CONFUSED? You will be if you read the back page of The Star this morning.
Nigel Clough rubbished suggestions that Sheffield United adopt a safety-first approach. “Blades always attack” trumpeted the headline. His comments follow mounting criticism of the manager for what the majority of fans view as an over eagerness to adopt negative tactics when matches are there to be won.
This is not a new phenomenon. It is something supporters have struggled to understand ever since the first ball was kicked in anger last August. Gone is the can-do attitude of last season that saw United’s rise from the wrong end of League One to finish seventh, thanks to a thrilling final three months of the season. Instead we now have a don’t-do-if-it-presents-a-risk approach.
This transformation has been brought about by the same man who engineered two breathtaking league runs last season and a thrilling FA Cup campaign. The first, beginning in February with eight league wins and a draw. The second, an eight-match unbeaten spell to finish the campaign on a high with four wins and four draws.
Sandwiched between that second flourish was an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley where United led 2-1 against Premier League Hull City and were 45 minutes from the final. Crucially, management, team and fans arrived in north London with confidence high. United produced their best football I have witnessed for many years during that memorable first half which was of little surprise to Lane regulars amongst the 30,000 Blades who filled the east end of the ground. As we know, they were undone after the break and went down to a 5-3 defeat but still emerged with enormous credit and with it hopes reinforced for the season to follow.
TOO MANY MISTAKES
Fast forward almost a year side then and what do we see now. An edgy, over-cautious side, afraid to impose itself for fear of mistakes and flirting with the possibility of failing to secure a play-off place. That fear of making mistakes is born out of making far too many of them already, aided and abetted by Clough’s play-it-safe philosophy.
Following last Saturday's shocking defeat by Crewe he is quoted in today’s Star as saying: “We have been criticised for having this don’t lose attitude but people misinterpret it as being negative.” He adds: “When we got it back to 1-1 we are entitled to go on and not lose the game.”
Think about it. Trailing at home to Crewe is bad enough. They arrived at the Lane fourth from bottom of the League and having equalised with 35 minutes left on the clock, United ‘are entitled to go on and not lose the game’. How negative is that? The Cheshire club had previously suffered three back-to-back defeats and started with goal difference of minus 33. If United do make the play-offs, it’s hardly the confidence-building attitude that Blades fans took with them down the M1 last April.
While United remain in the running for a return to the Championship Clough’s negativity allows him the luxury of pointing a finger and saying to his growing number of critics ‘trust me, you’ve got it all wrong’. I hope he is right. If Clough falls short, however, he’s in for a rude awakening and he will have no one to blame but himself.