UNPRECEDENTED in my 46 years of paying homage at Bramall Lane. A heartfelt chorus of ‘You’re not fit to wear the shirt’ rang out from the Kop just three minutes into the second half of a spineless performance from Sheffield United.
Manager Nigel Adkins, visibly shaken by the shambolic 4-2 League One defeat to lowly Shrewsbury can, however, take one positive. The crowd didn’t turn on him.
There was almost a collective recognition that although Adkins is ultimately responsible for what happens on the pitch, he was being undermined and embarrassed by those he trusted, such was the inexplicable incompetence on display.
Adkins should not be judged on this professional betrayal but on how he reacts to what for him is a rude awakening. His major failing since arriving in June on a wave of hope and optimism is not to have quickly understood what the majority of Unitedites had known for a long time. The nucleus of the squad is not good enough. It’s complacent and full of self-importance.
Commenting on the brutal verdict delivered from the Kop, Adkins said after his team’s fourth home defeat: “That wasn’t nice for the players but I have total empathy with the fans. That was a bad defeat and we’ve been in this league for too long.” Right answer. In fact the only answer. To have defended the indefensible would have tarred him with the same brush.
It says much for the tolerance of long-suffering and furious Blades supporters that vocal criticism was otherwise limited to understandable jeers at the break and at full time and a single, half-hearted chant of ‘what a load of rubbish’.
Only two players emerged with credit. Goalkeeper George Long, who wasn’t at fault for any of the goals conceded and was totally unprotected by his shambolic back four. Kieron Freeman, a part of it at right-back at least redeemed himself by demonstrating commitment which won him applause during the second half. Youngsters Louis Reed, substituted at half time, and Che Adams looked like frightened rabbits lost in the headlights as the senior pros capitulated around them.
Something happened at the Lane, however, that doesn’t occur often across football in general. I’ve seen revolts before. Adrian Heath, Bryan Robson and David Weir spring to mind. Danny Wilson, the former Sheffield Wednesday manager, was even the subject of an unfair and unjustified but audible car park protest for very different reasons by a small minority during the Press conference on his appointment.
PLAYERS STAND ISOLATED
They were all levelled at managers and/or the Board. This time it is the players who are taking the rap. A gulf has opened up between them, the fans and now, it seems, the manager. The over-paid, under-performers who like nothing more than to idle away their days with a ‘a bit of banter’ stand isolated. Fingers of blame pointed firmly in their direction. Rightly so.
United co-chairman Jim Phipps, an avid user of Twitter, tweeted: "I don't pick the team. I don't wear the shirt, but I cannot escape responsibility for what's happening." He followed that up with: "I did watch it. It was unacceptable."
Many of United's players appear simply deluded, as ViewFromTheJohnStreet.Com has often pointed out, judging from some of the self-satisfied comments that are made. Whom when faced with reality in their otherwise pampered lives, like to see themselves as victims of criticism from those who don’t know what they’re talking about.
Take the most recent example. Conor Sammon. The on-loan striker who is surplus to requirements at Derby, told local newspaper, The Star, prior to Tuesday night’s humiliation under the headline Critics Will Never Break Blades: “We need to stick to our game-plan and what we do in training.
“We don’t just look to go out on the training pitch and do things willy-nilly. The staff always look at areas our opponents have weaknesses and our sessions are tailored towards us being comfortable with exposing their weaknesses and getting the better of them.” This is oblivious to the fact that United have now dropped 31 points out of a possible 57 this season, 17 of them at home.
This is the same 5ft 11ins Sammon, granted he gave United an early lead, who won an ironic cheer in injury time after winning his first challenge in the air for 93 minutes and whose overall contribution was minimal. The same Sammon whose goal put him only one in front (five) of centre-half Neill Collins from the same number of appearance, 20, in all competitions. The same Sammon who shows a regular reluctance to attack the ball.
“If someone is having a tough time out there you are all in it together,” he added. “You have that mentality of helping your mate next to you or them helping you. It’s a natural mindset and we have a very good group of players who want to win and be part of something successful.”
He continued: “Every game is different and it is up to us to really stick together and show the togetherness that is needed to go on a run. It needs to start somewhere so why not against Shrewsbury?” Why not indeed? What utter bilge.
So where do United go from here. Automatic promotion, the club’s stated objective, is not impossible but now looks extremely unlikely with this squad. United lie in 12th position, 11 points behind Gillingham who occupy second place.
Realistically, however, if United are to escape five years of League One misery, it will be done the hard way via the play-offs. That would still require a significant improvement. United are now averaging just over 1.3 points per match which currently means they will finish with 63. Not nearly good enough to qualify. That figure was 69 just two weeks ago
PLATFORM TO STRENGTHEN
Adkins’ only hope is that between now and the New Year his players respond to the threat of being shipped out, either on loan or permanently, starting at Barnsley this weekend. That would give him a platform to strengthen in the January transfer window and push on.
If they don’t, would the Board and fans be prepared for a clear-out – the retain list wouldn’t be that long – in order to start an early rebuilding program in the January transfer window with the intention of making 2016/17 promotion year? That is a big ask but in those circumstances it would be a coherent plan and give Adkins the chance to fulfil his potential.
Otherwise he and a dysfunctional squad would limp on to the bitter end with a likelihood of a ninth manager in as many years arriving next summer and the whole merry-go-round of uncertainty would start again.
Adkins stands between a rock and a hard place. He clearly has the know-how to succeed, having already won three promotions from League One. He is also at a club where, unfortunately for him, time is the enemy and instant success is the priority. Something he was made well aware of before arriving.
As let down as he has been, Adkins must, however, shoulder some of the blame. Over-estimating the squad he inherited was a big mistake. It could even prove fatal. Apart from Billy Sharp, his signings have been ineffective. Sharp was brought in to score but instead of playing him down the middle where he is most effective, is used as a workhorse for others too lazy or incapable of doing the ground work. Sharp has seven goals to his name but hasn’t scored in his last six appearances.
Adkins talked of a ‘six-man leadership group’ he had identified in his squad and mistakenly made Jay McEveley captain. United have since demonstrated they don’t have any leaders and Unitedites know from the previous season that McEveley is a liability.
Co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who bought 50 per cent of the club for £1, is said to have invested £13million. Not a huge sum but were United to lose his financial backing as a result of remaining in football’s wilderness, which is not beyond the bounds of reason, the future would indeed look bleak.
This is where United are only 16 weeks into the season. All because of a group of players many of whom based on current form really aren’t fit to wear the shirt. Will they step up the the plate in the club’s hour of need?
I sincerely hope so but on what we have seen so far it’s doubtful.