SEE MATCH HIGHLIGHTS BELOW
THE PARTY’S over. Enough is enough. Following last night’s play-off semi-final exit at Swindon If Nigel Clough wishes to remain Sheffield United’s manager, hard truths should be made crystal clear to him.
Truths which Clough must either accept or go. Truths which observation suggests may well fall on deaf ears as club and supporters accept the harsh reality of a fifth year in the third tier of English football.
His team have seriously under achieved this season. The reason is three-fold. A negative tactical approach which restricts players’ freedom; failure to assemble a squad fit for purpose in time to launch a serious promotion bid; points squandered against much inferior teams, home and away, that have cost dear. Remember, United fell 20 points short of automatic promotion and dropped 32 at the Lane.
Clough told the Yorkshire Post on the eve of the play-offs: “People ask ‘Is it total failure if we don’t go up?’ We don’t think it is. Other people might judge that differently.” This statement alone from someone in charge of a club which has been in League One for four years, is enough to call into question his suitability for the job.
What followed was equally damning, but truthful. He added: “We are not the finished article, both in terms of numbers and in terms of who we need for the squad even for this league never mind the one above.”
Outrageous. This from a man who has signed 17 players, another four on loan, since the summer and spent £1.5million on a fullback. It is Clough’s job to start the season with a squad capable of promotion and, if necessary, boost it in January for a final push. It is what he is paid for. Clough seems to adopt a more leisurely approach. Time, it appears, is not a pressing matter. Following his cumbersome blueprint, no matter how long it takes, is the priority. Five of those signings have come from or have played for Clough’s old club Derby.
“I think it would be fair to say that if we’d had the players we got in January from the start of the season then we would have been a bit closer to the top two,” Clough admitted. “It is still a team that is developing and growing.”
In the same interview Clough said: “It’s difficult to pick your ideal time to go up. Are we ready or not? Not sure. We are ready enough to get in the top six and have a chance.”
If the manager cannot accept fully all of the criticisms levelled against him and admit that he got it wrong, then the Board should thank him for his efforts, wish him well and part company. If they don’t, they will be led up the garden path while Nigel hones and polishes his trusted managerial handbook.
Sheffield United is much, much bigger than Nigel Clough and his pet projects. It should be pointed out to him his blueprint is not that good. In 17 years of football management, he has won just one honour, a Northern Premier League title with Burton Albion.
'NEGATIVE NIGEL' TAG
He arrived at Bramall Lane with the ‘Negative Nigel’ tag already earned at Derby before they sacked him. nIt’s something he has had to live with this season, not last, and there is a good reason for that. United weren’t negative under his tenure in the previous campaign when he began just over two months in and at the wrong end of the table. They certainly have been in this one.
Some say Clough’s critics ignore, ungratefully, two Cup semi-finals and last season’s dramatic League recovery to finish seventh. I and others like me urge the Board to not let 12 weeks of impressive League form and Cup distractions, however thrilling, cloud the bigger picture.
Defeat, 7-6 on aggregate, 5-5 on the night in a bizarre play-off semi-final second leg at Swindon, means the Blades have to start all over again in August. For a club of United’s size, stature and incredibly loyal fan base that is wholly unacceptable.
The ultimate blame for this dreadful state of affairs must rest with the Board. Since the departure of Neil Warnock in May 2007, they have appointed seven managers, an average of just more than one a year, and have called on the services of three caretakers. John Carver and Chris Morgan, twice.
Clough, however, has been at the Lane for 18 months. He has had ample time and resources to put together a squad capable of regaining Championship status. He hasn’t and has all but admitted as much.
The manager’s stated goal last summer was to win automatic promotion. He didn’t. His next target was play-off qualification. This was achieved, not convincingly, but nevertheless achieved.
United fell at the first hurdle, losing the home leg of their semi-final at the Lane last Thursday. Eighteen minutes into last night’s return leg United were trailing 3-0, 5-1 on aggregate. Whatever the game plan was, it didn’t work. In fact it was blown apart. It didn’t work at home to Crewe (1-2), Fleetwood (1-2), Peterborough (1-2) and Barnsley (0-1) to name but four. It didn’t work at relegated Yeovil (0-1).
United last won a match in this, the business end of the season as we are often reminded, more than a month ago on April 7, at home to Doncaster (3-2). Since then United have played seven times, drawn five and lost two. Against the four relegated sides they could only take 13 points from a possible 24.
That United recovered to draw 5-5, a play-off record, on the night at Swindon is a credit to players’ character. It’s also a reflection of appalling defensive errors made by both sides. It wasn’t a thriller, it was every coach’s nightmare. It's easy to be caught up in the emotion of Monday night and forget that United scored five away goals and it still wasn't good enough to see them through to a Wembley final against Preston.
Of course, managerial change is not easy and there is no guarantee that a replacement will succeed. United more than most know that. The temptation is to stick with what you know. Better to let Clough see out the remainder of his two-and-a-half-year contract in the hope he will finish the job.
There are, however, talented and much more progressive managers out there, and with with track records. A fresh approach, a non reliance on ex-Derby personnel. A man with influence and a better contacts book in order to attract better quality. A style and know-how to give the club a fighting chance of making 2015-16 the final chapter of a long horror story.
That is the dilemma. Should he stay or should he go? Much depends on how Clough responds to a systemic failure which, to date he doesn’t recognise.
If the United’s Board are asking themselves the question, however, to my mind they already have their answer. It is time for a change.