KEITH EDWARDS is never one to mince his words. On Tuesday night following Sheffield United’s latest blot on the landscape, a dismal Johnstone Paint Trophy exit at Fleetwood, he offered some damning words to manager Nigel Adkins.
The former striker who scored 171 goals for the Blades in 293 appearances, told Radio Sheffield listeners from a windswept Highbury Press box: “I’ve been watching United for 20 years and if he thinks that’s progress (United’s adopted style under Adkins) then he’s very naive”.
Ex-players chipping in with their two-penneth from a comfortable distance is nothing new. The problem for Adkins is that an alarming number of the frustrated Bramall Lane faithful stand shoulder to shoulder with Edwards.
Few Unitedites, if any, will lament not being in the draw for the Northern Area semi-finals. But the manner of defeat – a tedious 0-0 draw followed by an incompetent performance in the penalty shootout (Billy Sharp and Jay McEveley had half-hearted efforts saved) to lose 4-1 – is indicative of the way the club has been sliding.
Since that giddy geese-filled day at the end of August when United registered a comprehensive 2-0 victory at Swindon to lie in second place a point behind leaders Walsall, the Blades have reverted to type. The type of inconsistent, schoolboy error-laden performances that have become so familiar in approaching five years of League One drudgery.
Twenty-one points dropped from a possible 33, six of them at the Lane, in the last 11 matches. During this period United have conceded as many goals as they have scored – 18. They are currently eighth in the table eight points behind joint-leaders Walsall and Burton Albion. During the same time Walsall have added 20 points to their total as have Burton, promoted from League Two last season.
NOT GOOD ENOUGH
United average 1.5 points per match. If they maintain that it will mean a 69-point finish which has only been good enough on one occasion during the past four League One campaigns United have competed in to claim a play-off place.
Murmurings that United’s eighth manager in as many years may not be the man to deliver promotion in May are premature. Adkins is a positive and likeable character and after the negativity of predecessor Nigel Clough, was a breath of fresh air.
That same air, however, has grown stale and the Blades boss is not helping himself maintain the unprecedented relationship he enjoyed with Unitedites even before a ball had been kicked.
Supporters at his former club Reading quickly became tired of Adkins cliche-ridden jargon which enables him to speak at length but say little. It works well and goes unquestioned in the good times. It sounds hollow when the going gets tough.
Adkins reminds us every week that “football is a simple game. It’s about scoring at one end and keeping them out at the other”. How United “must respect this division because there are no easy games”. How “the players have an opportunity to achieve something.” How he “relishes the opportunity to win a game of football”. What “a great football club this is.” Not forgetting that old chestnut “we’re all in this together”.
No-one doubts the merits of this. Not least those gullible or desperate enough to keep reporting it verbatim. But surely they are a given, words to be uttered at the introductory Press conference, as indeed he did, not continually repeated to an audience which has long since tired and seen it for what it is.
The smart one-liners which please the media so much become a little tiresome when your team is taking under-performance to a new level. “What is the biggest room in your house? Answer, room for improvement”, is certainly true at United’s Shirecliffe training base. Again, room for improvement in any walk of life is foward-thinking philosophy. Coming from Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool it sounds commendable. Spoken by someone in charge of a team that can’t even get the basics right with any consistency, it sounds glib.
Then there are the signings made by Adkins since his arrival in June. With the exception of Sharp, none have had the desired impact. Central defender David Edgar, midfield recruits Martyn Woodford and most recently Dean Hammond, have been average at best. Striker Conor Sammon, on loan from Derby and painfully reluctant to attack open spaces, has scored only four goals from 18 appearances in all competitions. One more than central defender Neill Collins. Meanwhile, Marc McNulty, last season’s joint top scorer alongside Jose Baxter with 13, is sidelined and has just been loaned to League Two Portsmouth.
'LICENCE TO THRILL'
Canadian international David Edgar, on loan from Birmingham City and brought in to shore up United’s leaky defence, has seen 11 goals hit United’s net in 10 appearances. Edgar, who has only just recovered from a hamstring injury and hasn’t played for the first team since the beginning of October, is apparently so valuable to the cause he has been allowed to make a 6,000-mile flight to Vancouver where Canada play Honduras this week in a World Cup qualifier. He’ll then make a 4,000-mile trip to El Salvador for another qualifier before returning to Sheffield.
Adkins’ pre-season declaration that United would start matches at Bramall Lane on the front foot, strike fear into the opposition and have ‘a licence to thrill’ as local paper The Star put it, has yet to materialise.
The appointment of McEveley as captain left many United fans speechless. A poor defender who never exceeds anything than average but more often is prone to costly positional errors. Interestingly Adkins moved him from centre-half to his preferred left-back position when Edgar arrived.
Substituted after a dreadful first-half at Bradford in September, McEveley, who subsequently broke a toe, has since made just one league appearance. With the return of Bob Harris from injury and Callum McFadzean in the background, it’s hard to see where skipper McEveley fits in apart from an emergency stop-gap role. Kieron Freeman could also switch to left-back once John Brayford is fully fit.
Last seasons failings largely remain. Teams come to the Lane and settle quickly, being given time and space to play their football.
Again, as in the last campaign, United’s rearguard is strewn with unforced errors. If you or your work colleagues committed so many costly mistakes on a regular basis it's safe to surmise a P45 accompanied with a visit to the job centre would follow.
But it is midfield where matches are won and lost. The Blades continue to pay heavy a price for failing to address an issue largely responsible for the stagnation of the last five years. How successive managers can kid themselves it is not the case is astounding.
United lack leadership and authority in this area, the ability to control matches. Add to that a pedestrian approach when it comes to moving forward which gives the opposition time to keep their shape or reorganise. Rarely do United get behind defences and allow strikers the chance to run onto the ball and create scoring opportunities.
Result, a central area that fails to enforce itself. This invites extra pressure onto the back four and limits support for forwards often left to plough a lonely furrow and pick up scraps.
There is, however, cause for optimism. Despite United’s failings, they sit in eighth place and eight points from an automatic promotion place. It is well below expectation for an inconsistent, under-performing team in early November that’s not a bad place to be.
I doubt very much Adkins is naive enough to think that he has made enough progress to expect Championship football next season. I think, however, he is now up to speed with what most regular observers already knew when he arrived.
How Adkins handles that is now shaping up to be one of the greatest challenges of his managerial career.