Thursday, 9 May 2013

A Way Forward for Sheffield United - A Five Point Plan

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?

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Apathy Rules at Bramall Lane

As I said last year, after another Play-Off Final defeat, as a Blade you just have to carry on regardless. Regardless of the frustration. Regardless of the pain. Regardless of the knowledge that nine times out of ten it will end in an unmitigated disaster.  
But now some are not carrying on. Some have had enough. And can I blame them? Probably not.
The Play Off semi final first leg will probably see a relatively low crowd at Bramall Lane, despite the £15 tickets. People have had enough. Had enough of a well rewarded team showing little desire, had enough of performances without shape or structure and of a board who stumble along from one ill-thought out decision to another, without a long term plan and with little autonomy for the men supposedly in charge day to day.
Hard though it may be to recognise; there are elements of our season to commend. Defensively we have been consistently strong. A team doesn't keep 21 clean sheets by chance and a great deal of credit should be given to a back four and goalkeeper, who have performed at a level that belies the lack of experience some of them have.
But those clean sheets have come at a price. Some of the performances witnessed this season can best be described as turgid. We lost just nine games all season, equalling Brentford with the fewest defeats in the division. Our problem was draws, all eighteen of them. There’s been seven 0-0 draws, all bar one at Bramall Lane, with four in the last seven home games demonstrates a side shorn of creativity, movement and that special something that can unlock a resolute visiting side.
Charlton went up last season as champions, without really standing out as a thrilling or exciting team to watch. Efficiently going about their business, taking wins by the odd goal, many Blades clung to the hope that we were going to replicate that this season. It was not to be.
Criticism has been building all season, with initial murmurings dismissed by local media who said we were ridiculous for not focusing on results and league position. The initial symptoms of failing to react to second balls, a lack of natural width, pace and cutting edge were clear to anyone watching the Blades week after week. The failure to properly address any of these areas left the team pedestrian, lumbering and disjointed as the season petered out.
Hopes of automatic promotion, lost to an ageing and slow squad, with injuries and player sales leaving it weaker than it was before. Broken promises of adequate replacements, a manager working without free reign and with severe limitations on what he can do to change things. Yet the option for youth was ignored for so long, it is asking a lot for them to come in and have the positive impact required right now.
Why should people bother if the rest of the club show such a lack of ambition? There is no such thing as blind loyalty. Everyone has their limits. For some, it is when the owner and his acolytes are trapped in a downward spiral of risky and hurried decisions, the like of which they wouldn't engage in in their day to day business. The sacking of Danny Wilson has realistically left us no better off than we would have been if we had kept him. The initial burst of positivity and intent demonstrated in Chris Morgan's first game in charge against Swindon Town was quickly extinguished and there is no discernible improvement.
Even the stoically positive away supporters have recognised that a day on the ale and 90 minutes of positive support, cannot hide our players' failings, nor lift them to a level of performance that is anywhere near adequate. When the away supporters turn, when they have had enough, then you know there are fundamental issues.
I will accept that clubs have players that aren't good enough, that can't do the things you would like them to do, but what I can't accept is a lack of effort, application or will to win. Many would deny that our players have demonstrated that, that it is not in their make-up, they aren't that kind of player. I am sorry, but performances at times this season have suggested otherwise. Maybe their fear and timidity could be misconstrued for a lack of application, either way it is unacceptable; especially when it is the more experienced professionals who seem unable to cope.
At the start of the season, when asked for my predicted League table for When Saturday Comes magazine, I tipped the Blades to finish 8th, a view clearly not shared by the representative fans of other League 1 clubs who, based on average predicted positions, had the Blades as champions.
On that basis, I should be happy with 5th place but for me this represents a real missed opportunity. My prediction was at a time when the make-up of the squad and that of other clubs was still uncertain. Expectations fluctuate over the course of the season; once you have seen other teams, once you see where the league table pans out. The thing is I genuinely saw little else of any quality in League One this season. Crewe and Brentford were the teams that impressed me the most, whilst Doncaster were efficient, but not exciting, and Bournemouth were beaten twice.
Wage bills don't necessarily translate to on pitch success, I accept that. But the United players, who are probably paid a combined amount near double that of most of the competing teams and many of whom are experienced and well paid professionals, need to take a long hard look at themselves and consider whether 5th place was truly acceptable. To hear our Captain Michael Doyle speak in recent weeks, it seems it was. How disappointing.
An acceptance of 5th place is as spineless as some of those end of season performances, when there wasn’t even the will to maximise our league position for home second leg advantage, nor to enter the play offs with a positive frame of mind enveloping the club.
Instead we have an attitude where many can’t even be bothered leaving the pub or their settee on Friday night and I can understand the ambivalence of my fellow Blades. I am going on Friday and I cannot see where United's goals will come from. I cannot see us keeping another clean sheet. I don't expect us to get to Wembley. I have renewed my season ticket, expecting League One football. I have seen little to persuade me otherwise.
Yes, there must be a first time for the play offs are kind to us. Then again, can we get through three games with three clean sheets and a goal again, for the second year running? I doubt it. Mind you, if we did that it would come to penalties again and oh how the Football Gods would be laughing!