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Thursday, 21 November 2013

The Inside Line: Sheffield United (23/11/2013)

Those of you who have followed my blog for some time, or perhaps once-upon-a-time may have perused my ramblings in the City programme, may recall this week’s guest as I featured his Blades blog in this piece a couple of years ago.

Ian Rands, host of ‘A United View’ has had a highly successful couple of years, with a series of interviews with ex-Blades and one particularly thoughtful post about his son’s exposure to the dark side of football helping him to be shortlisted for the 2012 Football Supporters’ Federation Football Blogger of the Year award and going one better to take The Two Unfortunates award of the same distinction.

Thus I’ve been looking forward to welcoming Ian to this feature since the fixtures were announced as I knew I’d get an insightful, balanced, thoughtful and detailed view of life at Bramall Lane – and he’s delivered just that.

Sheffield United have suffered an even worse start to the season than City and new boss David Weir paid with his job after just 13 matches.  Nigel Clough was appointed with a long-term transition plan in mind (sound familiar City fans?) and has started with a mixed bag, with two victories balanced by defeats at home to Gillingham and at Shrewsbury.

Ian, what went so wrong for Weir and what do you perceive to be Clough’s greatest challenges in the short-term to, dare I say it, keep you out of the bottom division?
Three things went wrong for Weir for me. Expectations were raised in our first game as we played fantastic football and created lots of chances against Notts County in the Football League season opener on Sky. Hindsight is wonderful thing, but the reality was United were up against a poor County side, who were reduced to 10 men for much of the match, allowing United the space to play.

Pivotal in that win was Kevin McDonald, playing just behind a lone striker and between two wide men. Weir had forged his pre-season planning around McDonald and felt this was the formation to bring out the best in the languid midfielder whose influence had waned over the previous season. Unfortunately the Scot had a clause in his contract which was activated by Wolves and he left shortly after.

Bereft of McDonald's prompting and creativity the team was pedestrian and possessed little goal threat. Passing the ball on the deck is great, but it has to progress into the final third. Players looked increasingly disinterested, with little heart and passion in their play and on-pitch results and performances got progressively worse.

Clough has an almighty job on re-balancing an over-sized squad of players, overburdened in some areas (central midfield), whilst lacking elsewhere (our only cover in central defence is one of our full backs). Numbers are high, but the quality isn't and to bring in his own players it will take a significant clear out in January. But who will buy? Or even borrow?!

In addition he has to inject some self-belief and interest in players that, if rumours are true, have demonstrated a lack of respect for previous managers, their staff and their tactics in the last 12 months.

You initially indicated a lack of excitement at Clough’s appointment, has anything changed with what you’ve seen so far, albeit with a limited exposure?
The lack of excitement was due to a disappointing and somewhat bizarre shortlist - Cec Podd at 16-1 anyone? This was a clear sign of where we are as a club, Arabian money or not.

Clough is a good manager given where we are, but his record is fundamentally unexciting in recent years. You can point to the difficult financial transition from Jewell's squad of overpaid failures at Pride Park, to Clough's side injected with youth products, but the view from Derby was mixed. It perhaps erred to positive, but a lack of recent success (even relatively speaking) remains a concern.

How has Clough looked to set up his team in his short time in charge so far, is he already trying to instil ‘the Clough way’?
He is certainly trying to make his mark. He seems to have tried to steady the ship, although you could argue Chris Morgan and Mick Wadsworth had already done that whilst in temporary charge. He has switched from Weir's 4-2-3-1 or 4-2-2-1-1 to playing a traditional 4-4-2. Many Weir signings have not had a look-in and Clough has focused on both experienced players and the more workman-like ones, utilising them in a way which focuses on players performing quite disciplined roles. When the starting eleven was named for the 2-0 defeat at Shrewsbury it was commented on how we had more creativity and flair on the bench than we had on the pitch.

I think there will be changes on Saturday. Despite putting the loss to Gillingham down to defensive errors, Clough's post-match interview pointed to a recognition that certain players had failed to impress.  If the experienced solid players let you down, then things have to change.

Clough can best be judged when he has had the chance to bring in his own signings and shaped the team how he wants it. For now, his words and sentiments are right and welcomed, that will need to be translated on to the pitch.

City fans would have kept half an eye on your results in the recent past with Danny Wilson in charge, was it surprising timing when he was sacked with the Blades on the brink of the play-off picture with only a few games to go?
Absolutely. Despite the crowd getting on his and the team's back the timing was bizarre in the least. United were in a Play Off position, but goal shy and rarely winning games. The capitulation at home to Crawley was poor, strewn with defensive errors, dull and limp play and a lack of willingness from the manager to make changes. However bad it was, I never expected Wilson to lose his job at that stage.

Some fans have said that we would have faded and not made the play-offs under Wilson. Given Chris Morgan's record in temporary charge at the end of last season and the results in that period, I am not sure that is a valid argument. We stumbled into the play offs, like a teenager let loose on the Jagerbombs for the first time, crowning it with a second leg performance at Yeovil which was the equivalent of throwing up on your girlfriend's parents' front doorstep. Would we really have embarrassed ourselves anymore under Wilson? I doubt it.

Yes the timing was awful, even more so with hindsight, but let's not forget that this is a club and board that sacked Kevin Blackwell after 3 games of a season. The timing of that decision, more than the decision itself can be pinpointed as when the rot set in at Bramall Lane. A catalogue of bad decisions followed.

I can’t omit to mention the signing of Marlon King. I'm fairly certain many club’s fans would accept a young player’s single misdemeanour – everyone deserves a second chance after all, don’t they?  But King has a pretty appalling track record and is derided and despised in equal measure by fans around the country.  Bearing in mind you’ve also got the recent experience of Ched Evans’ conviction (of which Ian wrote a fabulously balanced and emotive article), I wonder how warmly was King welcomed to Bramall Lane and has it (further?) damaged the club’s perception amongst the loyal fan-base?
It has upset some fans and there will be a few that have followed through on their statement not to go to Bramall Lane whilst he is at the club. His introduction pre-match on his home debut was greeted with a mixed response and although his only goal for the club was greeted with cheers, that was more a sign of relief that we had scored than any great show of support.

Personally, I was disappointed with his arrival. He is not a young player who has done something stupid or made a mistake, he is a serial criminal who has shown little remorse for his actions and when given the opportunity on local radio to do so, firmly chose not to.

Some of the "don't care if he scores goals" forum posters, may well be caring a bit more now. These will be the same people who chant Lee Hughes is a murderer, but care not about our signings. Not only do we have a player/human being with a bad reputation and a violent past, we also have a half fit one who is being paid well for little effect on the pitch. A pretty grim situation all round.

The Blades have a fairly decent record of producing quality youngsters – are there any current youngsters likely to be performing on Match of the Day any time soon?
We are the 8th best producers of talent in the country over the last three years according to independent assessment and although there is promise further down the ranks, there are no real signs of new talent immediately breaking through.

There was a buzz last season about forward Diego De Girolamo (he's from Chesterfield!) last season, but having made the breakthrough in to the first team squad he suffered serious knee injury playing for Italy Under 18's. If anything, unrealistic expectations are being placed on the lad and who knows whether we will see the same player and potential after a serious injury that would have ended careers years ago. He may well return to action early in the new year.

United have always had a good record of having decent goalkeepers and are now developing a niche in spotting and developing them. Following in George Long's footsteps is 18 years old George Willis - capped at England U16/17/19 level, Gareth Owen has been on standby for Wales U19, while Jake Eastwood has been called up by England U18s.

The last 12 months has seen stagnation in the development of both George Long and Harry Maguire. Thrown into the first team based on both their talent and necessity, there is a danger of them playing too much too young. Mistakes, perhaps natural given their age, are becoming more prevalent and perhaps firing a warning shot at Blades fans who over-hype.

Other graduates of the side which lost to Manchester United in the 2011 FA Youth Cup Final seem to be stalling as well. Callum McFadzean looked to be breaking through until a recent city centre assault brought his discipline and future into question. Striker Joe Ironside has been given fleeting chances, but is yet to score a league goal and now finds himself on loan at FC Halifax Town. Youth team captain Elliot Whitehouse looked primed for a chance until injury problems last pre-season set him back and he is currently on loan at York.

In sounding so negative, it is easy to forget that Matt Lowton was a reasonably later developer, making the first team squad after loans to Ferencvaros (Hungary) and Sheffield FC and at a point in time when many fans had written off his chances of making it. There's still time for a few of these lads.

Who else should City fans be watching out for on Saturday?
Miller was the pick of our players in a poor performance on Saturday. Returning from a long term injury he is yet to score but was busy and always looking to create opportunities for himself and others. He formed a good partnership in a few games partnered with Chris Porter last season and his injury played a big part in our post-Christmas slump.

Having said that, Clough hinted midweek that Miller might need a game's rest as he continues to build fitness, so that may leave the door open for Jose Baxter on Lyle Taylor to get back in the side.

If Miller doesn't play it is difficult to pick a player out, both on current form and on the basis we may see changes to the starting eleven. Players such as Baxter or Taylor, who may get a chance, need to show more than the fleeting glimpses of quality that we have seen so far and that we are sure they are capable of.

Tell us something we might not know about Sheffield United?
We are the original United, the first football club to take the name.

And finally, who’s going to come out on top in this relegation six-pointer?

I honestly cannot see United winning. Your unbeaten run should stretch to 6, albeit I hope we have enough about us to get a point. Both fans and manager need to see a reaction to last week's disappointing loss to Gillingham. If we don't then it is clear how big a task Clough faces.

My immense thanks to Ian for his time and effort.  I, for one, hope Sheffield United can pick up form, providing it's after Saturday. They're a proud club with an almost unmatched history and with their record of producing very good, young English footballers of note, they're an asset worth watching out for.

The Exiled Robin

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