Sunday, 13 April 2014

Pride in the name of our club

I'm currently sat on a coach. Somewhere in Hertfordshire. It's just coming up to 7:30 and the sun is going down out of the window to my left. The radio is playing some tinny, unrecognisable pop track. My mate Steve is jolting himself awake from his slumbers every so often. Thankfully before his head lands on my right shoulder.

I am slightly hoarse and when I do speak, the odd word comes out with a slight squeak. I have a glow on my cheeks from a few beers in the sun, but more importantly pride in my team. Pride that no bitter and twisted Wednesdayite is going to downgrade or diminish. 

I believed that United would turn up today, when so often they have gone missing at Wembley. I believed that they would play with unity, pride and no shortage of passion. For forty five minutes they more than surpassed that.

They outfought and outplayed a lifeless Hull side and scored their first goals in three visits to new Wembley. 

As Jose Baxter opened the scoring within the first twenty minutes I was in shock. I celebrated like I've never celebrated before but felt kind of shell shocked. When Stefan Scougall added the second, straight after Hull had equalised, I hugged my mates and felt tears welling up.

I thought of my Nan, who passed away last August. I wished she had seen this. United outplaying a Premier League team, two divisions above us. They are performing at Wembley Nan. I pictured her sat in an armchair, holding her scarf, kicking every ball.

I thought of my Dad, back home listening to the radio. This, one Wembley trip too many to contemplate. I wished that he was stood next to me. 

I knew it could all change. It did. But for forty five minutes I felt on top of the world. At half time I saw and hugged a Blade I know from twitter. We stood in queues, wide eyed in wonder. We deserved this. We had lost concentration once and been punished, but that aside we had performed way above any expectations. 

We will tire, got to keep it solid for ten or fifteen minutes, we said. We have a chance then. 

In the end, neither happened. Facing an onslaught after positive half time changes by Steve Bruce we found ourselves 4-2 down and seemingly down and out. Then in the final 90 seconds of normal time we scored. We had a chance and nothing to lose.

Throwing caution to the wind in injury time time, Harry Maguire burst forward. His shot was blocked and Hull broke scoring a fifth goal. 

As one, the 32,000 Blades fans started applauding and cheering their team, with the Hull fans in raptures at the opposite end having sealed victory. It's something I've never seen or experienced before. Pride in the team. Pride in the club. Acknowledgment that we had lost, but by heck we had given it a go. And Hull knew it.

Ultimately the result is tinged with disappointment. When you lead 2-1 and eventually lose there is bound to be that emotion. But the fans lifted their arms, stuck out their chests and applauded the crestfallen players in red and white shirts.

Much has changed at Sheffield United in the last 7 months, most - if not all - of it for the better. We are a couple of players, a striker in particular, away from a successful side. The cup run, allied with the upturn in league form, makes the retention and recruitment of players an easier task.

Off the pitch the club is operating more efficiently and creatively, with communication much improved and a genuine unification of fans, players, staff and board members.

People left Wembley tonight in a positive mood. A seemingly hard concept for some fans of other clubs to consider. We had conceded five they said, what is there to be happy about? How little they know.

As the sun disappears beyond the horizon and the day is ending, it is clear that United are moving in a positive direction. And today is only the beginning.  

Friday, 11 April 2014

Good old Wembley-by-the-Sea

"You got to the seaside for a day out, you go to Wembley to win." 

Nigel Clough's words in a recent interview and well shared amongst Blades fans in recent weeks.

If Nigel has that embedded in the players’ minds and they continue to play to their system and dictated by their roles then we certainly have a chance. But it's rare the bookies lose money and 4-1 in a two horse race reflects the reality of the challenge facing United. So forgive me if I focus on backing the team and enjoying the day. I will be honest with you; a goal would be good, never mind a win. 

For me, any fan can't be blamed for treating the trip to Wembley as a day out. We are the self-preservation society. Looking for a protective shield from yet more hurt on the big day. This cup run has fused club and fan-base together in a way not seen for several years, but the scars still exist and they are still tender to the touch.

In my near 40 years we have had two visits to the old Wembley, two visits to new Wembley, two visits to Old Trafford and one to Cardiff. The net result was one goal scored, four play-off final defeats and three FA Cup semi-final defeats.

For the Play Off final, where more often than not we were the favourites, the team we saw all season, the team we saw in the play-off semi finals just didn't turn up on the big day.

The Cup semi-finals have been much tighter affairs, separated by the odd goal, but the heartbreak of losing to the other lot in 1993, the sight of Shearer peeling away, fist held high above his head, in celebration back in 1998 and Graham Poll's absent minded on pitch shambling alongside Seaman's wonder save in 2003 still rankle, still hurt.

Over the last few weeks Nigel Clough has reinstated belief in players who wandered the pitch vacantly and without purpose in the Autumn. He has instilled pride in the fans, their undimmed passion allied with a belief that things can and will get better. For a change, I don't fear us not turning up. I don't fear us freezing and not competing. I don't think Clough will let it happen.

We are only the ninth third division side to reach the cup semi finals in 94 years. In the six rounds to date we have beaten five teams who sat above us in the league, four from divisions above. This has been a journey of giant killing from round three onwards. 

It has been a catalyst for the club and fan-base. Alongside boardroom change and managerial change the on-pitch overhaul has built momentum through the cup run. The club has re-discovered its identity and it is one that the fans can associate with. For many, the greatest times watching United come from cup matches at Bramall Lane.  

We can dare to dream, we can enjoy the day, the camaraderie, a shared experience with 33,000 like minded men, women and children and we sing and shout until we are hoarse. 

We don't turn our backs if things don't go to plan. We don't berate players for mistakes or look for scapegoats. It isn't a day for that. It is a day to be thankful that we have our club back. We have a team with the right attitude and aptitude. We have an honest and astute management team and a board that matches the ambition of the fans.

We have respect for Hull. They are a Premier League team and should remain so next season. They are up there with good reason and although the absence of Jelavic and Long is welcomed, that should not detract from the quality elsewhere. We are not the favourites, there is no expectation that has hung over us like a dark, sapping cloud before.

No one could have predicted this in September. Nobody would have predicted this on the first weekend of January as the team travelled to Villa Park. Be thankful, enjoy it and urge the team on. They aren't going for the day out. They have a job to do. To win.

Whatever happens on Sunday we should walk back to our planes, trains and automobiles with pride. We feel like a club United at last. And as we have been frequently reminded this season, it is the cup and in the Cup you just never know. 

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Fit to wear the shirt

With the new England World Cup shirts launched last week - available here from JD Sports - I was asked to consider who I would like to see pull on the three lions emblazoned shirts in Brazil. Here's who I am looking forward to seeing.......

Adam Lallana

Adam Lallana has really grabbed the attention of football fans across the country in the last 12 months. He is a great example of how a player with natural talent bides their time before the deserved recognition comes along. Having joined the Saints Academy as a 12-year old in 2000 and played a key role in Southampton's FA Youth Cup squads of 2004–05 and 2005–06, when they reached the final and semi-final respectively.

Lallana joined the first team squad in July 2006, but it was the beginning of the 2008–09 season before he became a regular. He played a key role in the Saint's march back up the leagues. For those of us following football outside the Premier League he was a noticeable prospect. To those who view through Premier League tinted spectacles his achievements were always going to be downgraded.

In 2009–10 he contributed 20 goals in all competitions, the first Southampton midfielder to score twenty goals in a season since Matthew Le Tissier's 30 in the 1994–95 season.

He was named in the League One Team of the Year for the 2010–11 season after scoring 11 goals that season. Along with Lambert and Kelvin Davis, he was one of three Southampton players named in the Championship Team of the Year for the 2011–12 season. He finished with 13 goals, 11 of which came in the league. Great returns from a midfielder who contributed much more in general play.

You would question whether his ambition and opportunities were being stunted by remaining at Southampton, but as the team progressed so did Lallana. If anything he was benefiting from being part of a non-fashionable team that were being relatively successful.

As the Saints established themselves as a top half Premier League team, Lallana's creative talents and significant contribution have been regularly highlighted to Premier League viewers. Whilst he isn't as high up the assists table as you might expect, it is his all round play that has contributed to Southampton's rise into the Top 10, where they look firmly established.

Timing is everything and Lallana's form led to him winning his first cap back in November. From a cold Wembley night and defeat to Chile, to a starting place in the Amazonian jungle. Not bad journey in just over six months. But it has taken a lot of hard work and a commitment to the Saints to get to the starting point.

Daniel Sturridge

For a player of such tender years, Sturridge has already picked up experience at a number of clubs. His youth career taking in Aston Villa and Coventry City before signing for Manchester City as a 13 year old. He continued his development at City and played in two FA Youth Cup finals. He made his first team debut in the 2007–08 season, becoming the only player ever to score in the FA Youth Cup, FA Cup and Premier League in the same season.

I remember him scoring his first goal for City in January 2008 in an FA Cup third round defeat at Bramall Lane, which he followed three days later with his first league goal on his full debut, against Derby County. Despite this immediate impact he found first team opportunities were sporadic, and he return to play for the youth team in the FA Youth Cup. City again reached the final, with Sturridge the leading scorer in the competition and scoring in the first leg.

With Sturridge's contract at Manchester City expired and lacking opportunities, he signed for Chelsea on a four-year contract on 3 July 2009. A tribunal decided an initial fee of £3.5 million, with additional payments based on appearances and international recognition and a sell-on clause. It seemed Chelsea had got a bargain, but yet again he was to be loaned out. This time Bolton the beneficiaries and 8 goals in 12 games quickly won over the Reebok Stadium fans, although not without quibbles.

Whenever you watched him, it was with a sense of joy and what he could do, but frustration at what he sometimes did. Capable of so much, but greed and over-confidence stopping him from achieving so much more.

Given Chelsea's lack of goal threat, his sale to Liverpool seemed an odd one. But no one could have envisaged the partnership with Luis Suarez would be so devastating. The understanding of movement and vision between the two has led to him being the leading English goalscorer in the Premier League and with an additional seven assists on top of his goal tally.

He may well frustrate this Summer, but he is one of the few England players who will do something unexpected and is guaranteed to excite.

The next three players all have links with my club - Sheffield United. One of the great things as a football fan is seeing a player with great promise at your club and knowing your team, sometimes your academy system has played a key role in their development and that you have seen a young player, grow and mature into an international class player.

Phil Jagielka

Jagielka made his way through the youth ranks at United before making his first team debut in the final League match of the 1999–2000 season versus Swindon Town whilst still a trainee. An athletic defender and midfielder, he showed a clear talent in all facets of his game. Equally comfortable taking the ball forward as well as strong in the tackle, his reading of the game was sharp for a player so young. He contributed spectacular and important goals as well.

If anything it was thought his versatility might count against him. With Neil Warnock keen to utilise him as cover, he looked equally comfortable in central midfield, central defence and right back. It took a while for him to find a settled position. He equally looked home in goal, taking the gloves for the final 34 minutes of a home match against Arsenal on 30 December 2006. With Paddy Kenny injured and with United 1–0 up, Jagielka kept the Gunners at bay pulling off a fabulous late save from Robin van Persie to secure victory. Such was the confidence Neil Warnock had in his defender-com-midfielder-cum keeper, he decided to go without a substitute goalkeeper on the bench in order to give himself more tactical options.

He was a key player and virtually ever present for the final three seasons of his time at Bramall Lane. I remember the excitement of watching a United player pull on an England Under 21 shirt at the KC Stadium, such international recognition for Blades players was all too rare. That "pride" continued as he developed his career at Everton and eventually to England recognition.

It was always going to be difficult to make that breakthrough with Ferdinand and Terry in situ and Jagielka had to be patient. That patience has now paid off with Jagielka holding off the clamour for young pretenders like Smalling and Jones. Moyes clearly recognised the importance of Jagielka naming him Everton captain, a role extolled by Roberto Martínez on taking over who stated that Jagielka would make a "phenomenal captain".

Now he needs to transfer that leadership and defensive strength to the pitch, in a white shirt in Brazil. Having missed the 2010 World Cup and remained on the bench throughout Euro 2012, this is Jagielka's moment.

Kyle Walker

Sometimes you see a player for the first time and you think "they will play for England". Kyle Walker was just that player. In a short spell in the United first team you could see that he would be wearing the three lions at a future date. As his namesake Kyle Naughton made an immediate and exciting impact, talk was of the England Youth international waiting for his chance behind him.

Coming from a Blades supporting family, Walker joined United aged seven after being recommended by the local Football Unites, Racism Divides project. He progressed through the ranks to become a regular fixture in the reserves by 2008.

After a loan spell at Northampton he made his full debut for Sheffield United on 13 January 2009, starting in a third round FA Cup tie against Leyton Orient. With injuries, Walker was included in the starting line-up for the crucial last two games of the season, making his full league debut for the club on 25 April 2009 against Swansea City. He was magnificent and retained his place for an ultimately unsuccessful play–off campaign. Yet after an all too brief spell in red and white he was gone.

That summer Walker left United to join Tottenham Hotspur along with the aforementioned Kyle Naughton, a right back who had established himself as an attacking overlapping defender in the United first team. Although Naughton was valued higher in the deal, Walker was seen as the one with most potential. He was loaned back to United for the duration of the 2009–10 season as part of the deal and was an accomplished Championship right back for the first half of the season but was unexpectedly recalled back to Spurs after 6 months.

A hugely successful loan spell at Villa followed, demonstrating he was clear Premier League class. Finally he got his chance at White Hart Lane and grabbed it with both hands. Soon he was challenging Glen Johnson for the England right back slot.

He has his detractors and a player with such attacking verve, will always find himself culpable defensively. But you don't win the PFA Young Player of the Year, beating the likes of Sergio Agüero, Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gareth Bale without good reason.

Injury led him to miss Euro 2012 and I hope that the pain killing injections he is currently taking for his pelvic injury, stave off an operation and enable him to take the field in Manaus on 14th June.

Gary Cahill

Gary Cahill didn't come through the Bramall Lane ranks, he even supports the other team in Sheffield, but he made a hugely positive impact on United fans during a three month loan spell from Aston Villa. Accomplished and calm he was a strong presence in the heart of the Blades defence.

There were many similarities with what we saw with Jagielka. Athletic, great vision and the ability to provide a goal threat as well.

It was surprising that Villa were willing to sell him 12 months later, unfortunately he was always going to remain in the Premier League and that ruled out any interest from United. He moved to Bolton Wanderers and became a firm favourite with Wanderers fans. Being married to a Bolton fan I closely followed his progress and it seemed that as well as he was playing, he was never going to get the credit his performances deserved, unless he moved from the Reebok.

The move to Chelsea did just that and Champions League success followed. Firmly established in the Chelsea defence and starting outshine the fading John Terry, his star was rising. Unfortunately, a broken jaw in the final warm up game robbed him of his chance to play at Euro 2012 and so like Jagielka and Walker this should be Cahill's moment. To see Cahill and Jagielka paired in defence, with Walker at right back will delight Blades fans everywhere.