PHIL JAGEILKA was often taunted by Sheffield United teammates who claimed, tongue-in-cheek, that he was Neil Warnock’s love child.
It came about after members of the squad began to notice the Blades manager appeared to treat the talented defender a little more warmly than the other players. When made aware of what was being bandied about at the training ground Warnock responded in typical fashion by actively encouraging the scurrilous rumour.
On one occasion, for example, when it was teeming with rain at Shirecliffe as the players went through their manoeuvres, Warnock summoned Jageilka to the sidelines and let him watch the remainder of the rain-sodden session sipping a cup of tea under the shelter of the manager’s umbrella whilst the rest of the squad were drenched.
I only mention that because it appears another United defender, John Brayford, enjoys a similar but much more damaging relationship with current boss Nigel Clough. Brayford was a revelation during his loan deal from Cardiff last year in the January transfer window. His attacking runs from right-back and delivery into the box were major contributors to United’s dramatic climb from League One’s basement to finish seventh.
His return in January this year raised a few eyebrows. Not least the reported fee of £1.5million for the 27-year-old – some say £2m – and a three-and-a-half year contact. That’s an extraordinary deal for a club not fond of spending big under any circumstances and especially so while languishing in the third tier of English football.
This at a time when United were desperately short of a reliable goalscorer. Brayford, a firm favourite at the Lane last season, was welcomed back but many United fans, including me, also regarded him as a luxury buy in a position that was well covered.
Brayford has been an ever-present in the League since resuming his United career in a 2-0 victory over Swindon at the Lane at the end of January. But by popular opinion he has been a shadow of the man who so dramatically burst onto the scene 12 months earlier. “I think the weight of expectation is affecting him. He did so well for us last season. He’s just got to relax a little bit and play like he did 12 months ago.” Clough’s words, not mine, in early February.
Despite any discernible improvement Brayford continues to be the first name pencilled in on the team sheet. Injuries to central defenders Terry Kennedy and Jay McEveley have seen Brayford switch to the middle of defence where he has, at best, been adequate and Kieron Freeman filling in at right-back. This despite forgotten man Craig Alcock, who has performed admirably in both positions in the distant past, being the obvious contender for a recall. Indeed, on the evidence seen at the Lane, Alcock is a far superior choice to Brayford in that central role.
The defender, signed from Peterborough last season, has also had to play second fiddle to attacking wide midfield man Ryan Flynn comandeered as an emergency at right-back. Alcock must wonder if has a future at the club after being overlooked for what has been an underwhelming contribution from Brayford who played in that position during his formative days at Burton Albion. Former Blades striker Keith Edwards is on record more than once as saying Brayford is not a centre-back and many agree with that.
To a man United were abysmal in the 1-0 defeat at relegated Yeovil on Tuesday night. The 536 brave souls who made the midweek trip to Somerset vented their anger on players and manager the like of which has rarely been witnessed of Unitedites. But one man emerged with credit in the manager’s opinion. Guess who?
“John Brayford out there was a shining beacon.” Said Clough. “He covered more ground than probably anyone else on that pitch because he was trying to drive people on.” Well you could have fooled those unfortunate enough to be stood in the away end at Huish Park. Even The Star's reporter James Shield was taken by surprise. Apart from the team line-up, Brayford’s name and outstanding performance didn’t merit a mention in his 926-word match report.
Brayford, of course, is a talented player who gives 100 per cent and when in form is a class above League One. Which is why he has been so disappointing. He should be making a more valuable contribution and would surely benefit from the motivational knowledge that he is not a shoe-in.
Clough needs no excuse to drop even in-form players. Under-performing Brayford, by far United’s most expensive signing since the signing of £3m Ched Evans in 2009, appears to be the only squad member granted immunity.
You have to ask why this is so of a man who has played under Clough at Burton, Derby County and now Bramall Lane. The extraordinary size of the transfer fee? Or maybe a personal friendship which has led to a misjudgment that is not serving club or player?