IS HISTORY repeating itself at the expense of Sheffield United’s long overdue quest to regain Championship status?
Even after bitter disappointment in May 2007 when United were relegated from the Premier League, howls of derision would have met any suggestion that four of the following eight years were destined to be spent languishing in the third tier of English football. Co-chairman Kevin McCabe, above left, certainly wouldn't have believed it.
Should this season continue on its erratic course, however, four could very well become five. If by May United fans are resigned to more visits from the likes of Fleetwood, Walsall, Gillingham and Port Vale, should we be surprised? It’s a conundrum but a long way from pot-half-empty syndrome. Put simply, Blades manager Nigel Clough, sacked by Derby County in September 2013, has got form. Most of it leads one to believe that Sheffield United are in the hands of someone whom given time – lots of it – could succeed. But there’s the rub. If not this season, should the club continue to invest its future in a stubborn and painstaking man who likes a long-term project?
The same club that has got through seven managers since 2007 and required the emergency services of three acting bosses (Chris Morgan twice), to hold the fort. What did that achieve?
DILEMMA IN MAKING
A dilemma in the making. One the Board at Bramall Lane will surely be wrestling with should United fail at the fourth attempt to escape from the desperate level of football loyal fans in great numbers have suffered since what now seems the heady days of Championship football in the Spring of 2011.
Can anyone who has witnessed United’s League performances this season say confidently that a play-off place is safe? Can anyone who has witnessed United’s miserable four play-off finals say with conviction should it come to pass again that it will be different this time?
Into his 17th year – yes 17 – as a manager and one title later at Burton Albion, his first job as boss, illustrates the point. Clough, having won the Northern Premier League left Burton four months short of their climb from the Conference into the Football League when Derby came calling.
ALL TOO FAMILIAR
Then followed four seasons at Derby in the Championship, building a competent side without ever mounting a promotion challenge. He fifth term was cut short, sacked following three defeats in eight days which left The Rams 14th in the table nine matches into the campaign.
Eight months later, successor Steve McLaren took what was largely Clough’s team to a play-off final at Wembley. This season they remain a good bet for promotion to the Premier League.
This is what a national newspaper reported in May last year as The Rams headed for Wembley. To regulars at Bramall Lane it will sound, alarmingly, all to familiar.
Five additions to Clough’s squad are former Derby players; John Brayford, Ben Davies, Paul Coutts, Kieron Freeman and most recently Steve Davies. Three more signings have come from non league clubs in, yes, you’ve guessed it, Derbyshire. Kieran Wallace and Che Adams from Ilkeston and goalkeeper George Willis from Alfreton.
Brayford, who also played under Clough at Burton, was signed from Cardiff in January for an undisclosed fee but widely reported as between £1.5million an £2m. Granted, Brayford, who likes to get forward on the overlap, was a fundamental figure during his 15-week loan spell last season when United staged their incredible League recovery and FA Cup charge. Many, however, questioned the spending of what amounts to an extraordinary sum given United’s miserly buying record, on a right-back when the squad is well covered in that area.
Brayford, who was offered a three-and-a-half year deal, has been an ever present in the League since the second coming despite being a shadow of his former self. A luxury afforded to few others who regularly find themselves starting on the bench, or worse, after having produced a good performance.
Indeed, another aspect of tinkering Clough’s management style for which he was also criticised at Derby, is his readiness to publicly blame individuals for mistakes, rather than keeping it in-house.
Brayford is lacking form and confidence. We know this because Clough told the world this week. It begs the question why Clough continues to regard him as first choice? What does that say to Craig Alcock, the former incumbent before injury whom although fit again, appears to be regarded as a permanent understudy?
Striker Marc McNulty regularly receives Clough’s public wrath. This despite being United’s top scorer, an area where before the arrival of Matt Done in February, he had little support and where the side have desperately struggled under three regimes ever since the jailing of Ched Evans in April 2012.
Goalkeepers Mark Howard and Ian Turner, the former in particular has come to United’s rescue countless times, have also been singled out for public humiliation. Striker and goalkeeper, positions where confidence is key, all having their dirty linen washed in the car park.
Then there is centre back Neill Collins, rumoured to have fallen foul of his manager. Collins has made 177 appearances and formed a dependable partnership with Harry Maguire before the latter left for Hull last summer. A player whose heart and soul is with the club, has played in only 12 matches this term, the last one on October 7, despite United’s defence leaking goals like a sieve and the huge hole left by Maguire.
Had Clough arrived when United were relegated to League One four and a half years ago, United’s mismanaged recent history may have told a very different story. By now he would have surely built a team that was confidently propelling United to a greater stage.
Throughout all this not once have United fans heard Clough hold his hands up and accept a little responsibility. He doesn’t even refer to himself as an individual. ‘We’ (the inner circle) make the decisions, the players make all the mistakes. Nice work if you can get it.
United turn out week after week in League One lacking urgency, reluctance to push forward with pace from midfield, passing endlessly from side to side and no movement up front. Sloppy goals are conceded with monotonous regularity and the players fail on far too many occasions to take their chances.
Lessons that never seemed to be learned. Surely the manager has to take responsibility for this. As it stands Clough and Unitedites can only hope that despite many shortcomings, for once the club gets the rub of the green and everything works out.
Next season, however, If two Sheffield derbies are once again missing from the calendar, serious questions must be asked. Two great cup runs and a remarkable three months in 2014 mustn’t be allowed to blur the bigger picture.