WHEN a manager of Sheffield United takes the unprecedented step of quoting Abraham Lincoln in his programme notes, you know instinctively something is not quite right.
Nigel Adkins reminded readers ‘a house divided cannot stand’. Blades fans, of course, need no reminding. Ask any and they will tell you that Lincoln made the address in 1858 on accepting the Republican Party’s nomination to represent Illinois at the United’s States Senate, prior to becoming President in 1861. Kids stuff.
But what is Adkins fearful of? He does himself and the majority of United fans an injustice if he thinks a rebellion is just around the corner. Supporters want nothing more than to see United live up to the continuous stream of rhetoric which eminates from the manager, players and Board.
The fact that about 20,000 people sick and tired of third tier football and a lifetime of under-achievement continue to pass through the turnstiles and back the club with tolerance and good humour is more than enough commitment to the cause. They’re also entitled to an opinion. The media chooses to use the extremes of those opinions, not the majority view, because that’s what makes headlines and talking points.
Plain speaking is always respected in South Yorkshire. Anything else is quickly identified for what it is and Adkins is in danger of earning a reputation in Sheffield as a man who speaks a lot but says little other than the obvious and sometimes comes over as thinking he’s a little too clever for his own good. For that he has form.
A few weeks ago he revealed that his plan was to “stay in the promotion race until January and then win it from there”. I would expect that is every manager’s strategy who wants to be promoted. Is there any other way to plan it?
Again, take those latest programme notes. A page to communicate with fans and what did we learn. We had a “tricky tie” at home to Worcester City (who arrived fourth from bottom of the Vanarama National League North) in the FA Cup. We “lost a penalty shootout at Fleetwood in the Johnstone Paint Trophy where goalkeeper George Long “kept a clean sheet” in a match which ended 0-0 in normal time. The return to fitness of injured players “has increased the size of the squad”. Not forgetting “we have reviewed the first third of the season with 16 games gone” and “we know where we want to get to”. Then “we sit eighth points off top place and the goal is top after 46 fixtures”, throw in a quote from a former US president and finish with “we’re all Blades, aren’t we?” A trite, over-used phrase and given that people have spent £3 in order to read it, accompanied by an insulting question mark.
No mention of the two previous home defeats, nor the fact the performance at Fleetwood was below the minimum standard. That United failed on two penalties was dismissed as “again we are talking about a superb goalkeeping display especially with two fingertip saves in the shoot-out”. Just to reiterate what actually happened, United failed to score over 90 minutes and missed two penalties. Poor.
After United threw away more points at Bramall Lane in a 2-2 draw with Southend, he would have been better advised to have chosen another of Lincoln’s observations. ’What is to be, will be, and no prayers of ours can arrest the decree.’ A nineteenth century Que Sera Sera. It even works with the melody.
Adkins, usually so positive, appears to be trying to head off trouble before it starts. But as mentioned in a previous article, smart remarks normally reserved for the chattering classes at dinner parties lose their impact when your tie is dangling in the sherry trifle.
Dangle it did as United trailed by two goals scored in the space of three first-half minutes in front a a speechless Kop. That they recovered with strikes by Jose Baxter and Neill Collins, making his 200th appearance, before the break deserves great credit. In the final analysis, however, it just papered over the cracks.
SHAKEN NOT STIRRED
United were shaken but not stirred which is the fundamental problem. That surely has to come from the manager. Yes, they hit the woodwork three times and on another day one of those chances would have been enough to secure three points. But the facts are that with the benefit of being at home and backed by a loyal and partisan crowd, they failed to step up to the challenge. Again.
Recent signing Dean Hammond described by Adkins in the build-up to the match as the midfield influence who can drive United forward, didn’t. We’re still waiting. Paul Coutts, his central midfield partner, was equally disappointing. Fit-again left-back Bob Harris is still finding his way after injury whilst goalkeeper Long, returning for the first time in the league since the opening day disaster at Gillingham, looked decidedly uncomfortable. Jay McEveley, whose appointment as club skipper appears to be as ill-judged now as it was in the summer, sat unused on the bench. Something he’s probably going to have to get used to.
Two defeats and a draw from the last three league fixtures at home. One point out of a possible nine. Eleven points squandered at the Lane in total. Eighth in the table amid a growing clutch of clubs jockeying for a play-off place. It’s all starting to look very familiar.
Now nine points adrift of an automatic promotion place, this weekend’s trip to third-placed Walsall in which United are very much underdogs – a phrase I never thought I would use where The Saddlers are concerned – has taken on enormous significance.
Unless there is a rapid improvement between now and the New Year, the initial objective, repeated by Adkins prior to the slip-up against Southend, will require a Herculean effort.
Midfield man Baxter reminded Unitedites prior to the Southend match that Bournemouth won promotion from League One three seasons ago after a inconclusive start and a flourish of eight straight wins which clinched the second automatic place. Baxter could easily have made the same hopeful observation last season as well.
It’s time for United to stop talking and start doing. Adkins isn’t the only one who can pull out a quote for every occasion and feel pleased with himself. In the words of another iconic American who is no longer with us: ‘A little less conversation, a little more action please, all this aggravation ain't satisfactionin' me’.