Thursday, 14 November 2013

A Love Not Shared

They are words a football loving Dad hopes he will never hear; "I don't want to go the football with Daddy anymore." In fact I didn't hear it directly. I was working away when my wife texted me to say our son had been a bit upset and uttered those words. I knew they had been coming for a while. I knew that he didn't really enjoy going to the match. The restlessness, the questions about his surroundings rather than what was happening on the pitch, the distant stare away from the on-pitch action, lost in day-dreams of happier things.
He had found it hard to tell anyone. He didn't want to upset me and he liked the fact that football meant that he spends time with me. I was left in mixed emotions. The fact he goes to football to make me happy made me smile and want to cry at the same time. We explored his concerns and a litany of complaints followed. Most of his concerns can be allayed and his worries and fears can all be pinpointed to a dislike of the anger and aggression he sees at football.
People shouting at the end when you lose
You shouting at the match when you lose
Players getting hurt by tackles (causes crowd anger and shouting)
The referee getting it wrong (causes crowd anger and shouting)
A lot of this concern arises because he is a sensitive and emotional lad and an incident at Wembley in 2011 when mindless thugs, purporting to be Stoke 'fans' attacked the stationary car my wife and son were sitting in on their way up to the Wembley car parks. Banging on the windows, shouting leering, goading, ripping window flags down and rocking the car. He was 6 and very scared, as was my wife. When they subsequently parked up they were again confronted by a beer-fuelled aggressor, invading their personal space and abusing them for not supporting his team. Rare events maybe, but once they have happened they are engrained, especially at such an age where perceptions are quickly formed and opinions are even harder to retract.
Some of the other questions he asked about football when trying to explain his lack of enjoyment are slightly more difficult to answer;
"What do the spectators get out of it?"
"The players get paid even when they don't win. But when they win, what do the fans get?"
The main problem is that he doesn't enjoy football, either watching or playing. Although he says he supports United and Bolton (he often lists the Wanderers first, more to wind me up), he doesn't really have an attachment to them, they are more "my dad's team" or "my mum's team", not "My team". It is an easy joke to make that if he is going to follow United he should get used to being bored and not enjoying it. In fact, it is hard enough watching your team struggle as an adult, never mind as when you are 6, 7 or 8, going along to out of duty as your Dad hopes beyond hope that you may develop that strength of affiliation and bond that he developed with his team when he was your age. If I have been bored numerous times in the last few seasons, how must he have felt? Cold, fed-up, wishing he was elsewhere, wishing his dad would let him play on his phone or his DS.
He has gone along to football training, but both times it wasn't a great experience. I first took him along to our local junior team; indoor training with their nursery side, all about learning skills with a game thrown in at the end. He wasn't the best, he was by no means the worst. He seemed to enjoy it, but preferred being in goal and showed some bravery in throwing himself at the feet of groups of goal hangers that always materialise at that age. Then, not long after he had started they said that it was time to reduce a sports hall full of 5 year olds down to a squad for Under 7's football. The axe was to be wielded at reception class age. "If you signed up, you have to be committed. You have to turn up every week regardless." Woe betide those that don't. He wasn't going to make the cut and without the opportunity to continue training and learning we went elsewhere.
This isn't some "Football is failing our youngsters" rant, everyone is different and has different life experiences. I know two friends who coach junior sides in Sheffield, I know the challenges they face, one blogs about the trial and tribulations of coaching here, but it has failed my boy. The junior football system didn't garner and develop the interest of young boys who might develop later as footballers. Cast aside at 6, because they aren't good enough and can no longer attend training because they are not in the squad. Teams are set up to compete and not develop, that means they don't coach and develop players who aren't in their squads. It is like Lord of the Flies, survival of the fittest.
At the second local club we went to there was little attempt at integrating a new face. Other, clearly talented players laughed when he couldn't do what they could do, or when he stumbled and fall when taking a shot. The braying not picked up on by the coaches or the bullish and ignorant parents who think they have sired or given birth to the next David Beckham, complete with obligatory stupid haircut. We didn't go for many weeks. I love football. I enjoy playing - as well as I can - and will happily watch a match between anyone. But that environment wasn't a comfortable one to be stood in. I watched on with a huge amount of sadness.
Would these things not happening have changed anything? Would he enjoy football now? Would he want to play with his friends at school? Would he find interest at Bramall Lane? Who knows, but I can't believe any of it has helped in anyway. Maybe my interest benefited from not going to watch United in the early to mid-80's when United stagnated, crowds dropped and frustration came to the fore. But I still enjoyed playing at school and after on the fields with mates or taking pot shots at my Dad in the back garden. I pored over Shoot! and Match magazines when they were delivered every week. Sunday mornings were reading the football reports and completing my League Ladders. He just hasn't got that interest.
What he has got are other interests and other sports he enjoys and if they develop then that might mean over 25 years of being a season ticket holder for me come to an end. What he, or my daughter, wants to do comes first and I will support them and take them to wherever they need to be, when he needs to be there, to pursue what gives him happiness. That is what being a dad is about. He says he will still come to some games with me and I am probably a different fan when he is there with me; more tolerant of his day-dreaming and off-topic chats during the game, trying to give him more idea of what is going on, letting him do his own thing when he wants to.
The club's marketing team have used the phrase "True Blades" are at the Lane. That might not always be the case. Sometimes, some things are more important than being at the football, however much I passionately support my team. There are times in the past where I had to be at every home game, be it the Zenith Data Systems Cup or a Testimonial. I went away to watch the Blades at 50/60 grounds. Little would deter me. Things change. Life changes. Fatherhood changes a lot. So if I am not there as often as I used to be, I am not less of a fan, I am just being more of a Dad. You never know, if I don't push it he might come back to football later in life………or maybe he won't. We shall see.
Up the Blades!

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Time to let Chris Morgan go?

In a recent post on A United View, I extolled the virtues of a captain like Chris Morgan and rued the lack of similar on-field leadership in recent years. However it is off pitch leadership that leads me to post this. 

There are no "easy" jobs in football management. The level of scrutiny is intensified by the many ways fans and onlookers can express their opinion. Blogs, forums, message boards, phone-ins, super-slow motion replays and analysis of every little detail. Hours of air-time, free-time and so many channels and mediums to fill with content and opinion.

The next managerial sacking is just another line on the bookmakers odds lists and then there are just as many money making opportunities as there are column inches in predicting the replacement.

First steps in management are increasingly difficult for any player or coach looking to make the step up. If you ask any potential football manager how they would like their first job opportunity to come up, then it is fair to say the nature of Chris Morgan's first two opportunities would not be top of the list. 
As a means of proving your worth and potential as a manager they provided two wildly different scenarios, both within a six month period, and the circumstances would make it difficult to come out the other side with a great deal of credit. They probably tested Morgan mentally as much as technically.

Despite the disappointing run of form post-Christmas, it is fair to say United ought to have finished in the top 6 last season even if he Danny Wilson had stayed. To change managers with just 5 league games left (plus expected play off games) put the new incumbent in an unenviable position. A steady run to the end of the season - play offs, finish on a winning run - possible automatic but definitely play offs, struggle to maintain existing form - risk of missing play offs. All ways up it looked like play offs. 

The man offered the opportunity was Chris Morgan and he took over as caretaker with one eye on a long term position. Yet the timing of the change created a level of pressure on a manager - promoted from within - that was unnecessary and could have proved counter-productive. Changing manager was a risk and it didn't pay off.

Whilst you could never doubt Morgan's belief, motivational impact and care, results and performances were mixed. A lacklustre defeat at Huish Park saved The Blades from another expensive disappointment at Wembley.
Having applied for the permanent job himself it must have been an odd feeling for Morgan, looking on, as a player with the same coaching experience was eventually appointed.

Was it just the element of the unknown and a better playing pedigree that made Blades fans more willing to accept and, in some cases, be more excited about Weir's appointment than they would have been about having Morgan in charge? Was Morgan's commitment and loyalty when stepping into the breach now counting against him. 2 wins from 7 matches was not a track record to excite or encourage. So much so that it made Weir's non-existent record somehow preferable?

Roll forward to this season and the Weir experiment failed in dramatic style. With the decision made to axe the Scot on the Friday before a televised trip to Sixfields to face Coventry City. The delay in disposing of Weir gave Morgan little time to prepare his team and the first hour of the game saw little change from the tepid and gutless displays seen under Weir. 
Then Morgan made two substitutions and the Blades were suddenly back to 3-2 from three down and close to achieving an improbable comeback. Whilst the final half hour was gratifying, it was clear that the team lacked direction and a great deal of confidence. For the following two games against Port Vale and Peterborough, Morgan was given an experienced hand. Mick Wadsworth, a respected and experienced lower league coach, was brought in and the impact of Wadsworth's intervention should not be under-estimated. 

This is not intended to deride how Morgan steadied the ship, but a recognition that a steady hand with lots of lower league experience can have a positive effect. Maybe Morgan should have been given that steadying hand at the end of last season? It could be that he wanted the personal test and trusted in the support of David Unsworth or, in the different financial landscape pre-Prince, perhaps the budget did not allow for it. I do wonder if things may have turned out differently if he had been afforded an experienced aide and adviser. 

Morgan seemingly didn't apply for the managerial post after Weir's sacking. Maybe his experience of the summer deterred him, or there was a recognition that the club wanted an experienced manager? United were unlikely to trust a rookie now, with the club in the relegation zone and the Saudi investment creating an expectation of progress. That left him merely holding the fort again. As fellow Blade Lee Doane described him - a modern day Cec Coldwell. Cec was acting manager twice and spent 14 years on United's coaching staff after ending his career at Bramall Lane. 

So what now? Well Morgan prowled the touchline on Monday afternoon, as his Under 21 side lost 3-2 to Birmingham City; failing to hold on to a 2-0 lead. He was assured by Nigel Clough that he had a key role to play in his matchday team. Although Morgan cut a more benign figure against Crewe; resting on the dugout against Crewe as Clough and Andy Garner encouraged, remonstrated and motivated in the technical area.

We have to be careful of imposing staff on an incoming manager. In any business you will perform stronger and better with trusted allies and while I don't doubt Chris would support Clough and deliver in his duties wholeheartedly, a manager has to bring in his own people. Clough has done that and we now have a strong, maybe overstaffed, coaching set-up. The worse thing now would be for the new manager to pay lip-service to the club's request to find Chris a role.
I, like many, would want him to remain at the club. Although a Barnsley lad from the tarn, Morgan is as much a man of Sheffield now as the town of his birth. The fact that the club seemed to have made encouraging noises to fans' clamour for a testimonial match for Morgan is great recognition for his service, as player, captain, coach and caretaker manager.
While not a candidate for United's managerial job now, he may well be down the line. But to be that strong a candidate should the required learning and development be undertaken at United, or elsewhere?

For  the good of his career, it may be that he has to leave Bramall Lane. Assuming Nigel Clough is successful - and we all hope that he is - that means Morgan may not get a shot at management at Bramall Lane for four or five years. Will he be any better prepared after 4/5 years of coaching the Under 21s and more limited involvement in first team preparation?

Chris Morgan will always be well thought of by Sheffield United fans and whilst we always want the club to be built around passionate characters, with a clear love for the club, sometimes we have to free them from their roles. If we do that we will maybe see them return better for it.

Assuming he wants to forge a managerial career, it would make sense for him to seek opportunities elsewhere.  That way he can build his managerial credibility and enhance his knowledge and skills. It may cause gnashing of teeth and sadness amongst supporters, but he should pursue opportunities with good wishes and thanks. You never know, in doing this it may mean that one day he may be back....