It has been a strange sort of season watching United. Last Summer I suggested a season of consolidation was expected, with some player churn and a young manager adapting to his first managerial role. I expected that the outcome might not be the top 6 finish United had achieved for the last two years, but top half and outside the play offs.
In the end my prediction was right. However, in-between United fans have witnessed one of the most tumultuous seasons in recent memory. Just four players who started the opening game of the season started the final game at home to Coventry City. There were changes in ownership, team management and coaching staff, along with several high profile executive changes.
The team was at times abject, at others thrilling, but ended the season having forged renewed hope and a degree of expectation within the fan-base which will need careful management in future months.
The start made by David Weir was bright, but the opening game of the football league season and a 2-1 win over, what was in reality, a poor Notts County masked inadequacies in man-management, squad structure and tactics that unravelled over the following couple of months.
I was one of those who preached for giving the new manager time, believing that the team assembled was better than it was showing, but even to those who believed in giving a man a chance, it soon became apparent that we were acting more in feint hope than on the back of any strong evidence for the status quo.
Players looked lost on the pitch, unsure what to do for the best, despairing at themselves and each other. It became increasingly difficult for any to build any confidence as the team was chopped and changed - with 26 players used in the first 10 league games - and the results on the pitch failed to improve. For me it culminated in one of the worst performances I have seen from a United team against Hartlepool in the Johnstone's Paint Trophy.
Weir was trapped by his own football mantra and possibly by the edicts from above in terms of squad size and player recruitment. We had too big a squad, which created pockets of discontent as players were seemingly pigeon-holed into positions and their versatility limited.
On the pitch the players seemed reined in by the manager's defensive mentality. Possession football was played, but with little impetus and few goal-scoring opportunities created. The best defence in the league the previous season were wracked with nerves, knowing one goal conceded, one mistake, could prove fatal. The fans knew this as well. Players, fans and management trapped by fear. A manager seemingly inert and unable to change. Academy football was not working in League One.
The manager's cause was not helped by the arrival of a new co-owner and the promise of significant, monies. The Prince's investment was a game changer in many people's eyes and I think fans probably expected more short term change than ever was going to be the reality. I still think this is the case, as there are still those who will still expect more than the "measured" investment decisions promised.
David Weir left without much of the vitriol and anger that has been directed at previous managerial failures. That's not to say such feelings didn't exist, but they seemed more muted, perhaps symptomatic of a malaise in the support and a feeling that the man tried his best, but just wasn't ready for the opportunity to manage.
Following David Weir's departure I wrote;
"Whoever takes charge at Bramall Lane, needs to be a strong personality and willing to deal with long running issues on the playing side. There are clear tactical decisions to be made and although there isn't an unlimited transfer kitty to deal with defensive frailties and attacking gaps, you can imagine there will be significant churn of players in January. This is a group of good League One players who should be up and around the Top 6, what it needs is a manager with lower league success who will take the club and team to where they should be."
Most of this turned out to be right and whilst my gut reaction to some of the changes was to disagree at the time, I am more than happy to be proved wrong. Nigel Clough's arrival was greeted cautiously and a steady run of early results highlighted the difficulties he faced in managing/reducing the squad, strengthening fragile confidence and finding a system and way of playing to bring the best out of the players at his disposal.
Even on an unbeaten run up to Christmas, momentum and movement up the table was lacking. We were still drawing too many matches. This was at least an improvement, as these would have been matches we had lost earlier in the season. yet teams can be relegated by drawing too many. Unbeaten, yes. But turning draws into wins was proving difficult.
Hope could be gained by the increased defensive sturdiness, but there was still a lack of goals. A great afternoon at Villa Park might have ignited the season. The Blades 2-1 FA Cup 3rd Round win was one of the great away days following United and the noise in that second half as United gave Premier League opposition a real bashing will remain in the memories of the 6,000 Unitedites there for some time.
Time to kick on we hoped, or not as was the case. By the 22nd January the club were noting the anniversary of the first football radio commentary some 87 years earlier, when The Blades took on Arsenal. It was that commentary that spurned the phrase "Back to square one" and that is exactly where United found themselves, fifth bottom, the same position they were after a win over Crewe in Clough's first game in charge.
It was the visit to Crewe, just over a week later that defined United's season. A 3-0 defeat at Crewe left United second bottom and part of a bottom five potentially being cut adrift. Post-match, Nigel Clough seemed incredulous at what he had seen. A result and performance that he just hadn't seen coming, especially after a spirited fight with ten men that earned a replay with Fulham in the FA Cup.
He didn't seem to know what to do. Strong words were had and they must have had some effect. As the rain poured in West London the following Tuesday, Fulham toiled to little effect against the superior Blades and a goal in the last minute of extra time by Shaun Miller saw the Blades into the FA Cup 5th round. Fears that a cup run were an unwelcome distraction in the battle to stay up were about to be dismissed and in emphatic fashion.
Loan moves and January signings certainly had an impact and, with the odd exception, you can't really fault Clough's eye for a player and how they will fit into his system. At the same time he instigated changes that made huge improvements in player confidence, several whose heads were down and shoulders hunched increase in stature - Doyle, Murphy and Flynn in particular.
The two wingers were the key to how we played, providing attacking thrust, often in the absence of a true striker. Players were playing to a system, but with a freedom absent in the first few months of the season. They also had an on-pitch leader. Michael Doyle played a team role that suited him and as a result gave a base to many of United's successes. Michael Doyle's captaincy was criticised by this blog earlier in the season and I wouldn't retract any of my words at that time as I still believe they were valid. However, as the team grew in confidence and status, so the captain became the root of the success.
The cup run galvanised the Blades further and although an unbeaten league run was brought to an end - giving us all an idea of the standards set at the top of League One this season - another run was started.
From a team that looked like they wanted to curl up in a ball and die early in the season, they were now a team that never says die. The commitment, the late goals, the closeness of fans and players, the team spirit and good-humoured management team. As United fans looked back fondly to the scenes at Leicester and United's on the anniversary of United's memorable return to the top flight, comparisons were being made. There was much the same feel about the place as there was under Dave Bassett, nearly a quarter of a century ago.
There is a good feeling around the club. A feeling of hope. To those outside of Sheffield that might seem odd for a team of United's size and stature who have just finished seventh in League One, completing a third season at this level. However, we can now see the green shoots of a long term recovery.
Nigel Clough has made changes over the course of the season that took the club closer to the play offs than anyone might have hoped in February, never mind October. The difficulty will be re-energising the team and picking up where we left off, whilst integrating new personnel and introducing players in key positions, not least up front.
This is a huge summer for the club, the board and the manager. Promotion was an outside aim for much of this season. It will be an expectation next season. United need to maintain the progression they have achieved since January.
"You cannot change your destination overnight, but you can change your direction overnight"
~ Jim Rohn