Thursday, 26 September 2013

Wanting a Pair of Strikers and Perestroika

A Pair of Strikers?
When David Weir was appointed I preached for patience, eight games in and that seems in short supply amongst many Blades fans at the moment. Short-termism abounds in football these days, not least driven by financial pressures and media focus on the game, but when preaching for patience pre-season, no one anticipated one win and four points from eight games, and a failure to beat two League Two teams over 90 minutes in the cup competitions. Consolidation maybe, but not struggling to stay out of the bottom four.
Whilst Weir has clearly instilled a passing philosophy in his team, the fact it breaks down in the final third means goals are at a premium and there is further pressure on a defence seemingly capable of making mistakes we rarely saw over the last two seasons. A failure to get players into the box, a failure to put meaningful balls into the box and a failure to shoot are borne in the statistics below. They are now 2 games old, but little has changed. - Thanks to Ben Mayhew - Thanks to Ben Mayhew
Weir's case is hardly helped by his post-match comments. Too often bemoaning luck, too stubborn to admit his failings - failings that are laid out for all to see, too protective of players who look mentally shot when they go a goal behind.
As the saying goes, "You can fool some of the people, some of the time……." Saturday reached a new disappointing low, with the manager claiming in his post-match interview that we had had 24 chances. The stats reported widely in the media said 12 shots, with 3 on target. I recall only one meaningful save by Declan Rudd and most of those chances came from set-pieces and shots from outside the penalty area. In that context, Weir's comments were like throwing a match on tinder dry emotions and anger.
Many Blades fans have taken on the mantle of Mike Bassett impersonators, demanding a switch to 4-4-2 (or Four, Four, F***ing Two in true Mike Bassett fashion); yet that isn't necessarily the panacea that some may think. We hardly looked effective when switching to that formation against Preston, although heads had dropped and we were chasing the game by then. 4-2-3-1 can work successfully in the lower divisions; it has taken Chesterfield to the top of League 2, but that has followed a season of consolidation in League 2 and 12 months of Paul Cook bringing in his players and moulding his team. The key is having players suited to its demands, time to gel and with 11 new arrivals at Bramall Lane, the jigsaw remains incomplete.
This idea of a huge footballing transition taking place at Bramall Lane is over-emphasised and this idea that passing football is the panacea isn't wholly correct. The primary purpose is to win and some of the most exciting times I have had watching United were under Dave Bassett and Neil Warnock's stewardship - classed as direct football, but effective with goalmouth action and still good to watch as a spectator.
Fans want to see exciting matches. Danny Wilson's passing football had become slightly more direct at the end of last season, but was boring and had no end product. I didn't agree with sacking him and rather like that decision, a minor change was required, not a seismic shift. What is happening at United is not a significant change in football culture. It is a change in tactics and has rapidly become a significant change in personnel. Both of which have made Weir's job all the harder and that summarises the transition we are seeing.
Not all is lost. Teams can recover from this position; Bournemouth gained automatic promotion from this division last season after finding themselves 20th after ten games and with just 8 points. Having said that, it took the removal of Paul Groves as manager and the re-appointment of Eddie Howe to kick start their season.
In a bizarre similarity Groves was sacked after a 4-1 defeat to Crawley, United's tenth league opponents a week on Friday. The parallels are even more intriguing when you read the statement Cherries' then chairman Eddie Mitchell made to the BBC.
"I would urge our supporters to recognise the time and effort that Paul and Shaun (Brooks - Groves' assistant) invested in the first team and their unwavering determination to produce an attractive brand of football.
"As chairman of AFC Bournemouth, I have personally recognised the direction in which they were trying to take the team in terms of tactics and style of play, and throughout their time in charge they have had my full support.
"However, I believe that luck has not been on their side during their short period at the helm.
"As we know, football is a results business, but most people will be unaware of the hard work and dedication that they put in behind the scenes to help this club move forward."
In a newly minted club a new manager was given an objective of producing an attractive brand of football, there was recognition of what they were trying (but failing) to achieve, there was a lack of luck, despite the hard work and dedication. This all seems very familiar, doesn't it?
So why don't I think a change is required at Bramall Lane right now? Fans point to the successful start of Leyton Orient, but Russell Slade has been given time to build a team, including a spell at the bottom of the division. Time he wouldn't be afforded at a bigger club with greater expectations, like United. Another key aspect was highlighted in the post-match interview when Kevin Lisbie explained how his strike partnership with David Mooney had been given time to develop and gel.
With a combination of incoming players, many of whom fans would expect to be pushing for the first team, still being integrated and injuries, Weir is yet to play the same starting eleven from one game to the next. You could argue that he is yet to find the right combination, but we have to back him and the team for the foreseeable future. One win, one sneaky 1-0 win, one sneaky 1-0 win with a scruffy bundled in goal would lift confidence and might just be the re-start to the season we need.
We are not part of an experiment, as some have suggested. We are a club where a manager is learning and learning the hard way. Weir could help himself with a bit more openness and honesty post match. Weir could help himself by showing a little flexibility and a little adventure - not dragging all the players back to defend a corner when one down late in a game, altering the game plan and player roles when chasing a game. Weir could look at some of his man-management - having a non-playing member of the squad tell fans post-match that he doesn't know when he will be playing next as "the manager isn't talking to me" is only going to cause more concern and dis-quiet. And the players could help him by playing with the tempo and energy, both in and out of possession, that the manager advocates and show a bit of bottle and fight. Maybe we need more than one leader on the pitch? Maybe we need a new leader on the pitch?
If Weir remains in charge I think things will improve over the season. It will be by no means a successful season, but the season many of us said we expected in the Summer. The thing is; it is okay saying that it is a season of consolidation (pre-investment), but how many would truly accept it if that was the outcome? The "investment" is a game changer in many people's eyes, probably more of a short term changer to them than the reality. Maybe some fans need to be as realistic as they claim to be.
On Saturday I had the pleasure of chatting to new United Director James (Jim) Phipps - Principal Advisor to HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. Stood outside the Directors' Entrance post-match, along with a couple of fellow Blades fans, we talked for around 25 minutes on various Blades related topics from the investment, to the players, the manager and the performances.  
I had seen his tweets (@JamesDPhipps)  in the days leading up to the match and I was impressed with the way he responded to fans expressing their concerns regarding the team's performance, the signing of Marlon King and the state of the club. After an exchange of tweets I had arranged to meet him.
I am not going to repeat here all that was said whilst Jim leant on the railing in the South Stand Car Park, but I can give an overview and why it re-affirmed my view that we have to back David Weir and the team for now.
Jim was positive about the clear improvements that could be seen in the first half, when compared with recent games, and suggested it was a sign that plans were coming together. He had already been down to see the manager and players in the dressing room and felt that the increase in chances created was a positive sign, although he acknowledged my reservations about where the shots were coming in from.
He highlighted how the timing of the investment was not the best for the manager, suddenly placing greater expectations on him, perhaps perceived expectations rather than directly emanating from the boardroom. The money coming in led to an influx of players both at the start of the season and in the loan window that are going to take a while to fit in and gel with the existing squad. Obviously we wall want that as soon as possible, but we need to be realistic and recognise incremental improvement.
He re-enforced his belief that we had a man who will be a great manager and that he had the full support and time to put this right. The board had placed a lot of faith in Weir, his presentation to the incoming board members on his plans had impressed them greatly, but Jim recognised that fans had concerns and a right to express them. In acknowledging that fans have opinions that deserve to be heard he wanted to know about the reaction of the fans in other parts of the ground, asking where we were sat and the feelings being expressed.
Along with the other fans present I offered our opinion on a few aspects of the playing squad and he offered candid opinions regarding a couple of issues that I wouldn’t repeat here. He did however, recognise a need for mental toughness and the need for leaders on the pitch. The players have as big a role to play as the manager.
I asked him of his previous football experience, did he follow any MLS teams? He said not, but he mentioned his previous role with the Prince at Al Hilal (Saudi Arabia's biggest club and six times Asian champions), but highlighted the short term nature of football business in Middle East, with a high managerial turnover and focus on overseas coaches. He rightly highlighted that this is very different to football over here.
Jim seems keen to understand and learn what Blades fans think - not just the impassioned heat of the moment comments - but more reflective thought as well. He wants to embrace English football culture and understand what it means to be a supporter; what it means to be a Blade. I have no doubt that all this is subsequently shared with the Prince.
I know I was not the only Blades fan he spoke with that day. This wasn't some privileged meeting. I didn't share this on Saturday night, when challenged to do so, as I didn't think that everything that was said needed broadcasting on twitter, where 140 character limits means things can be taken out of context. The fact that many of these views have been stressed repeatedly since in his interaction on twitter means I am more comfortable sharing them here than I would have been otherwise.
Jim expects to be over at least twice a month for the foreseeable future and when the Prince isn't over, he immediately gets a call at the final whistle for a report and update. It strikes me that he is an accessible face of the boardroom and shares his views in a thoughtful and considered manner; with an occasional bluntness that most Sheffielders would heartily appreciate.
Since speaking it is pleasing to see the continued interaction on twitter. You could argue that by picking up on fans queries on kit manufacture, ticket office phone lines etc. that he is being dragged into the minutiae, but these are the little things that matter to the fans, aside from results on the pitch. In each instance he has taken the comments on board and returned later with feedback from the relevant department head. You cannot say fairer than that. He was also honest enough to say we have "sucked for two months"!
The club have held frequent Meet the Board and Meet the Manager meetings in recent months. Open and honest opinion from the boardroom is much welcomed by United fans. Maybe we can have a bit of the same from the dressing room and coaching staff. That might just Unite us a little bit more.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Prince and The (Sheffield) Revolution

The several hundred Blades fans at Scunthorpe for the Johnstone's Paint Trophy tie were still in dreamland. "We're so rich it's unbelievable!"…"Shall we buy a ground for you?" The announcement that morning of the purchase of 50% of the football club by Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had left most fans slightly shell-shocked, as the media bandied around million/billion pound figures of the Prince's net worth. Yet underlying the braggadocio of the chants was an inherent nervousness; a feeling of disbelief, that this cannot really be happening at Bramall Lane.
To those surprised by this edginess you only have to look back at a list of United's previous chairmen and some of the potential owners who, thankfully, never got their hands on the club. From the country's biggest white collar fraudster, to an Iraqi businessman later to undergo gender realignment - before a subsequent reversal. From a chairman subject to an international arrest warrant to a fugitive still on the run from Interpol and a London socialite known as "The Count" who had indirect connections to Libyan arms dealers. Then throw in the tempestuous time when Charles Green acted as Mike McDonald's axe-man.
During Kevin McCabe's reign as chairman and owner there has been the rebuffed interest of Singaporean businessman Joe Sim, as revealed in a Channel 4 Dispatches investigation, the interest from Malaysian Vinod Sekhar (who survived a bankruptcy claim in his own country) and the recent revelation from Kevin McCabe that he turned down an offer to buy the club from Carson Yeung back in 2007. Who can blame fans for being a little cautious?
You only have to look elsewhere to see the case for caution strengthened; Venky's at Blackburn Rovers, Cardiff losing their identity and history, Hull City Tigers, the problems caused by consecutive owners at Portsmouth, both Liverpool and Villa finding that big money US takeovers are no guarantee of success.
I think in the case of United the retained interest of the McCabe family, owning the other 50%,  should give us comfort; acting as custodians of the club's past present and future. For the deal that has been done, Kevin McCabe and his family deserve credit. Both he and the Prince have been quick to reassure us that the focus on the club as part of the community and its rich history is, and will continue to be, respected.
But despite the seemingly beneficial nature of the deal and an outcome most fans would seem happy with, it doesn't mean to say that we (as fans) didn't have the right to question what had gone before. Many fans (and this blog) have questioned the true motives regarding the transfer of theground and other assets into the Scarborough owned plc. and the losses incurred in acquiring and running overseas clubs in geographies seemingly motivated by real estate opportunities than burgeoning football interest.
The separation of stadium/hotel/academy from the football club remains a risk, although there is less talk of an exit plan from the McCabe family which gives some comfort. His stated motives at the time of the asset transfer; of creating an easy investment in a "clean" football club, free of debt and other costs appears to have worked. Whether you see that as clever move that has paid off or someone that has struck lucky is up to you.
At the time I struggled to see the desirability of such a deal for an investor and any return for the Prince can only really be realised by two promotions. It may be that he believes this is achievable and for a £1 up front cost that may be a risk worth taking for a man who professes to love football so much. For the McCabe family they retain their sole interest in the fixed assets of the club, a significant amount by which to secure and recover some of the multi- million pound investment over their tenure.
Too many times in the past, fans have sat back and accepted that people are acting in the best interests of their club without questioning the true motives. That lack of curiosity, the absence of a questioning approach, the willingness to take everything at face value has left some clubs in dire straits. Yes it was Kevin McCabe's money that was used to plug the holes left by poor decision making; yes he funded the follies and legacies of apparently trusted lieutenants in Terry Robinson and Trevor Birch, but over that time considerable finance was provided by the supporters. There needs to be acknowledgement that fans are stakeholders (both financial and emotional), something that fans' pressure groups are ensuring that clubs recognise, particularly outside the Premier League and at those clubs where the parachute payments have expired and times are leaner.
If you doubt this, consider the amount of turnover generated, both directly and indirectly by supporters of Sheffield United. In the financial statements to 30 June 2012 gate receipts accounted for £4.5m of United's turnover of £10.3m. Sponsorship, royalties, merchandise and advertising (much of it funded by fans as well) accounted for a further £3.6m of the £10.3m. The fact this barely covered half the costs is due to decisions made by the owners and board of directors. The club kept a Premier league infrastructure for too long and gambled heavily in the wrong areas. The McCabe family got in too deep and have fought to extricate themselves from it, at great cost.
Never underestimate the fans' input into the financial well-being of a football club; whether it has a benefactor or is run as a fans' trust or community club. Football without fans is nothing. Yes McCabe has put in close to £90m during his reign a large proportion of his wealth, but what about the fan that spends upwards of £2,000 a year following his team home and away? That could be up to a quarter of some fans' net annual earnings. A not inconsiderable amount, unconditionally spent and often in blind faith.
So how will the injection of Saudi millions affect United going forward? The answer is that it is difficult to predict. Getting out of League 1 this season is far from certain. In David Weir we have a manager trying to impose his ideas on a squad of players that is gradually evolving into his team and he has lost the key player that his pre-season preparation and 4-2-3-1 formation was built around - Kevin McDonald.
On his appointment in the summer I stated he would need time and that promotion may have to wait for a season, whilst the squad is over-hauled and he builds a strong team with the work ethic and style he demands. Even with an injection of money I don't see that changing. It still looks like we have square pegs in round holes and although you can see what Weir is trying to achieve, the pretty passing is only getting us so far down the pitch and a lack of goal threat, never mind goals, is a concern.
Sadly fans are getting impatient already and defeat at Rotherham on Saturday could leave United in the bottom four. If the fans get twitchy, will the new joint owner exercise restraint? Interestingly, in an interview with Radio Sheffield Kevin McCabe referred to the Saudi money being used on improving the playing side "and better management staff, perhaps".
Another factor in limiting the impact of any cash injection is the Financial Fair Play rules. While ever United are in League 1, salaries will be limited to 60% of turnover. This means that any money will be used on transfer fees for players that will still need to fit in with the existing wage structure that will not take the wage bill over the cap.
I have seen some Blades criticising the timing of the announcement, just after the transfer window closes, but I suspect with the limitations on wages we were limited in what we could achieve with the cash anyway. It is also worth bearing in mind we have paid fees for Lyle Taylor, Jose Baxter and Florent Cuvelier, which could well be a sign of monies being advanced ahead of the official announcement.   
Yes there are ways around the rules, through creative sponsorship and advertising deals, but the need for a financially sustainable club has been emphasised as an objective in the past and certainly appears to be something the Prince is keen on in initial statements. That money is not frittered away without good reason and having a club that balances its books will be important if promotion is achieved. 
The differing FFP rules will have a different impact if and when United achieve reach the Championship. From this season clubs must restrict their losses to a maximum of £3m, however if an owner is willing to convert the losses to equity (without funding this via borrowing) the limit increases to £8m; in effect costing the owner up to £5m. The limits reduce year on year and by 2015-16 will be £2m or £5m if the difference is converted to equity.
This could be a reason for the lack of funding across the city where Wednesday (reportedly making losses of £5m a year) spent little in the transfer window. At a time when he is actively trying to sell the club, Milan Mandaric would risk increasing his asking price considerably or being required to invest money he may never recover. Let's not forget in the last financial statements United were making a loss of £13m and whilst this year's results are yet to be announced they will do well to have halved that deficit.
Concerns have been expressed that the Prince is not as loaded as the inflated figures first reported, personally worth £93m according to Forbes, yet the reality is that it may not need a significant amount of that wealth invested in United over the next couple of years. In an interview, post announcement, Simon McCabe said the expectation and objective was that it would take £20m and three years to get back to the Premier League. My fear is that is asking too much too soon; at the very least a promotion this season, or back to back promotions from League 1 to the Premier League. Oh for the heady, pre-Premier League, days of 1988-1990 when we achieved this under Dave Bassett.
Significant overseas money is no guarantee of success or a return to the Premier League; just ask Leicester, Nottingham Forest, Blackburn Rovers, but I guess there is little harm in setting targets and showing some ambition. The club may need to carefully manage expectations though, especially when the initial buzz of the investment has died down.
The Prince is reportedly a big fan of Fantasy Football. Most people I know who play Fantasy Football  lose interest part way through a season, when the transfers haven't paid off  and they are too far adrift of the prize money in their local league. Let's hope that he doesn't lose interest if the three year plan is delayed and that he is in this for the longer term as promised. This isn't fantasy football; it is real life, with real people, real employees and real stakeholders.