Thursday, 27 June 2013

McGinn In

In a burst of excitement on Tuesday, the Blades announced the arrival of four new signings, immediately leading the more suspicious Blades fans to wonder, "Who is on their way out?"
Looking at it more positively,  the signings meet the criteria set by the Blades and David Weir in recent press interviews. Young players, building foundations with one eye for the future. They also will fall firmly within the much tighter budgetary controls within which Weir is working.
Over the next four posts,I will offer a few thoughts on each signing, with input from fans of their previous clubs, and also a few thoughts on the new manager and the influence I think he will have in building a squad for next season.
Stephen McGinn
This is the signing that actually fills me with most excitement, more due to the reaction of others, than anything I have seen myself. McGinn started his career at St Mirren and was capped by Scotland at Under 19 and Under 21 level before a move to Watford. Matt Rowson of Watford site BHaPPY
"Stephen McGinn arrived at Vicarage Road in January 2010. He had just turned 21, and was very much of the mould of signings at the time... what little money we spent, we spent on potential.  He was used sparingly for the rest of the season, and passed a little under the radar looking a little lightweight, often fielded in what looked a slightly unnatural wide position."
"Come the following season however and Stephen began to spread his wings. More frequently involved now he began to impose himself upon a central midfield position.  When Jordon Mutch returned to Birmingham after an impressive six month loan in the January McGinn stepped into the apex of the diamond, sometimes even playing an advanced role behind lone striker Danny Graham. He looked terrific... deft, clever, efficient with possession and yet effective too, slide rule always handy for a vicious through ball and adept at timing his runs into the box.  He might not quite have been the finished article, but he was progressing at an exciting rate."
"And then, suddenly, he wasn't.  The injury he picked up at Doncaster came from an innocuous tackle by all accounts but was evidently a bad injury.  He didn't play for Watford again, and didn't play for anyone until Shrewsbury took him on loan almost two years later."
"If Stephen has overcome his injury - and I note he's got two years at Bramall Lane, not just the twelve months - then you've got a smashing little player on a free.  He'll be 25 in December however, and New Skool Watford were never likely to offer him a new contract on the off chance."
This was a view endorsed in an unprompted tweet I received from Mike (of the From the Rookery End podcast); "You've got yourself a cracking player. Been out injured, but if fit will be a great addition." And also from David Cameron-Walker of the Football League podcast "We  Are Going Up; "Before McGinn got injured he was just hitting his stride. He'll be a real asset to you if he's fit and ready to go."
So while the long term injury is clearly a risk for United, his reasonably impressive spell at Shrewsbury on loan last season, coupled with a full pre-season training behind him, could give United a creative lift much needed in the middle of the park and a player pushing for a place in the starting eleven.
At present we don't know who will be in the United squad come August, or the way Weir will set up his side. He has promised attractive football, but recognised a trade-off may be required to ensure that the club is successful with it.
The lack of competition for places in central midfield last season was a big problem for me. Whilst Kevin MacDonald suffered from both a lack of movement and quality from the players around him, both he and Michael Doyle seemed to be too comfortable in their positions, with little threat to their place in the starting eleven. Our midfield was pedestrian and off the pace much of the time and that set the tempo for the rest of the team.
One man who could have threatened this comfortable position was Elliot Whitehouse, but a problematic injury in pre-season meant that he was out of the picture for much of the season. It was a huge shame, when early pre-season showings offered much. With Whitehouse offering attacking thrust and McGinn seemingly better in central position higher up the pitch, it will give Weir more options than Danny Wilson had for much of last season. It will be interesting to see what his preference is and whether a five man midfield might be the answer?

Monday, 10 June 2013

Weir Blades

Reasons to be Cheerful - Part 2
It took just shy of nine weeks to get here, five weeks to the day since the Blades fell in the play-offs at Huish Park. But at last I think Blades fans have reasons for optimism. Reasons, dare I say it, to be cheerful.
When the season drew to a close with a limp and lifeless performance in Yeovil, thoughts firmly focused on who would be named Danny Wilson's permanent successor. Writing at the time I said;
"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  show passion for the club in order to impress the fans. Let's move away from this thinking. Let's have a manger who can look at the playing squad with fresh eyes and free of the constraints of saying the right thing to please the supporters."
On paper we seem to have that man. At times over the last few weeks many have commented on the dearth of quality candidates listed by the bookmakers. We have had several names surge to be favourite on the back of a bit of money put their way, often based on the "in the know" of internet forum rumours. Many of those listed have had that Blades link somewhere in there. Of those that hadn't, few ticked the box. (Okay - the pedantic could argue that Weir has a Blades past, although a pre-season trial the season before last hardly constitutes a substantial history with the club)
The disparity of opinions on all candidates demonstrated that the fan-base had a broad range of opinions on who should be manager and the qualities and experience required. For every supporter of a candidate you could find a detractor and in a lot of cases each made valid arguments to support their case.
The relative silence emanating from Bramall Lane in the period could be viewed positively, after all the club has kept its counsel and left the media playing the same guessing game, latching on to the same rumours and sources as the fans. They could validly claim that they took their time to find the man who fits their profile. Yet, it would be interesting to know if weir was one of the 20+ quality applicants, or one of the original shortlist of seven.
Whatever you think of Graham Arnold and his comments on the process, I can't help feeling that there are some concerns for Blades fans within his comments. He had no need to run to the press, in fact doing so would surely create bigger problems for him; both with McCabe family links to Central Coast Mariners and as a word of warning to other potential suitors. To then do so in such vehemently ferocious terms suggests more than just minor issues at play. There is no smoke without fire.
Even with the bits of the process that did reach the press, such as Stuart McCall's involvement and withdrawal, you can't help feeling United have stumbled through the recruitment process, but in the end have dropped on with a candidate becoming available, perhaps after rejection at Goodison Park?
So after the long wait, have we got the right man?
Well Weir does seem to have United the fans onside straight away. Whether there is an element of that being relative happiness when he is compared with other candidates and relief that names recently bandied around by the press are not the preferred choice, who knows? It is possible. At one point earlier in the process, two names in the frame led me to tweet that expressing a preference was similar to being asked which STD would you prefer to have?
However, I think that there is a genuine warmth and optimism about Weir's arrival, and one that I share. He lacks experience of management, in our current situation that might have been preferable, but has all his coaching qualifications and a wealth of playing experience in both top level club football and at international level.
To be fair to our board it is also worth remembering that Julian Winter appointed Brendan Rogers and Malky Mackay at Watford; both being given their first jobs in management by United's returning Chief Executive. It is fair to say that is a decent track record when it comes to identifying young managerial talent and giving them a chance. The fact that Winter steered the then troubled Hornets through a treacherous financial period - including brushes with administration - should also be considered, especially given the financial down-sizing being undertaken at Bramall Lane.
Weir is well-respected by both those who he has played for and those he has played with. Comments on twitter from fellow pros and fans of Everton, Rangers and Hearts talk of a focused leader, a hard-working role model, a player who led by example. A man who, since finishing his playing career, has sought to expand his coaching knowledge and capabilities, spending time with clubs overseas.
A Rangers fan I know was reminiscing over email with me today and told me of the time the Rangers fan group the Blue Order held up 11 cardboard cut outs of the torso of their favourite defender and burst into a rendition of "We all dream of a team of Davie Weirs". There are times recently when United could have done far worse than that themselves. If Weir can build a squad in his image, with his work-rate, commitment and quality we won't go far wrong.
Many will now say that the club's patience has been rewarded, that the lengthy process was worthwhile. No-one will truly know what has happened behind the scenes over the last nine weeks. I had a tongue in cheek guess at it here. But the fact remains that after such a long selection process whoever became manager will start the season with a difficult task, now made slightly harder. I am sure he would have wanted more input into pre-season preparation, I am sure he would have wanted the opportunity to think longer about which players he wants to keep and not, to allow as much time as possible to move players on, allowing him more freedom to bring on the players he wants to be part of a United future.
Yet Weir knows all this and he has decided that this will be his first managerial challenge. He has been given a three year contract for a reason and the patience I have referred to previously will be important. I don't see a quick fix promotion for United next season and in the short term it could well be a bumpy ride. Weir will struggle to make significant changes to a squad, with only a small transfer kitty and with some players - who many fans consider "deadwood" - remaining under contract; reasonably lucrative contracts for League One as well.
Blades fans have been looking for signs of positivity for some time now. This is a small one, but in time it could be so much more. And that is the key, it just might need that time.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Manager - Seven Candidates, One Prize

MUSIC: Dance of the Knights (Prokofiev)

Montage of shots of candidates striding purposely through the Winter Gardens and Peace Gardens, down a derelict looking Moor precinct (avoiding the fast food cartons and Greggs bags), past the Copthorne Hotel and into the Cherry Street car park. The camera pans across the fa├žade of the South Stand, Bramall Lane.

Voice over: Previously on The Manager……..

[Montage of arguments, petty squabbling, cringe worthy interview snippets and a large pile of unsold Sheffield United home shirts - size XXXL.]

[Camera pans up from ticket office to darkened windows of Bramall Lane boardroom]

Voice over: Eight weeks in and there remain seven candidates still competing to be the next Sheffield United manager. In a break with tradition, as some have left the process new candidates have come into the fray. Lord Sugar is far from impressed…………

[Alan Sugar picks up phone on the desk in front of him, it is clearly not plugged into the wall]

Alan Sugar: Can you send the candidates through please?

[Six men walk through the door and sit down at the table opposite Alan, who is flanked by his aides Karen and Nick. A TV screen sits adjacent to them. It fizzes into life.]

Alan: Well is this the best we can do? Really? From Week 1 of this process you have all struggled to impress. This job is all about profit……or at least breaking even. I want you to develop your own products and then sell them! I want you to look for products elsewhere with untapped potential, buy them and then sell them on at a profit. It can be six months later, two years later, but make money.

At the very start I gave you a simple task to test your ability to turn a profit. Sell off the end of season stock of kit and leisurewear in the club superstore. Easy. Yet we arrived back in the boardroom to find you have masses of unsold stock and huge losses.

Karl (a candidate): But it was a load of crap Shurralan.

Alan: it’s Lord Sugar!

Karl: Shorry! Look, none of the kids are wearing Macron gear, dey've never 'eard of it, who is going to buy shub-shtandard, poorly-branded crap? It wouldn't even sell on Croxteth market.

Alan: Well if you think that was hard Karl, just wait for the real job at the end of this process when you have to try and find a buyer for Marcus Williams…..........hmmmph.

[Camera cuts away to Nick arching an eyebrow as he tilts his head]

Alan: What a bloody shower! [Looks down at desk and shakes head]. And then I send you to Hungary, Australia and China to buy potential profit making assets. I give it you on a plate and what do you come back with? Zip! If I had wanted that I would have used any of the previous winning candidates in recent years, they had no idea how to identify you Austra-Hungo-Chinese talent either. Useless!

[Alan looks up and jabs his right index finger at a candidate]

Karl, you impressed me at first; the scouse gift of the gab, telling me how you would love to work for United, telling me it is a great club. You actually did okay on the Superstore challenge, a nice line in shpiel and good sales patter. Your experience of the franchising model I like, but I don't think you are in this for the right reasons. As you know I can't stand bullshitters Karl.

Karl: What do you mean Shurralan?

Alan: It’s Lord Sugar! Are you deaf or sumfink?

Karl: Shorry!

Alan: I think you are like the Bramall Lane pies. The appearance looks good, but nothing of substance inside and you leave a bad taste in the mouth. I think you are just using your appearance here to influence your pay in your current job. Make out you’re in demand...and for that reason...

[Karl spins in his chair and pelts for the door]

Karl: You're not ruling me out, not having that on my scheevee, I'm ruling myself out, sheeya Shurralan.

Alan: (Angry) What the bladdy hell.......Well safe to say my concerns about Karl have been realised. Saved me a job.

[The other candidates sit open mouthed]

Walter (a candidate): I always thought he was a bit of a chancer. I’ll never know how he got here in the first place, he has got no experience, unlike us.

Nick: A lucky escape I’d venture.

Alan: Very true Nick and Walter...I’ll be the judge of that. Where were we? Ah Robert......

[The camera cuts to a bemused looking, bald headed candidate]

Alan: I like you Robert - you have demonstrated good team leadership on operational tasks, you organise a team well, but can you take the high level strategic view? You seem a bit reliant on Walter for that .....and what about Walter?

Wally by name; Wally by nature. You’re a bit of a joker aren’t you? I’m telling you, your aggressive nature cuts no rough with me son. I grew up in the East End I've got harder Aunties than you. I don't have threatening sorts like you in my plans.

Walter: But me and Robert make a great team!

Alan: The only great team I want is on the pitch, then they will be in demand and we can sell them. Anyway….are you fick or sumfink? Did it say "The Managers" on the application form?

Walter & Robert: (In unison) No, but...

Alan: No buts...

Karen: They have good ideas and two brains might be better than one.

Alan: As long as they realise it is not paying double the salary! [self-effacing chuckle] Now Michael - I have been watching you. I've had my people watch you closely in the tasks and they like what they have seen. I am not so sure. You are quick to switch sides when the heat is on in the boardroom and I have my doubts about your long term commitment. Are you committed?

Michael (a candidate): Yes I am. I am in this for the long haul.

[Karen gives quizzical pout to camera]

Alan: (Incredulous chuckle) Really?! I hope your record is better in the long term. I hear good things but your record is stamped "Loser". 2 wins in 12 attempts on the Seaside task. You gave up! Quitter!

Michael: I only lost 2 though!

[Alan looks to the ceiling and rolls eyes]

Alan: (sarcastically) Oh well done, do you want a bloody medal?! Well, this tale of woe got worse - are you going to try and justify that?  You led the Mill Town task....I gave you all those expensive assets to sweat and you give me four successes....four out of 15 opportunities......blow me!

I tell you what Michael. My concern with you is that if I take you on, I must remember not to lose the receipt.

[Michael’s head drops into his hand, his fingers draw down his face stretching his skin. He looks crestfallen]

Alan: Young Christopher. I like you Christopher. If I asked you to build a wall for me, you would. If I asked you to dig a bloody great hole for me you would. But passion and hard work will only get you so far here, sunshine. We saw that with your performances. Early doors - maximum impact, since then.....I am sorry Christopher, but regrettably you are out of your depth and for that reason you're not hired.

Christopher (a candidate): [Doffs his flat cap] Thank you for the opportunity Lord Sugar.

[Christopher shakes hands with the other candidates, wishes them well and leaves the boardroom]

Alan: Now then young Stu. When you were put North of the Border with a load of tut to work with you made a great return.

Stu (a candidate): Thanks Lord Sugar.

Alan: Your CV is very impressive on paper, but then again so are fish and chips. But it is with great regret that I've been made aware of your behaviour when celebrating your task success in Week 5.

Stu: Eh? Tha’ what?

Alan: Drinking shandy from the can, falling off a car in full view of the public. That's not behaviour becoming of an employee of the club…….the role is a position of respect, how can the team respect a man who can't handle his success in a dignified manner?  I am sorry Stu, though you clearly have the talent I cannot risk my £750,000 budget in your reckless hands.

Stu: But that wasn’t recently, it was ages ago. I’ve been set up! It was you Wally wasn’t it!

[Stu becomes increasingly irate and fires of volleys of abuse as he leaves the boardroom]

Peter (a candidate): What about me Sir Alan? I can deliver for you. I will give 110% every week and make you money.

Alan: Who the hell are you?

Peter: Peter Gra.....

Alan: [Realisation breaks across his face] Ah Peter. What the hell are you doing back here? Did you sneak in the back door or sumfink? We got rid of you in Week 2 when you and Scottish Alex ballsed up that Villa renovation task…..Get out!

[The camera turns to a perma-tanned middle aged candidate, slouched in his chair. As the camera pans back you see he is on the TV screen.]

Graham. Well you came with a big mouth and a big reputation. But all I am hearing from my interview panel is that you interview really badly. Ait is all about you, not what you can do for the team. I think that back in the real world you are just nuffink more than a big fish in a small pond.

Graham (a candidate): Ah piss off!

Alan: Mind your language!

Graham: What do you lot know? I am recognised for my progressive thinking back home.

Alan: With respect – progressive thinking in Australia is like being in the Dark Ages here. I can deal with egos who can deliver, you won’t be able to meet our standards, so aren’t hired.

Graham: Clueless; all of you. You don’t deserve me. I am better than this.

Alan: Graham - I don’t want to see your face anymore.

[The Skype connection is closed and the screen goes black]

Alan: Well….I don't really know what to say. I am going to have to discuss it further with my colleagues here. It is a tough decision and not for the right reasons. When I get back to you, ONE of you will be hired.

[Camera cuts to a long shot of Karl pulling his Louis Vuitton luggage across the car park and getting into a cab on Cherry Street]

Karl (inside the cab): I know I could have made a good job of this, but that whole experience was weird; weirder than  Pete Winkelman's face. Anyway I will be a shuccshesh, I will prove them wrong.

[Karl gives a cheesy grin and winks into the camera]

[Camera shows Christopher, stood at a bus stop in the rain waiting for a number 83 bus to Shirecliffe]

Christopher: I'll prove them wrong. I will keep developing new products that will sell at a profit.

[Another interior taxi shot. Stu talks to camera]

Stu: I am devastated, but knockbacks make you stronger. I’ll be a European success story in 12 months. Just you see.

[Camera cuts to Bondi Beach and Graham sat on a beach chair with a tinny]

Graham: Bondi Beach or Skegness beach - it was a tough call. I am better off here - their mindset and strategies are prehistoric over there. What a bunch of galahs. Here I am at the top of my league each season, winning stuff. A-League tops some paint pot trophy every time.


Voiceover: Next week! Three candidates, one prize - that no-one seems to want. Will more candidates throw their hats in the ring as the search for the new Sheffield United manager continues................