As Julian Winter returns to lead a more compact Football Club board through the recruitment process for a new manager; many Blades fans have looked upon his re-appointment rather cynically. Another boardroom restructure akin to “shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic” is how I have seen several describe it.
I look at it in a positive light, Winter’s appointment puts a much needed “football man” at the heart of the day to day management of the club. He is also someone who is not afraid to make difficult decisions, especially if the rumours, of him sacrificing himself in the redundancy round last autumn, are true.
Yet this alone is not enough to make me feel positive about the future at Bramall Lane. We have finished in our lowest league position for 30 years and find ourselves in a downward spiral. How can we arrest the slide, stabilise the club and move forward? Here are five things I would like to see happen in the coming weeks and months.
A manager with fresh eyes and fresh ideas
Too often as a club we look to the past. We think a manager has to know about United, as if we are something special and different that only needs Unitedites or ex-players who understand the club and fans. Well we aren’t that complex. The connections don’t have to be there for a manager to show passion for the club and impress the fans. Let's move away from this thinking. I look down the bookies’ odds lists and it depresses me.
Let's have a manager who can look at the playing squad with fresh eyes and free of the constraints of saying the right thing to please the supporters. A younger manager, who has had relative success working with limited budgets and has had to develop players both from within and elsewhere. A manager who sees united as a step up and a place to build long term success.
Players with a desire to play and progress
For too long we have paid players not good enough for the Championship or Premier League, substantial wages for the division we are in, in an attempt to find success. We sign players happy to drag their tired legs for one last payday, their brains willing and bodies not able. Others have been given contract extensions when performances have done little to suggest they deserve them.
Now is the time to re-build. Let’s find League 1 and League 2 players with a bit of hunger, who want to progress their careers, not just fund their pensions. Rather than bring inadequate loan players, focus on the League 1/2 players who might benefit from a move. Identify the new Paddy Madden, rather than signing another John Cofie. Look for players who showed promise, but have stalled in their career development and offer them an opportunity to reignite their belief. Take Luke Freeman at Stevenage as an example.
This will help with managing the wage bill and with appropriate clauses built in that say, deliver success and you can share in it, we can have a motivated young team. These players should be the manager’s choice, not just a convenient signing thanks to a holiday home next to the owner’s son
Also, how about looking outside these shores for players? The fact we never made the most of our international links should be a source of massive embarrassment, it was merely an exit route for players and coaches, with little incoming. But why aren't we looking to Australia, Central Europe and Asia?
A playing style embedded throughout the club
This has been said for some time, but there has been no consistent style of play from one season to the next. Go back to the relegation season and we had three different styles in one season!
We are not going to have an on-going academy production line, there will be lean years in amongst the success, but we need to make the transition to first team as easy as possible for those that do make it.
Take Callum McFadzean; a player that has impressed many outsiders in the play offs. He was an exciting, thrusting left winger in the team that reached the FA Youth Cup final two years ago, yet this season has played some of the time at left back in the Reserves and has now been played on the right wing when his first team chance has come. Maybe it helps him develop as an all-round player, but playing him out of position must limit the impact he can have when the first team opportunity comes.
Whilst playing style has as much to do with the players at a manager’s disposal, the club’s transfer policy and development policy needs to reflect the style of play that is being embedded throughout the club. This season it has seemed like we are adapting our style of play to the players we have signed, instead of signing players that fit with the way we want to play; the way that was successful for much of last season.
A long term plan
Realistically, next season has to be one of consolidation. The teams coming down will all be strong and those that missed out this time may not need the restructuring required at Bramall Lane. The focus should be on building a squad capable of gelling, finding a style of play that makes the best of their capabilities and qualities and that will build momentum over the course of the season, not peter out in as lacklustre a manner as this season.
Promotion may be achieved sooner and if it is, that should be a bonus, not an expectation Fans might have to accept this, but would they?
Honesty about our ambitions
The modern world of football management and fan communication is based on spoon feeding the dribbling masses the positive message. They use words like customers, but know you have a loyalty that any shop or service provider would die for so keep telling you that relative nirvana is just around the corner. They tell you what they think you want or need to hear, rather than the cold stark reality. So, how about a bit of upfront honesty?
What would happen if they told us that the aim was promotion in 2014/15? What would happen if they told us we are building a squad with the intention of it having some longevity and progression? What would happen if they tell us that the average age of the squad will come down as we mould academy graduates from Shirecliffe, with promising young players from League 1 and 2 and a few experienced League 1 and Championship players? Would it damage attendances?
Marginally I think. Maybe some of the walk-up support will diminish, but the collateral damage will already have been done in the failure of season ticket holders to renew ahead of the discount deadline. If anything; the prospect of a young manager with exciting new ideas and a young team trying to play pacey, incisive football, on the deck, might just tempt a few back.
This isn't some Championship Return ticket people are buying; it is a ticket for the first leg of a long distance journey. There may be some turbulence to ride out and a couple of stop offs along the way, but it should be a journey that the club commits to in full.
This might all be “pie in the sky” to some of you, but I fervently believe that this is what the club needs to do. Julian winter has already stated that the shortlist of seven was formed from twenty quality applications, with those missing out because, “individuals wouldn’t fit the managerial profile we have had to devise”. My first, and somewhat cynical, instinct is to think this means we are looking for a cheap and cheerful Blades-linked appointment. However, a little bit of me hopes that it actually means we are profiling a young, ambitious manager who will develop like-minded players.
Maybe this 5 point plan could be realised?