SHEFFIELD UNITED this week airbrushed managing director Mal Brannigan out of the big picture at Bramall Lane with a minimum of fuss. Not many Blades fans will care but they should.
Why? Well, not least because a man whose expertise is running a successful Renishaw-based engineering company that specialises in driving piles into the ground on building sites, now appears to be heading up player recruitment. Dig yourself out of that hole.
Part of a shake-up involving four appointments, it poses the question in a season which has drifted wildly off course, is this more evidence to suggest United have lost the plot and are clutching at straws? The powers that be are certainly not helping themselves to convince an increasingly sceptical fan base this is not so.
Indeed, given United’s steady slide since relegation from the Premier League in 2007 to a wilderness they have now occupied for almost five-and-a-half years, not forgetting the financial losses involved, it is becoming increasingly difficult to build a supporting case for the myth that SUFC is a well run club. It is more a case of excellence at damage limitation.
An official statement made up of eight sentences waited until paragraph seven to report tersely that the man appointed on January 8, 2014 amid a fanfare of approval from the Board, “leaves the club with immediate effect”.
Co-chairmen Kevin McCabe and Jim Phipps are quoted as saying: “To get Sheffield United back on track, change is needed.” Which can only be interpreted as an admission that, apart from well documented problems on the pitch, something is seriously wrong off it.
As Brannigan exited through the revolving door and into the cold wind blowing up Cherry Street, local businessmen David Green and Martin Green joined the Board. David Green, a former chairman, became vice-chairman “with responsibility for football operations”. Martin Green, already a vice president and owner of club sponsor Redtooth, became vice-chairman for commercial and administrative matters. Added to them were Simon Westbury, acting administration manager, and, significantly (read on), Carl Shieber, player contract manager.
The position of managing director appears to have been dropped and at the time of writing apart from Brannigan’s deletion none of the changes were reflected in ‘Key Personnel’ on the club’s website.
So, in the absence of a proper explanation – United’s communications operation such as it is, if ever consulted, continues to offer dreadful guidance – what can genuinely concerned onlookers deduce from what appears to be something akin to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?
Clearly Brannigan’s tenure, the last managerial link with the era of sacked boss Nigel Clough, was viewed as problematic. Brannigan at Derby for five years where as vice-president, finance and company secretary, formed a strong relationship with Clough and followed him to Bramall Lane.
Responsible for just about everything bar head cook and bottle washer at the iPro Stadium – Pride Park to you and me – including transfer negotiations, his expertise was deemed necessary at the Lane in what must have been viewed as the ‘dream team’.
Which is why United now have the burden of a wage bill encompassing more than 40 professional players. How was this allowed to happen? Surely Brannigan alone is not responsible.
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
His sudden departure also calls into serious question the elephant in the room. I speak of the motive behind signing a fullback for £1.5million on a three-and-a-half year deal last January. A position that was and remains the least of United’s worries.
No-one questions the potential quality John Brayford provides. For a club that won’t spend a pound if a penny will do, it is an extraordinary deal to strike in League One for a player it didn’t need. Brayford, relegated from the Premier League with Cardiff City and unhappy in south Wales at the time, played for Clough/Brannigan at Derby and also for the former Blades boss at Burton Albion. A personal relationship had evolved.
The love-in was no more self evident that when Brayford was switched to fill in as an emergency centre-half, a position he performed to average at best. But as United continued to ship goals, head-in-the-sand Clough extolled the virtues of his new centre-back.
That culminated in the farcical 5-5 play-off semi-final, second leg at Swindon in which Brayford was ruled out after suffering a serious injury in the home leg defeat, when Clough lost his cool with Radio Sheffield’s Jonathan Buchan. When United’s defensive errors and the manager's position were rightly questioned, Clough childishly replied: I can't believe that we've been talking for 10 minutes and you haven't asked about John Brayford. Our best player, our big signing out. He's on crutches. I can't believe you haven't mentioned it."
When Buchan pointed out it was on his list of questions, Clough snapped: "Well it should have been higher up on your list, I would have thought it would have been one of the first questions you would have asked. This is a major factor in us not winning the game tonight."
Brayford revealed recently that he had taken close to a 50 per cent pay cut to drop down a division and come to the Lane. Assuming he was on around £25,000-a week at Cardiff, not an unreasonable guess as he signed a four-year-deal with a then Premier League club, it suggests he is now earning about £12,000-a-week.
That’s £624,000-a year or just under £2.2million for the length of his contract. Too much? If that figure is close to correct, you bet. This is Third Division football after all. What has Brayford got that doesn’t apply to anybody else? It seems obvious to me but make your own mind up.
In the absence of any explanation other than a bland press release, what conclusions could one come to. Unless Brannigan fled just hours after it was announced Clough had been appointed manager at Burton for the second time and his pal will reappear at the Pirelli Stadium in due course.
In customary fashion local paper The Star failed to ask any questions either, choosing instead to trumpet the club’s prepared stance unchallenged under the headline ‘United outline thinking behind Board changes’. What happened to journalism?
UNFIT FOR PURPOSE
United manager Nigel Adkins must realise by now that he was hoodwinked last summer and he has a squad largely unfit for purpose. Contrary to popular opinion it takes a great deal of pain before the majority of United’s long suffering fans’ patience runs out.
It did, however, during the abject way United lost against Shrewsbury in their last league match at the Lane. It wasn’t the result that was the cause, miserable as it was.
The team’s lack of character and utter helplessness against mediocre opposition stoked frustration which erupted in a chant unprecedented in my 46 years of visiting the Lane. ‘Your not fit to wear the shirt’ boomed out from the Kop only four minutes into the second half as the Shrews, not believing their luck, went 4-1 ahead.
Adkins’ squad desperately needs the complete overhaul it should have had in the summer. The manager needs knowledgable and independent help if he is to rescue what is already shaping up to be another season of bitter disappointment.
Now he has got it in the guise of our engineering expert from Renishaw who will ‘chair the club's technical board which directs football recruitment at all levels’. He will be assisted by Shieber who ‘joins the technical board as its player contract negotiations manager’.
United are either about to pull several rabbits out of the hat in the January transfer window, which is doubtful even if they wanted to, or Adkins will have to limp on largely with what he’s got and hope he can develop some backbone in the squad. Players of the quality United need come at a premium and are usually only available in the close season. January is a market for misfits. An exercise in getting rid of the unwanted. Any gems available are likely to be out of financial reach and/or unwilling to play at such a low level, especially if United remain adrift without a paddle.
Co-chairman Phipps said of the Board shake-up: “We suggested the move and put forward these candidates out of a desire to effect a step change in the performance of the club both on the pitch and off.”
The advisor to co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, added: “We believe adding local football and business nous to the Board will strengthen operations in both places and provide a stronger presence in all that is done.”
Good luck with that. At this rate the prince will soon be wanting his pound back.