HOW ABOUT this for a rallying call. “We can’t really win it on Thursday night so much but we could certainly lose it.” And Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough wonders why he is accused of being negative.
If ever a match epitomised what is troubling many Sheffield United supporters it was last Sunday’s conclusion to the scheduled League One programme at Bramall Lane.
Clough’s comments, looking ahead to United’s first play-off semi-final date against Swindon at Bramall Lane, only added to the uncomfortable feeling that United are in for a bumpy ride.
Just consider those words again. We can’t win it but we could lose it. How retrograde is that? Take a two of three-goal lead to the County Ground next Monday evening and, barring catastrophe, United would be well on the way to winning it and very unlikely to lose. That's the positive view and should surely be the objective.
It would, however, involve taking the match to Swindon which, in Clough’s mindset means unnecessary risk. This despite being played in front of by far the biggest and most intimidating crowd at this level. The average League attendance at Bramall Lane during the campaign was 19,805 a number that will be bettered on Thursday evening.
There was nothing in a 1-1 home draw against fellow play-off contenders Chesterfield to ease the anxiety of nervous Blades followers now looking at an end-of-season lottery which will condemn three teams to another season in English football’s third tier.
Here was a chance for United to put on a show. The opportunity to make a statement of intent in front of 26,078 supporters. “We want to go out on a high,” said rested defender Chris Basham before the match. “We’ve drawn our last two games even though we’ve done well in all of them (editor’s note ???!!!) and so it’s an important game in that regard.”
Basham omitted to say that in the preceding fixtures, United lost at relegated Yeovil and had to fight back from two goals down for a draw at Oldham. Four matches and only three points from 12. That’s how well you and your teammates had done, Chris.
Another example of recurring issues at the Lane. Players have fed fans meaningless platitudes with monotonous regularity, failing to back them up on too many occasions. Some of the first team squad appear to be painfully naive, if not deluded, and have bigger opinions of themselves than many of their opponents.
Sunday’s performance – incidentally Chris, that is now four points from 15 – was indicative of what draws, no pun intended, accusations that Clough adopts a negative approach. A claim, we are told, which annoys him intensely.
The encounter, was, as usual, all about maintaining a shape. Allowing Chesterfield to have possession but blocking avenues to penetrate, then catching the Spireites on the counter-attack. Except United are slow to break, pedestrian at times. When they do succeed it’s often thanks to long balls seeking out a lone front runner. Nothing wrong with that apart from by the time support has arrived in the opposing half, let alone the box, the opposition have had time to regroup.
The basis behind this approach has famously worked in United’s well documented Cup exploits against Premier League teams who adopt a similar style. When United are allowed time on the ball they are more effective. In League One they are not allowed the luxury.
When United play it out, more often than not the momentum stops around the halfway line in favour of sideway passes or back. Possession is needlessly given away, as was the case again on Sunday with Kieron Freeman a particular culprit. Ideas from midfield are in short supply. Playing marked men into trouble is a speciality.
MOST TELLING CONTRIBUTION
John Brayford at centre-half again proved why he should be at right-back where he belongs. Where is long-out-of-favour Neill Collins when you want him? On loan at Port Vale. Craig Alcock once more left on the bench. Ironically, even Brayford found the confines of a role in which he is average at best, too much to bear at times. He made his most telling contributions when neglecting his post and breaking down the right in a more customary role.
Apart from lone ranger Marc McNulty’s superbly struck shot to give United the lead, precious little was created. Chesterfield, meanwhile, slick and with pace and energy, dominated for much of the match and produced the most chances. It was, however, another of United’s season-long bugbears, conceding sloppy goals, that earned the Spireites a point.
Given Negative (allegedly) Nigel’s preoccupation with holding shape, it’s disconcerting that poor marking and positioning have led to so many needless balls finding a way into United’s net.
And so to Clough’s call to arms once it had been established that fourth-placed Swindon will be arriving at the Lane.
As well as confirming that United can’t win the tie but can lose it on Thursday night, Clough told BBC Radio Sheffield: “I thought Chesterfield played very well today. We started the first 20 minutes fine but they got on top. After that we didn’t have enough going forward.”
An accurate assessment but also a damning one that has become all too familiar. Who is responsible for that?
That malaise was also reflected on the club’s website. Having just dropped another two points at home, bringing the the total to an unacceptable 32, its verdict began with an air of indifference: “Nigel Clough was happy enough” it cheerily proclaimed and quotes him as saying United “deservedly got something from the game.” Well that’s alright then, assuming not much was expected in the first place.
Speaking to Radio Sheffield and looking ahead to the visit of Swindon, he said: “We need to try and get a lead but certainly not lose the game.”
Of course, there is a possibility of United and Chesterfield meeting in the final. “It would be lovely if we could all have a nice day out at Wembley,’ said Clough.
Nice! Along with 30,000 plus other Blades who have made three trips to play-off finals at Wembley and one visit to the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, all of which ended in defeat and not a goal scored in open play, I think someone should point out to the manager there is nothing “nice” about going to Wembley for these occasions. The coming home is even worse if you’re on the losing side.
Of course, as gut-wrenching as it will be, I hope I am in North London on May 24 to see United win their passport back to the Championship. It’s a big ask and we really shouldn’t have to be considering going there in the first place.
Clough’s United have failed once this season by not achieving the stated objective of automatic promotion. Little more than two months ago Clough claimed it was still a real possibility. Supporters smiled. They knew otherwise. United fell short by…20 points.
A huge margin especially as assorted players are always keen to remind us of what a big club United are; how the infrastructure and training facilities are fantastic; how much quality and strength of character there is in the squad; how great Blades fans are at propelling the team, the 12th man, and how great the gaffer is.
The hope now is instead of all this hot air, United start on the front foot, take the play-offs by the scruff of the neck and deliver.
I sincerely hope I am wrong, but the cautious noises coming out of Bramall Lane suggest otherwise.