SHEFFIELD UNITED yesterday took the brave decision to sack Nigel Clough and quash the growing fear that it has become a club lacking ambition.
Compelling reasons for terminating the contracts of Clough and his backroom staff are well documented on this website. The suspicion was that deafening silence in the boardroom at Bramall Lane since United’s exit from the League One play-off semi-final two weeks ago, signalled a willingness to gamble on another 12 months of Negative Nigel.
Thankfully it now transpires those 14 days were spent evaluating a season of failure. Yes, apologists who have backed Clough don’t regard as failure a play-off semi-final and reaching the last four of the Capital One Cup. Under normal circumstances and viewed in isolation it wouldn’t be.
History and the people who matter, United fans who have loyally paid to go through the turnstiles week after week for the last five dismal seasons, relegation came in 2010-11, know better. So too, we now discover, do the United Board who year on year count the severe financial cost of life in the third tier of English football. As every season passes there is also a nagging concern the club’s phenomenal core support could be fractured.
I believe it was Clough’s unwillingness to accept this and a denial that the tactics he employed, just as he did at Derby, were negative and ultimately self defeating. The club’s official statement suggested as much, explaining “a change of direction was needed for the forthcoming season.” It is fair to speculate that if Clough had agreed to a more pro-active approach, he may still be doing the job.
Clough is not helped by surrounding himself with a team of sycophants, including his brother. Not once did Clough refer to himself as an individual during his 19 months at the Lane. It was always ‘we’, the backroom team.
It can only be hoped that lone survivor Chris Morgan, the embodiment of what Sheffield United is all about and his own man, has remained that way. Former skipper Morgan, now United’s under-21 coach, appeared to get on well with Clough and No 2 Andy Garner. Morgan as a player and caretaker boss, could never be accused of negativity. His time in the dugout with Clough, however, didn’t have the desired effect.
The easy option for United’s decision makers would have been to labour on in the hope that Clough might get it right next time. Clearly, given Clough’s inability to do this at the first time of asking the Board, like many fans, didn’t have enough faith that he could deliver. That would lead to starting a sixth season in League One.
Some of Clough’s public comments in the run-up to the play-offs were, quite frankly, outrageous, and didn’t help his cause.
For example, claiming it wouldn’t be disaster if United were not promoted or that he still didn’t have a squad “strong enough for this league never mind about the next’, were damning statements. Glaring declarations of failure immediately before United’s two biggest matches of the season, reported as merely quotes and then brushed aside by an unchallenging local media.
The truth is that club and supporters are living in a different time zone to Clough and his back-slapping backroom boys. The same could be said of one member of the local media who has taken back-slapping to a whole new level.
United, entering year five in League One, don’t have any time to play with; Clough needs plenty. Which probably explains why in 17 years of football management spanning three clubs all located within an hour’s drive from home, his only tangible achievement was the Northern Premier League title in 2002 at Burton Albion.
Nigel Clough, a nice guy with some misguided principles, not quite up to the job, a rather sad parochial outlook, a team of yes men and a stubborn belief in his own methods which will continue to be his downfall until he acknowledges this and changes his ways. If he ever does, there is the makings of a successful manager.
So what now for United who are shortly to appoint their eighth manager in as many years? It’s fair to say the Board have been more miss than hit in this department since the departure of Neil Warnock in 2007. It is ultimately their decision-making that is responsible for the club languishing in what amounts to a backwater of English football.
Practise makes perfect and United must absolutely get it right this time. The club’s statement makes it clear that a quick appointment is expected, which suggests someone may already be waiting in the wings.
My preferred choice, although it is unlikely he could be prized away from newly-promoted MK Dons, is Karl Robinson. Coincidentally, he was in talks with United immediately before Clough’s appointment.
Whoever it is will be left in no doubt what is expected – automatic promotion and no drama – so he must be more than equipped to meet that challenge.
A cloud of apprehension has suddenly been lifted from Bramall Lane. Pick the right man now and Unitedites can look forward to a memorable season for all the right reasons.