WHAT do you do with a problem like Jose Baxter? One of the most gifted players at Sheffield United, he had already let the club down big time. Now he has done it again.
Baxter, the Blades top scorer last season, delivered a serious blow to United’s promotion chances after failing a routine drug test which ruled him out of the play-off semi-finals. United, to their credit, withdrew him immediately but stood by him. The 23-year-old subsequently received a five-month ban from the FA, three of them suspended.
This week Baxter was hauled in front of his manager, Nigel Adkins, following what was described as an “undisclosed incident” and “made aware of his responsibilities”. United had earlier released a statement revealing the club knew “of an incident over the weekend which involved Jose Baxter”.
The rumour mill has been in overdrive as to what might have been the misdemeanour. Among the more plausible allegations is that on a night out he was in a brawl involving a player from a club in League Two not far from Baxter’s native Merseyside.
It is also alleged that the player launched a tirade of abuse at teammates following the shambolic 4-2 home defeat to Shrewsbury in which Baxter was one of three substitutions at half time. The official reason given for his second-half absence was injury. That anger, it is claimed, surfaced again in an ugly scene before or after United’s 1-1 draw at Barnsley where Baxter was unavailable.
SECRECY FUELS SPECULATION
As any communications professional would tell you, United are naive to opt for the ‘undisclosed’ route. It is best to be upfront about these matters, or at least issue what sounds like a reasonable explanation. United’s veil of secrecy only fuels speculation. The truth will out eventually. I know of at least one member of the local media who has been told what happened, but I doubt it will be made public anytime soon.
Baxter spent a nervous summer, pending the FA’s verdict, in genuine fear that his career might be over. He denied having ever knowingly taken ecstasy, claiming that a friend must have slipped it into a drink during a weekend in London to watch Liverpool in the FA Cup final.
He was supported by former manager Nigel Clough, United’s managing director Mal Brannigan provided him with a character reference to take to the FA, and newly-appointed manager Adkins accompanied Baxter to the hearing. “Nigel Clough sent me a text wishing me good luck,” said Baxter. “I won’t forget things like that.”
It hasn’t taken the player long for his words of gratitude to evaporate. Baxter owes a big debt to United and four months later this is how he repays them. An act of indiscipline which was completely avoidable from someone who claims to be a ‘professional’ sportsman and so recently feared his career was finished. Don't forget either that United were without his services earlier this season following a rash challenge in the Capital One Cup defeat at Fulham which earned a three-match ban.
The origins of Bootle-born Baxter and Adkins, from just across the Mersey in Birkenhead, is a mere six miles. But there the comparison ends. As gifted as Baxter’s feet are, it doesn’t extend to his head.
If he should ever stop, think and look in the mirror, he may want to reflect on why he isn’t fulfilling his potential. He hasn’t been doing that since aged 16 years and 191 days he made his Premier League debut and became Everton’s youngest player to cross the line at senior level. Described then as ‘the new Rooney’, even Wayne, the prodigal son, falls short by 106 days. A year later Baxter was arrested in Liverpool on suspicion of possessing cannabis with intent to supply along with being suspected of possessing counterfeit money. He was released without charge.
From such promise at Goodison Park, Baxter was eventually loaned to Tranmere, then rejected a fresh contract offer at Everton and joined Oldham. A year later David Weir, the former Everton player and coach who United appointed as manager, signed Baxter. The otherwise disastrous Weir’s only lasting legacy at Bramall Lane.
Baxter, now in his third season, is recognised by the Lane faithful as a talented performer. Often, but not nearly often enough, a stand-out performer. To date he has contributed 28 goals from midfield in 113 appearances in all competitions. Given that his time at United has coincided with a struggling team, that contribution is all the more valuable.
He is also part of a dysfunctional and largely ineffective midfield which lacks leadership. Baxter, I think it has now been established, is easily led but will never be a leader. Then again neither will be Lionel Messi.
A player of Baxter’s ability has had the best part of three seasons now to step up to the plate and inspire. Breed confidence in a team which sorely lacks it. The flame has flickered now and again before disappearing in a puff of smoke.
In the final analysis, as promising as he can be, Baxter is just one of the boys in his comfort zone. Look where that has got United. He cost £500,000 and is a free agent next summer. On customary inconsistent form would United even want him?
Like other key members of the Blades failing squad, he needs to play an influential role if the club are not to spend an insufferable sixth year in League One. It’s up to him. If he can’t shape-up and earn his spurs maybe it’s time for United to cut their losses, ship him out and find someone who will