels are from 1 to 4, with 1 being the highest. The academies are then audited by an independent body who will set the status for each club. The financial impact both in terms of running costs and funding is not insubstantial, the funding gap is £300,000 between Category One and  Category Two status and £270,000 between  Category Two and Category Three.

You would assume given the infrastructure and success of the academy at Shirecliffe that United have a high ranking status. Yet the reality is that it will probably be just Premier League clubs and a handful of Championship clubs that will go for Level 1. I assume United will be one of few teams outside of the Championship to apply for Level 2 status. It would be interesting to know what United applied for, as far as I can see it is something the club has never made public. Neither has the club made public how they voted on accepting EPPP, but with such a well developed, well-run and successful academy I can only hope that we took a principled stand, however futile. 

So what does this all mean for a club like United? Well, it is more than likely that clubs will scout younger players much more aggressively than previously. The fees for acquiring players in their mid-teens will be rarely above £100,000 and thus represent a minor gamble for clubs. The fear has to be that this leads to stockpiling - why not recruit 10 or 15 and see who make the grade and it will cost less up front than a Tom Taiwo or a John Bostock have cost Chelsea and Spurs in the past.

The Premier League argues the add-on amounts the selling club will receive if the player is a success at his new club will ensure it is a fair system. That is a fair point, for every Kyle Walker at United there has been a Lee Morris (£4m to Derby County) or a Wayne Quinn. Granted these moved later in their careers when established in the first team, however they highlight the gamble in investing heavily in young talent.

The danger is, with a focus on the elite,  how many players will actually trigger the add-on payments? A player is picked up for peanuts, doesn't make the breakthrough and left for the smaller clubs to pick back up, probably having not developed as well as they might have in the care of their original club. So yes they may find their way back to United and other non-Premier League clubs, but are "damaged goods" rather than how they might have develop

With the pick of the next generation of Blades stars likely to be plucked from Shirecliffe, long before they reach the Bramall Lane turf, and with little financial benefit to the club, it will be interesting to see how United manage the academy and their player relationships going forward. It will be as much about focusing on pastoral care for the player and closer communication and relationships with families and agents as purefootball development. Assuring them that the player's best interests are served staying with United.

The belief that "United always sell their best young players" is  something that will probably never go away as I can only see it becoming a more frequent occurrence but with much smaller rewards from doing it. For now, when the opportunity arises, with the club in the financial position it is in and in the league it is in, I can only see them selling. The sale may be unpalatable, the valuation on the player may be unpalatable, but it will be one of the few opportunities a smaller club has to realise profit on a player sale. This profit is a financial boost that makes a significant difference to both a club's solvency and profitability, soon that income stream will become a trickle.

It would be fascinating to hear the club's view on this, although little has been said since the announcement, apart from Academy boss John Pemberton expressing his disappointment about the position the club finds itself in regarding EPPP on a local radio phone-in. So here is an open invite to those in senior positions at Bramall Lane. Tell us how the club anticipate dealing with the imposition of the EPPP, what it means for our academy and the impact it will have on the club's finances going forward. I will be happy to post the results of any interview on here.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

My Favourite Blade (Number 6) - Paul Peschisolido

For number 6 in the series it is a pleasure to welcome Eddie Chapman (@eddiechap) Blades contributor to the We Are Going Up football league site to A United View and recollections of a Blades hero of the last decade. A player who in a relatively short spell with United madde a big impact and provided memories that will last for a long time.

When I was asked who my favourite Blade was, several players came into mind but there was only ever to be one man that I would choose. I first remember going to watch games in 2000 with my Dad. Since then I’ve had strong allegiances to many players including the likes of Peter Ndlovu, Leigh Bromby and Nick Montgomery although I wouldn’t consider those my favourite player. The man I would assign this title to is a Canadian who scored many Blades’ favourite goal of recent times – Paul Peschisolido.

My first real memory of Pesch was his brace in a 4-0 victory over Birmingham City in 2001. I remember how his pace ripped apart the opposition defence and he was one player the crowd always seemed to get behind. His goal scoring record was never the greatest but whenever we needed them, he was the one Neil Warnock turned to on the bench, giving him the well-earned title of ‘Super Sub’.

2002/03 was my first as a season ticket holder and the excitement of me seeing Pesch, as well as my other heroes in action throughout that season was a huge thing for me. The first real time I saw him given an opportunity that season was a game against Rotherham when he seemed to be constantly running as fast as a train in my 8 year old mind. Despite his use as a bit-part player, he was still the player I connected with the most.

Of course, everyone who was there will remember the “Oh my God” moment in the play-offs until their final days. They’ll also remember the agony of David Seaman’s last gasp save in the dying moments of the semi final with Arsenal. The thing I remember most is finally meeting the man whilst in the Player’s Lounge after a 0-0 draw with Ipswich.

To say I was star-struck is a massive understatement and that day I left the ground with a new shirt and some signed photos of the players for free, all thanks to Pesch, Andy Daykin and my old man. For months I wanted ‘Peschisolido’ on the back of that shirt but my Dad’s answer was always the same, it would be too expensive! It’s a shame his name wasn’t shorter but on the other hand, his long and unusual name was part of what I liked about him.

Even to this day I’m not sure whether it was his pace, the effort he put in or simply his name that made me want him to do better than any other player on the pitch, but even as a manager I will always respect him and I hope he finds a job soon. That goal against Forest, forcing that save from Seaman and his brace against Palace in the League Cup alone was enough to make Pesch my favourite Blade but overall I think it was his attitude and the way he spoke to me in the Player’s Lounge that really made him the best player in my eyes.