Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Expecting to Fly?

The Blades kick off the new Football League season live on Sky Sports, welcoming the League's oldest club Notts County to Bramall Lane, but will be another season of same old, same old for United?

United fans seem to be approaching the season in a state of warm expectation. While the appointment of David Weir shows welcome initiative and forethought, there is a lot resting in the hands of a rookie manager. 

In what became a hectic pre-season, the manager took a look at players from across the first team squad and development/under 21 teams. Clearly trying to develop the players' comprehension of his tactics and playing style. A transition to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-2-2-1-1 isn't going to just happen and it will take a few competitive games for this to be properly embedded. 

Hopefully with attacking wide players and Kevin McDonald playing in the hole behind a central striker, we will see a bit more pace and fluidity to United's play. However, Weir has assured us he has a Plan B and this was something vitally lacking last season, as first Danny Wilson and Chris Morgan failed to find a way to break down teams who took advantage of our deep lying midfield, lack of pace and pedestrian play.

The goal scored in the pre-season game at Mansfield promises much. As the ball was passed from one end of the pitch to the other with slick movement and simple passing. Whilst the finish was a simple tap in and there were elements of luck as some of the passes and first touches were loose it showed a confidence and variation of thought absent throughout much of last season.

Pre-season has ended with the Blades unbeaten, although that is said to count for little when the focus is on fitness, match sharpness and team understanding. Anyone who takes comfort from results against League 2 and Scottish lower league opposition should do so with caution. 

Perhaps the one concern from pre-season if you were to judge results is the lack of goals. Although again we are adding key players in this position who will need time to adapt. The signing of Lyle Taylor is the right kind of signing and the hope has to be that he finds the switch from Scottish Division 1 to League 1 a smooth transition. Certainly arriving on the back of a 30+ goal season won't do his confidence any harm. 

Febian Brandy has a far less impressive goals to game ratio, but he will provide pace from wide positions and his play off a front man will be key to how we play. Maybe this formation will draw the best out of Jamie Murphy and Ryan Flynn who ought to weigh in with more goals and a greater all round contribution. 

Too often we relied on clean sheets for wins last season and in the end succumbed to low scoring draws, particularly at home. With a largely unchanged defence, we have to find more goals this season and they need to be delivered from every position, not just the strikers.

Of the five things I asked from the club at the end of last season, there are signs that several are either falling into place, or the club at the very least is improving its efforts. 

We have a young, ambitious manager with fresh ideas; possibly too inexperienced but time will tell. He has signed the young, hungry players with a point to prove. Whilst there could rightly be concerns with Stephen McGinn's injury record and Sean McGinty's lengthy disciplinary issues, there can be little doubt there is raw talent there. Weir will have seen plenty of Jasper Johns whilst at Goodison and across Merseyside Connor Coady will be keen to justify the rave reviews of Reds' followers.

I also asked for a clear way of playing that permeates every layer of the club and Weir's wide pre-season squad rotation bodes well. It will be interesting to see if the under 18s adapt to this formation as well. 

The other two facets to my five point plan were a long term strategy and honesty about our ambitions. Whilst I don't doubt the former is in place, there is an understandable reluctance to talk beyond getting back up this season and amongst talk of long term development, Weir was quick to add that promotion this season is our target. The sooner the better. 

Club communication seems stronger, with greater opportunities to quiz manager, backroom staff and board members. The  fact that Lee Carsley recognised the importance of message boards and fan forums in approaching the administrators  of for a chat about what he and Weir were trying to achieve, shows a welcome wider awareness beyond player management and coaching skills. The club still has some way to go, particularly around social media, but the first signs are promising and I hope Julian Winter delivers on his words. 

The only negative for me? That Michael Doyle retains the club captaincy. I have talked before about his apparent negative manner with team mates, particularly the youngsters. A player that for me can hardly claim to lead by example. Sadly,I think the rest of the squad lacks a vocal organiser. Neill Collins would seem a potential candidate, but perhaps is too quiet a personality on the pitch.

So what for the Blades this season? Despite the positive signs, I stand by my view that this is a 2 season project. The relegated teams are all strong, PNE are forming a strong squad and are rid of the cancer that is Graham Westley and a Brentford strikeforce of Donaldson and Grigg is one to be feared in League 1.

The first few weeks should give us a good guide. Notts Co look weaker on paper than last season, particularly without Alan Judge, but are still a stern test to open the season. Brentford away is one of the toughest trips in the division and we can only hope they are slow starting after their negative double whammy at the end of last season. In the first month we also face an always awkward MK Dons and Yorkshire derbies against newly promoted sides Rotherham United and Bradford City. 

Since I wrote brief previews and answered the questions for World Soccer's 'Football 2014' and When Saturday Comes, my expectations have increased. A play off spot is a possibility for me, although it may be a late push to achieve it. Having a team firing as it enters the latter stages of the season could be a good thing and I think it suits club and fans not to be a favourite for promotion this season. In my mind I think that two play off spots are up for grabs and little happening elsewhere makes me think we aren't capable. 

Expecting to fly? Maybe. It could be more of a steady ascent than a soaring take off. Let's just remain patient. I think we might reach our target destination, as long as we don't fret too much en route.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

EPPP - If it ain't broke don't break it!

Back in July 2012, the Premier League launched EPPP (Elite Player Performance Plan) a structured plan to supposedly raise standards in youth development. The six fundamental principles that were highlighted as key to the success of the EPPP were:
- Increase the number and quality of home grown players gaining professional contracts in the clubs and playing first team football at the highest level
- Create more time for players to play and be coached
- Improve coaching provision
- Implement a system of effective measurement and quality assurance
- Positively influence strategic investment into the Academy System demonstrating value for money
- Seek to implement significant gains in every aspect of player development
The previous system for determining compensation for players was reviewed with the Football League, along with the restrictions on player recruitment. This now gives clubs with higher graded academies free reign on other clubs' young talent and compensation schemes with much reduced, fixed fees replaced tribunals; meaning that those clubs losing players were likely to be much worse off.
In order to force through the proposals the Premier league forcibly coerced the football league clubs down a route many didn't want to pursue, under the threat of withdrawal of some of their TV money. Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parrish described it as:
"A brazen attempt by the Premier League's wealthy elite to cherry pick the best youngsters from the Football League clubs."
Yet Premier League clubs are now starting to see EPPP as having a potentially detrimental impact on their clubs as well. Jeremy Peace chairman of West Bromwich Albion said recently;
The way it is for us in the short term isn’t working. And I’m not convinced it’ll work medium term. The way it’s structured these lads are going to go to the big clubs - that’s the seduction. Why are we spending £2.5 million (on infrastructure improvements and a similar amount each year in running costs) to be another club’s academy?" 
"We’ve invested in the infrastructure and we’ll see what happens over the next year. But from what we’re seeing so far it’s very disappointing".
“We’ve brought in a whole load of staff, all these facilities and then a club can come along with £200k and say ‘here you go, thank you very much".
Free movement amongst Category 1 clubs with a derisory compensation scheme, progressively getting worse the lower down the grading scale. Where is the benefit, for anyone outside the powerful ten or so teams, free of the threat of relegation, the powerhouses of the Premier League?
Some clubs have given up on their academies all together - Wycombe and Yeovil Town being two of the higher profile examples. Others have weighed up a decision with a significant number of pros and cons. A decision regarding which category to apply for was not a simple task.
Part of the process was to re-categorise Academies from one to four; one being the highest standard. Now, one year on, clubs have found out the results of the independent audit programme which saw Double Pass, a Belgian company, assess all academies against 10 Key Performance Indicators that assessed how each club scored against the criteria for their chosen grade. Pleasingly United's Academy has officially been categorised by the Professional Game Board (PGB) as a Category Two Academy under the new youth development system. A positive news story on the face of it.
Despite the success of the Blades' academy down the years the club admitted that it "had some work to do" to improve and meet the necessary criteria of a Category Two Academy. This involved investing heavily in coaching staff across all age groups.
The benefits of this investment are clear; guaranteeing a prestigious fixtures programme against the best teams in the area, added financial protection against losing players to predatory clubs and a seal of approval from an independent organisation that says the club delivers a high quality programme. That could be the key to attracting the right players in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
But this is where the EPPP plan actually contradicts what it is trying to achieve. Our academy has not been ranked outside the top 20 in the last 12 years; a stand out achievement for a club that has only had one season in the Premier League in that time.  Academy manager Nick Cox also pointed out:
"The auditors gave us special praise for our player productivity over the years. The Premier League's scoring system sees us ranked as the eighth best producer of talent in the last three years."
Consistently in the Top 20 academies, eighth best producer of talent, it is hardly broke, so why fix it? Or in this case, break it. With the success that United has had, investing heavily in youth development, producing two full England internationals and numerous age group internationals in that time, it seems a ridiculous scenario that they have chosen not to apply for Category 1 status. Whilst I don't disagree with the need to improve, surely that should be as much about raising standards of the many academies not the few.
Cox said that:
"Category One does not fit with the strategy of the club. Chasing Category One status would have been to massage our own ego rather than a common sense decision……Many of the benefits of a higher category do not fit with what we are trying to achieve, for example it would have allowed us to scout nationally from the age of 12 when what we really want is for our Academy to be developers of the best local players as a priority."
It is easy to read between the lines and see a financial cost as one of the major factors. A £2.3m annual budget is a considerable amount for a club outside of the Premier League without a benefactor, TV money/parachute payments and on annual turnover of less than £10m.
Category 1 status is about throwing money and resources at a perceived problem and we are all aware of examples where that has not worked well in football. Category 1 is not about player development or playing first team football at the highest level, it is certainly not about value for money. It is about creating a barrier to entry, for those clubs outside of the elite. Regardless of the initiative, investment and credibility previously demonstrated in player development, no cash and you are not in.
Club representatives have spoken of the need to recruit, develop and nurture the best young talent in the region, with the ultimate aim of continuing to graduate our youngsters into our first-team squad at Bramall Lane in the years ahead. In reality we all know that will subsequently mean player sales, to allow further investment in young talent. That is, unless a Premier league return can be achieved.
Our reputation for player development will hold the club in good stead and the salutary tale of Jordan Slew, whose career has stalled after leaving United after making just 11 first team appearances, may encourage a longer term commitment from academy graduates. Staying at Bramall Lane has had clear longer term benefits for Matt Lowton.
When, not if, player such as George Long and Harry Maguire move on they will have tremendous playing experience under their belts, that may not have been gained with premature moves to a higher level. Behind them their fellow graduates, such as Elliott Whitehouse and Callum McFadzean, will be forging similar careers and the next generation will be establishing themselves - see (England U17 goalkeeper) George Willis and (Italy Under 18 striker - from Chesterfield) Diego De Girolamo amongst others.
Another key factor could be the capture of the aforementioned Cox, who oversaw the graduation to first team football of 52 players in 12 years at Watford. He clearly has a keen eye. His arrival at Bramall Lane was greeted with congratulatory tweets from Watford fans I know, saying what a great capture he will be. Let's hope so.
United might survive the EPPP era better than most. Credit for that must go to Kevin McCabe who invested heavily in tremendous facilities at Shirecliffe at a time when few other clubs were following suit. This has given United a significant base to launch the careers of several promising starlets over the last few years. Encouraging the next batch to see Bramall Lane as a place to develop and grow as a player will be the key. Promotion to the Championship will also help.
But let's not pretend EPPP that this is helping arrest the slide of age group national teams in international competition so clearly demonstrated this summer. Let's not pretend that this is to benefit the national team - since when do the Premier League clubs care about that? This is about clubs stockpiling players that will no doubt end up back at their original clubs on loan, or on the scrapheap at 19 and 20; when chances are so few and far between and their development is stunted through a lack of first team football.
In some ways that may work in United's favour and also that of other Championship and League One clubs. If that happens, the best will still move to Premier League clubs and hopefully move on to international recognition. The wiser members of the remaining group will maybe resist the lure of sitting in the stands and develop their careers in surroundings and with coaches who have developed so many talented players to date.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

A Fatherly Hand

I recently asked #twitterblades to vote for their favourite three games of recent times. In response I received a tweet on twitlonger from Blades fan Tristan Woods-Scawen (@mrwoodpigeon) explaining his choice. His well chosen words resonated strongly with me and with his permission I have reproduced his words here. Hopefully they will strike the same chord with a wider audience. Football is a bond that unites us all and many of us will recognise elements of Tristan's story. 

You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family. It could be said the same for your football team too. Like many other boys growing up, I was “given” my team by my dad. Although I have never lived in or even near Sheffield, it was The Blades for me.

My dad went to Sheffield University in the early 1960s and having spent his formative years living down south and going to see Aldershot Town play, it was time for a step up in quality and with recent promotion to the First Division, it was BDTBL that he headed and it was an affair that was going to last the rest of his life.

I was born in December 1978, not the best year to have been born a Blade with the team being relegated to Division 3 at the end of that season. By this time my dad had moved with us to live in Essex – not really known to be a hotbed of blades fans. With work and family taking over his weekends, it was more difficult to get to any matches, but the passion remained and I remember Saturday afternoons in the 80s say with my dad watching Teletext refreshing and the occasional celebration.

We moved house again with his work and found ourselves very much in the heart of Coventry City supporters. As 1987 came and the infamous Coventry FA Cup win happened, I confided in my dad that I thought I wanted to go to Highfield Road as all my friends did and asked if he would take me.

You should know that my dad was someone who always said he didn’t really like football unless it was The Blades playing. He was never one to sit down on Sunday to watch West Brom v Blackburn or some equally “non-match” as he would describe them. He had no real interest in going to see Coventry City, but he took me along.

We watched a season together at Highfield Road, but before every game he always whispered to me at kick off that next season he would take me to see some “proper football”. I knew what this meant and whilst Sheffield was basically a foreign country to me, I was excited.

So from my first trip with my dad to BDTBL (Beautiful Down Town Bramall Lane for non-United fans) in 1990, I was hooked. My parents had split up in the early 80s and I hadn’t lived with my dad for years, but doing the weekly 3-hour round trip to Sheffield or travelling to the countless away games was our time together and I’ll never forget it.

The game that stood out for me is the FA Cup Quarter Final against Coventry. As well as having everything a game could have, we were going home to friends and family who were Sky Blues fans. It meant more to us than most I think and at the final whistle we just uncontrollably jumped and hugged. I couldn't wait to get home and rub it in with my Sky Blue mates.

If you are reading this, I’m pretty sure you know that life as a Blade is never dull. There has been some success over the last 25 years, but mostly it’s a catalogue of disappointments of missing out on promotion, relegation, selling the best players and penny-pinching chairmen.

I always read people complaining and they usually have a point, but this is why our club is the greatest club there is. We have had some amazing times at BTDTL (the greatest are usually evening matches it seems to me) and there is always something newsworthy happening at the club. Football with Sheffield United FC is the best soap opera you’ll ever see, the greatest movie plot you’ll ever hear and like the Hollywood greats, it’ll make you laugh and make you cry.

My dad was unexpectedly diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2011 and I didn’t know it at the time but we had been to our last match together. After some pretty heavy treatment, he lost much of his speech and it was tough to make conversation. But through the last few months, we talked so much about the matches we had seen and what was happening that season.

We knew he was coming to the end and so was the 2011-2012 season. Ched was gone, but I thought we could still hang on to the automatic promotion place. I thought that would be a great season for us to finish on if we could get that promotion spot.

Nothing is ever straightforward with the Blades though and of course we had to go through the pain of the play offs. I sat with my dad watching the TV as the 432 penalties (or something like that) were taken at Wembley in the final. As Simmo missed his penalty and the game was lost, he just raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

He passed away 12 days later. He was 65 years old.

Somehow, we both knew the season had summed up what it was to be a Blade and that the last match he ever saw was strangely appropriate.

We moan about this club of ours, but a football club will give us much more than we ever realise. It pulls people together; it creates great moments to share and memories to treasure forever.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Farewell Cresswell

Richard Cresswell's arrival at Bramall Lane was not universally welcomed by Blades fans, but manager Kevin Blackwell considered it an important move in forming his squad at the start of the 2009/10 season. Blackwell had previously signed him whilst in charge at Leeds, pipping United to his signature.
He signed on loan from Stoke City in September 2009 and was welcomed by booing from some of the Bramall Lane crowd as he came on as a substitute in a 3-3 draw with Ipswich Town. His Wednesday past, albeit a brief and largely unsuccessful spell 10 years earlier, was a bone of contention with some of the Blades support. But like Derek Geary, Leigh Bromby and others before him, he won over the majority of the Lane faithful. After his second appearance for the Blades, the following weekend Cresswell talked of the need to
"show them that I'll give 110% every time I pull on a shirt".
He more than backed up those words with his actions.
Doing his best was something you never doubted with Cresswell. He would have played wherever he was asked with no lack of effort and commitment and at times with great physical sacrifice. In what turned into a disastrous home game versus Oldham Athletic in 2012, an injury to Lecsinel Jean-Francois and the sending off of both Harry Maguire and Matt Lowton saw him play at emergency full back.
Scoring on his first start for the Blades in a 1-1 draw at home to Doncaster Rovers, Cresswell crashed into the post, damaging ribs in the process, but played on through the pain barrier. 
"I've got bruised ribs, but you take that for a goal don't you?"
There was also the time he was bloodied and bandaged, like a modern day Terry Butcher, in the Sheffield Derby or when he was playing with broken nose, broken toe and damaged shoulder when we were suffering a shortage of striking options. He played in a manner and with a commitment that the youngsters coming through would do well to note.

Coming into the Blades side he was often deployed wide, much to the frustration of many fans who preferred to see a trickier and pacier wide man than the workman like Yorkshireman. Blackwell argued that Cresswell was used to playing out wide, he had been deployed wide at Stoke, but many Blades fans believed he was a striker and should be utilised as a target man. Blackwell persisted with Darius Henderson.  
The frustration at what was a square-ish peg in a round hole was more directed at the manager rather than the player. It was hard to criticise when a player was seemingly not in his best position. When at Stoke, commenting on being played wide left, Cresswell said;
 "I do my best, and I am quite a fit lad so I get through quite a bit of mileage".
He continued in that manner in the red and white stripes of United.
After initially signing on loan he then signed a 1.5 year contract in the January and ended the 2009/10 season as United's top scorer, scoring 14 goals in 34 appearances. This was encouragement enough for the club to offer him a longer contract and that summer signed a deal that gave him a further 3 years.
In a disrupted season with managerial changes and huge turnover in playing personnel, United stumbled to relegation in 2010/11; Creswell contributing 5 goals in 36 games. But it was the arrival of Danny Wilson and a fluid style of play that enabled Cresswell to shine, as the perfect foil for Ched Evans. As United just failed to bounce back to the Championship at the first attempt, 10 goals in 51 appearances does little justice to the effort and work rate of Cresswell's contribution; running the channels, holding up the ball to bring Evans and United's free running wide players into the game.
Some will still argue that he wasn't good enough, both at time and I have read comments on twitter since his departure was announced, but to that I would say they are judging him unfairly and reflecting factors largely out of his control. Firstly, where he was deployed for some of his time at United, secondly his rumoured salary.
His wages caused some resentment from Blades fans who used this as a basis to judge his contribution and the contribution of many of a highly paid squad who were struggling on the pitch in his first couple of seasons. In a side many would consider overpaid for what they achieved, the judgement of Cresswell has worsened, with the decline of the club's league status. His portrayal as a problem (one of several) for a club trying to reduce a wage bill and meet Financial Fair Play limits could have seen him scapegoated. Thankfully, I think he escaped in the end.
Last summer, it appeared both Cresswell and Nick Montgomery were not being played due to their high wages. Still under contract and with significant salaries that other clubs would be reluctant to pay, options were limited for player and club. Whilst the club facilitated a move to Australia for Montgomery, Cresswell was appointed player-coach allowing the club to apply only half of his (reportedly five figure weekly) wage to the salary cap. Allowing United more leeway in the newly applied FFP rules. How much coaching he did, only those at Shirecliffe know?
Last season saw his opportunities limited by injuries and better options being available and whilst you could never fault his effort, it was becoming increasingly clear that the mind was willing, but the body wasn't able. He still tried to run the channels, he was still a willing worker and put his body on the line, but he had lost what pace he had. A loan spell at the end of season saw 2 goals in 5 appearances, before caretaker manager Chris Morgan called for all hands on deck at Bramall Lane. Not that he was needed on the pitch.
A permanent return to Bootham Crescent to end a career that has gone full circle appears a good move for all parties. A step down in level might prolong his playing career as his brain might carry him through when his legs cannot. It would also be sensible for Nigel Worthington to utilise him on the training ground and with younger players.
Cresswell personifies a time when United thought throwing big (for Championship) wages at players signed from Premier League clubs was a route out of the Championship. In the end it was a route out the way they never anticipated and the inability to sell such players has crippled the club in the years that have followed. He was part of that downturn in fortunes, but I can't help feeling that with a few more Richard Cresswells in the team United wouldn't find itself in the position it does now.
All the best Cressy and thank you.