Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Making Plans for Nigel

So United have finally confirmed what many have suspected over the last 10 days, Nigel Clough is the new Blades manager. Their number one choice from the start, according to reports, but I am sure it was not without a great deal of consideration and thought as to the merits and risks of the appointment.
Thinking over the candidates and when asked for my Top 3 last week, I struggled to make a 100% certain case for any of the candidates; each raising a degree of risk and concern. So I thought it worth setting out my thoughts on Clough, starting with my concerns. After all, it is always good to end on the positives>
Detractors could point to the steady consolidation at Derby County and whether his play and tactics will be positive enough when we desperately need some forward thrust, both in the short term and over the next two or three seasons. Derby were accused of lacking a winning mentality, something Clough will need to instil at United and quickly. They also lacked goals and Clough's inability to find a winning and scoring formula will be one familiar to Unitedites.
In a similar way to our feelings about David Weir, Derby fans could see what he was trying to do in terms of playing style, but without the results early season, fans believed that it would click into a positive run of results. They never got the chance to find out. His style of play may well fit the club's over-arching plan, but it needs to bring results.
There have been question marks over his man-management of the personalities at Derby, particularly Stephen Bywater, whilst outbursts against players such as Dean Leacock, Paul Green and Tomasz Cywka gained criticism from supporters and observers alike. You would also expect there to be not much of a future at Bramall Lane for Chris Porter, given observations made by Clough during the striker's time at Pride Park. 
For a manager left looking in Scotland, Ireland and the lower leagues for players, concerns have been expressed about the club's recruitment policy and scouting structure. This was possibly put further under the microscope by the appointment of his brother Simon as scout; a role for whom has been found at Bramall Lane. Appointments like this raise questions of nepotism and appointing the best man for the job.
Looking for the positives, I think it is fair to say we have made a "safe" appointment. Despite the concerns previously expressed he has some great experience and is a steady performer with clear success. He served a long and successful apprenticeship with 11 years at Burton Albion, taking over at a relatively young 32 whilst still playing.
With two promotions he all but took Burton into the Football League in 2009, joining Derby County with the Brewers well clear at the top of the Conference Premier. At relegation threatened Derby, he inherited a mess from the departing Paul Jewell. A run of early form was not maintained, although the Rams did survive on the penultimate weekend of the season. 
Over his period in charge at Derby, Clough had overseen the development of several young players into first teamers - even putting to one side the one-off talent that is Will Hughes; there have been Jeff Hendricks and Mason Bennett amongst others. Clough has built strong foundations with the club's academy, which were partly a result of necessity, given the financial restrictions he faced and I expect that he will be expected to continue that work at United.
There is no doubt that he has worked within tight budgetary controls and that will still be a factor at United. You only have to listen to the co-owners to know that this isn't some vanity project that sees millions being thrown at the team. This also highlights the challenges the club will face, if and when promoted, when up against an increasing number of teams with ever increasing parachute payments.
His sacking in favour of a bigger name and ex-Derby player Steve Maclaren was not exactly welcomed by Derby fans. Many recognised the job he had done in difficult circumstances and although a freshening up may seem sensible, they questioned whether anyone would have done better. After all the club had the faith in him 18 months previous to give him a contract that still had nearly two years left to run.
Clough was in the middle of a long term transition with Derby and a lot of fans believed he was the best man to run with the project. United's transition will be expedited by money and if not the transition itself the expectation will be. It will be interested to see how he responds in a more demanding environment.
Just as Derby felt they would benefit from a change, maybe Clough will benefit from a new challenge. A new challenge, not without expectation, but without some of the baggage that comes from being at one of his father's former clubs.
Chris Morgan and Mick Wadsworth have steadied the ship in the last couple of weeks and it is now up to Clough to build on this and take us forward. You can never dismiss any team you come up against in League 1 and certainly not in our current position; however it is fair to say the upcoming run of fixtures appears kind to our new manager and will hopefully lead to a positive start to his reign.
Any appointment will never gain 100% agreement across a fan-base. People will have their favourites and I think the idea of new money in the club led to some aspirational suggestions from supporters. Maybe the perception of financial reward and money to spend might have attracted certain names, willing to ignore the club's league position, but I don't think they would be the right kind of manager for our club and where we find ourselves right now.
To be honest, I am not sure Clough would have joined in the summer, if he had been a free agent then, so maybe the money is a possible factor in this appointment. At least he is a realistic appointment for the position we are in, not a vanity appointment without lower league knowledge or experience. The key thing for me, now it has been announced, is that whatever their prior opinions or choices, the fans are 100% behind the new manager. That appears to be the case.
I can't say he was my first choice, but I back the board's judgement and wish him the best of luck. Don't under-estimate the luck, as we know from painful experience, you can do so much right before fates conspires against us. Maybe this time the Footballing Gods might look on us kindly…..maybe Old Big 'ead can have a word in their ear…then again, maybe he wouldn't, he won't have that fond a memory of the Blades.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Weight of United's Armband

In Issue 9 of the football quarterly TheBlizzard, Joel Richards  interviews Alejandro (Alex) Sabella. The former Blades and Leeds striker is now coach of the Argentine national team and much of the article "The Weight of the Armband" makes reference to his decision to give Lionel Messi the national team captaincy. Sabella describes captaincy and leadership thus;
"There are different types of leaders. You have the ones who lead by sheer ability and others who lead because of their personality. In rare cases you have someone who brings together both of those. You could say that is absolute leadership."
At Bramall Lane over the years we have had some of the former, plenty of the latter and a few times we have been lucky enough to have the holy grail of the two factors combined. Sadly, at the moment we have a leader with neither ability or personality. The problem we have was crystalized in last Tuesday's Johnstone Paint Trophy defeat to Hartlepool United, which culminated in David Weir losing his job. It was prominently on display that night, but the rot has been visible for some time. When the going got tough, many hid and there was a distinct lack of leadership on the pitch including the man with the weight of the armband - Michael Doyle.
Those who stick up for the captain point to his running and commitment. Exactly the same traits many were quick to dismiss Nick Montgomery for, both during and after his lengthy spell at the Lane. Whilst this observed commitment perhaps points to a captain who leads by example, I think the observation is misguided. How often do the running and chasing have an end product? Rarely for me. He is clever about how and when he does it; making the tireless run to a lost cause tackle he will never make, yet not winning the loose ball that is close enough to be won. For a player that has a reputation for his disciplinary record the fact he picked up his first yellow card against Coventry on Sunday says much about his lack of fight.
Over the course of David Weir's short managerial reign, there have been increasingly loud rumours of a divided dressing room. Talk of disruptive players pre-dates his appointment, but on top of this there were reportedly players at odds with his tactics, his coaching staff and his man-management. Nothing points to it more than what we saw on the pitch against Hartlepool. A team barely playing for each other; never mind their manager, or the fans. When the going gets  role of a captain all the more important. Looking back at the previous match against Crawley, United find themselves behind early and the crowd are understandably restless. Where was our captain? Rarely visibly encouraging his team-mates, all fist pumps and geeing up the fans when we equalise, not when we are trying to get back in the game. Then it was all head down, looking at feet.
Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm - The Latin writer Publilius Syrus
The same can be said of Doyle. When things were good and United were flying in the first season under Wilson you didn't notice, but when times are tougher and the team is struggling for results, you again notice what we are missing.
During the Hartlepool game Doyle actually seemed to be ignoring certain team-mates. Simon Lappin does not seem to be up to much as a left back, no better than what we have already got, but with such a narrow diamond shape in midfield the need for over-lapping full backs was vital. I counted at least three times when Lappin assumed attacking positions in space on the left, clearly within Doyle's peripheral vision, yet Doyle never once looked to him for the pass; instead prodding the ball inside where players were crowded out and United's attack was neutered. Maybe he didn't see him? But not three times. Another sign of a captain not at one with his colleagues?
I have observed him berating of players for missing chances. Chris Porter, headed over against Crawley (towards the end of last season) and was the recipient of spittle flecked, eye popping aggression, with arms flailing around. An effective captain should also take the individual player's character into consideration. Some players respond well if you talk calmly to them privately, but will go to pieces if confronted in an aggressive, public manner. Porter - a confidence player if ever there was one, looked even more devastated than the missed chance had left him.
In tough times there is rightly a claim that you need to have leaders all over the pitch and it should not all fall on one man. Yet the fact is, it is the captain who the fans look to; a leader by example. If he is incapable and others are unwilling or unable to step into the breach the team has significant problems. Players can draw so much strength from their captain, but it can be the opposite if they get the wrong message.
Players rarely give incisive comment in post-match interviews, but on Tuesday night Doyle took this to new levels of earnest banality;
"Collectively we have to take responsibility and react positively to what is expected when playing for Sheffield United. We can't afford to feel sorry for ourselves; we have to pump our chests out and stand up and be counted."
This is just mere lip-service to the fans and media. How can I believe that will change, that we will have players who raise their chests and fight, when the chests caved in and most looked limply at the floor when the fight was required against Pools. Talk is cheap and while it is good he faced the press, you need to have some confidence in what you are being told.
Sunday's performance showed little to change my view. Limp, lifeless and beaten for an hour, it took the introduction of two substitutes to change our game and bring the Blades back to within a whisker of an unexpected point. McGinn and Taylor showed a bit of confidence and belief that provided a spark and ideas that up until that point were missing presumed dead. 
Oh for a Chris Morgan, a Paul Stancliffe or a Rob Page. All good captains in my lifetime and all led the side in their own way. Back at the time of our relegation to League One in May 2011 I said that I felt that it wasn't just Chris Morgan the defender we had missed through injury, but the on pitch leadership. In fact you can probably trace the origins of United's eventual relegation and current predicament to the cruciate ligament injury against Coventry in November, that ended Morgan's career. We have never replaced that leadership and successive managers have placed their faith in Doyle, when a foray into the transfer market might have delivered a more apt candidate. I for one hope that David Weir's replacement acknowledges the problem.
Any good captain for me lays himself on the line for the team and the fans and has a strong will to win. Morgan reminded me of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who, when losing his leg, claims "tis but a scratch…..had worse". The knight suffers further blows; "tis but a flesh wound" and continues to lose other limbs, yet he still believes he is invincible and stands his ground; only claiming a draw when he is left limbless.
That backbone, fight and indefatigability has been sadly lacking both on the pitch and on the touchline this season and has been missing on the pitch for a couple of seasons. A conceded goal is not a scratch or a flesh wound, it is a fatal blow and you can see from the captain and players' demeanour that they believe it.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Full Time for Weir

When David Weir was appointed back in June, no one expected his first run in football management to be over after 13 games, with one victory and Sheffield United in the League One relegation zone. A season of consolidation with some player churn was expected, that might not mean a top 6 position of the like United had achieved for the last two years, but not the abject failure that has followed.
At the time of his appointment I did ponder whether there was an element of the fans (me included) being relatively happy because, when compared with other candidates and names that had appeared in the press, he appeared a breath of fresh air.
I also suggested that he lacked the experience of management (and League One) that, in our current situation, might have been preferable. However, his coaching qualifications and a wealth of playing experience in both top level club football and at international level partly. He spoke calmly, confidently and well about what he wanted to achieve and how he was going about it.
Whilst there is no doubt the subsequent investment in the club changes the landscape, it has also hastened the decision making. Whilst his footballing philosophy could not be faulted, it wasn't working and in a results driven business there needs to be short term points gain otherwise confidence drops and results are harder to come by, however pretty the football is. And even the football wasn't that pretty; plenty of passing, but little incision and pretty ineffective in the final third. Minimal chances were created, decision making was defensively minded, yet still the team conceded game after game.
Just two weeks ago I was still preaching for patience. The Preston North End game raised fans' hackles yet I still felt the potential for improvement was there if Weir demonstrated some flexibility, a willingness to adapt and time was allowed for the many new faces to bed in. I wanted David Weir to succeed, because that meant that United succeeded and teh club wouldn't be going through more turmoil and change.
Even after the Crawley game, the first half of which was possibly one of the worst 45 minutes of football from a United side I have ever watched at Bramall Lane, I still had hope that Weir would put it right. The improvement in the second half wasn't difficult to achieve from such a low starting point, but the manager at least showed some variation in tactics and plan. It was still nowhere near where it needs to be, but there was an element of progressive thinking.
Then came Hartlepool in the Johnstone Paint Trophy. A performance so devoid of spirit, passion and belief, both on and off the pitch that I struggled to see a way back from that point. Rumours of player discontent with tactics and coaching staff were clearly demonstrable. The players seemed dis-united, not that they were arguing with each other, they lacked the passion to even argue and fight their cause. Saying a manager has "lost the dressing room" is a bit of a cliché, but if the players claim they were playing for the manager on Tuesday night, they are liars. They were barely playing for each other.
As the on pitch malaise was perpetuated over 90 minutes of largely turgid football, Weir stood, arms folded, on the touchline. Largely motionless and seemingly lost in thought. His post-match interview was heart-breaking to watch as a fan and it was hard not to feel some sympathy for a man who looked completely lost and overwhelmed after. The terseness and mono-syllabic responses not arrogance but bewilderment
In some ways I feel sorry for Weir. He has tried to effect change, possibly too quickly, and as a result has clearly suffered from dissent. The players are better than how they have been performing. Yes some of their on-pitch failure is tactical, but the problems run deeper than that. Rumours of cliques and trouble-makers pre-date Weir's arrival and as an observer you cannot help but feel that the stories have some credence.
Not all the problems that have plagued United's start to the season are managerial. As the manager heads to the exit door, the players remain. They don't have to face up to their ineptitude or the consequences of a poor attitude. I feel that some will be quite happy right now, and I am not sure they are the kind of players I want at the club.
One other worthy of further scrutiny is Head of Football Operations, John Stephenson. On arriving from Watford with a glowing reputation, he has had an active role in Weir's arrival, the changing structure of the club and academy, the over-arching playing philosophy and the identification and recruitment of players. Yet he sits silently in the background, without the pressure of observation or direct criticism.
The timing, coming more than two days after the Hartlepool defeat and no more than an hour after Weir performed his pre-(Coventry)match duties with the media, points to a realisation that any success on Sunday was going to provide only short term succour and that the board couldn't wait until next week, when a sacking after a draw or victory would have seemed more callous. It also suggests they waited to have a shortlist of candidates lined up and you would assume the time has allowed them to sound out candidates for positive interest. Swift change, as promised by director Jim Phipps, is vital after the drawn out and publicly embarrassing shambles in the summer.
Certain factors have worked against Weir. Arriving so close to an already planned pre-season meant he had little chance to prepare the players how he would have wanted and hastily arranged additional pre-season friendlies saw the manager shuffling the pack trying to establish the best combination right up to the start of the season. The loss of Kevin McDonald should not be under-estimated, especially given the importance of his role in Weir's chosen formation and planning. The investment has also heightened expectations and although he has had the ability to recruit, trying to integrate so many new players in a short space of time is not easy.
Where he has failed, and what any new manager needs to address, is in taking a team with one of the best defensive records in the country and leaving them apparently susceptible to conceding every game. He also failed to deal with the lack of goals and a goal scorer which has affected United for several seasons, either side of Ched Evans' prolific final season before incarceration. Instead he has packed the team with midfielders to create chances for non-existent strikers. There is also the failure to man-manage a playing group with disruptive influences and a lack of on-field leadership.
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 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.