Friday, 8 February 2013

The Blades Way

Ask Sheffield United supporters what is "The Blades Way"? They will no doubt give a variety of answers. To some it is losing a Play Off Final. For others it will be the fact that they are always the bridesmaid (cup semi-finalists), but never the bride. In fact matron of honour (Runners-Up) would be nice. To others it would be selling off our best players, over a number of years. Others might agree and suggest that we under sell or under-value those players as well.
If they were asked what it should be, many would say an ethos under-pinning the club, of how we play, our image as a club, to fans, staff players and the outside world and a series of on-pitch objectives that we should be working towards. It would be a coherent message, clear of misconception with everyone singing from the same hymn sheet.
The thing is we have had "The Blades Way" and although it was launched with much fanfare it was never actually defined. When Kevin McCabe sat at table with the banner proclaiming the new marketing drive in 2008, he suggested it was about establishing the Blades in the Premier League on a base of "responsibility, determination, discipline, pride, hard work, honesty and commitment to excellence and the community". It also appeared to be linked to the development of the "Blades family" of clubs across the World; a family now largely divorced and to be honest some members of the family were more like second cousins twice removed to start with.
Maybe it was assumed that The Blades Way was easily understandable, visible, permeating every action at the club. I guess we were supposed to just feel it, see it and recognise it. If that is the case it hasn't really worked, on many levels, not least the over-arching objective of establishing the club in the Premier League. Given the virtues stated in that initial description of "The Blades Way" and events in the intervening period, it really makes you question what in reality "The Blades Way" is and has been?   
Is it about short term success and promotion, or a long haul of building from the bottom up? Or are we trying to do a bit of both and succeeding at neither?
Is it to have a lack of football knowledge on the board and to place trust in expensively rewarded chief executives who continue to make decisions that cost the club money. Or employ chief executives  who fail to attract investors, do little to reduce an unmaintainable cost base, but then receive a significant Golden Handshake on their departure?
Is it to have a style of play and a type of player that fits each position at every age group and team level, or is it to have 4 managers in 3 years, each with a different playing ethos and way of working?
Is it to claim to want to build with youth, but offer contracts to players in their 30's contracts on exorbitant wages, or to take on veteran players because they are friends with the owner's son?
Is it to develop the academy, but leave the academy players developing frostbite on a bench when the opportunity to give them 15/20 minutes at the end of a "dead" game is presented?
Is it to publicly state that a continued reliance on loan players would be disastrous, yet to see short term contracts and loans continue remain a way of supplementing the match-day squad at the expense of contracted players with a commitment to the club?
Is it for our manager to tell the media one thing, only to be contradicted 24 hours later by an owner desperate to grab the media's microphone and attention, like a drunk Delia Smith.
Is it for the words of the owner to be found out less than a week later to be mere attention seeking PR puff?
Is it for a manager to be hung out to dry after selling a financially valuable player?
Is it a club that can use the salary cap as an excuse for wider financial problems that they don't explain clearly to the wider and less knowledgeable fan base?
Is it for the manager to completely fail to acknowledge a known weaknesses in his side (a severe lack of width), so a January transfer window can pass without him strengthening in a key area, "because it wasn't necessary"? Again hiding the real financial issues at play.
Is it about a lack of coherent message that leaves fans divided in their views and fighting amongst themselves?
Is it about an inconsistency of words and actions that has led fans to purposely stay away from home games? 
Recently Kevin McCabe said; "The focus going forward will be to develop and grow a high performing player talent base, maintaining a sustainable business where we can see a maximum return on our assets and ensuring we are a true family and community club.”
You can come up with all the marketing gimmicks you like, but what really defines your club is what happens on the pitch. Sadly that statement from Kevin McCabe says little about that. Maybe we can assume that "high performing player talent base" translates to on-field success? Although it could cynically be translated as a self-generated academy production line, providing suitable profit on sale to make the club self-sustainable. Let's be honest, that is the reality of the situation we are in.
It is time for the bluster and about-turns to stop. The club needs to make a clear statement, free of jargon and spin that says this is the state we are in, this is what we are doing about it and this is how long it will take to put right. This statement of intent may not translate into the on-field success we all crave, no-one can guarantee that. However, it may put a stop to the misconceptions and mistrust amongst the supports and stop large proportions of the (until now, extremely loyal) support drift towards being away-day Blades or stay away Blades.
Yet again a January transfer window has passed with controversy. I supported the sale of Nick Blackman on the basis that the squad needed strengthening and this was the best way to go about it. Although it is easy to forget the arrival of Murphy and Higginbotham prior to Blackman's departure, the truth is many expected the funds to be spent and little that was said prior to his departure would have led the club to say otherwise.
Comments to the media blaming the salary cap are misjudged. The sale of Blackman could equate to another £800,000 of base turnover for the cap calculation, plus his salary costs, in effect freeing up £500,000 for wages (nearly 5% in cap terms). The reality is, the sale was used to plug on-going financial losses. Why can it not just be said.
Let's have a bit of honesty, let's have a commitment to doing all we can to get the club promoted (a quick way to arrest a proportion of the losses) and let's have a bit of pride back in our team and the club. Marketing and PR guff like "True Blades are at the Lane" and "the Blades Way" just won't wash anymore. Straight talking, clear and ingenuous statements will.