I WOULD love to have been a fly on the wall in Sheffield United’s dressing room at half time last night. Whatever was said it didn’t have the desired effect. It’s a safe bet, and not for the first time, motivational team talks are not the forte of manager Nigel Clough.
In the space of a 15-minute break his team went from first half heroes to second half zeroes as they sadly reverted to type in the first leg of the League One play-off semi-final.
Responsibility for this must lie at the feet of Clough and his coaching staff. The loss of Chris Basham in midfield, switching to central defence in place of an injured John Brayford who didn’t return for the second half, was a blow. But essentially, the mindset of the team which disappeared down the tunnel after a convincing first 45 minutes wasn’t the same to the one which re-emerged.
It had all started exceptionally well. Unitedites blinked in amazement at what they were seeing. This was Bramall Lane of yesteryear. You could almost imagine Neil Warnock standing in front of the home dugout as the ground shook.
For the first 19 minutes United were off the leash with a vengeance. Football of quality and energy not seen since the first half of the FA Cup semi-final against Hull City at Wembley 13 months ago.
United were on the front foot in a breathtaking opening. Bramall Lane roared it’s appreciation. Swindon Town were visibly shaken by the ferocity of intent. This was like nothing witnessed in League fixtures at the Lane all season. A well drilled first-time shot from Kieron Freeman set United up for an emphatic win. Players, fans and management all in perfect harmony.
The only question on Unitedites’ lips was why don’t we play like this all the time? From that point on the answer began to dribble through. Swindon first snatched and then gathered momentum. By half time they were in the ascendancy. After that United were on the slippery slope, a familiar path that has driven home fans to despair.
ENERGY LEVELS DROPPED
Caution and don’t lose it were the key words. Possession was surrendered. Energy levels dropped. Two needless goals presented on a plate. To the frustration of regular onlookers, United often have to concede before eliciting a response. It didn’t work this time. The Blades were well and truly in lock down by then. Fear, not optimism was key.
The simple equaliser scored by an unmarked Sam Ricketts, whilst well executed, was straight off the how-not-to-defend-a-corner routine on training grounds up and down the country. If that was poor, the second, in the 94th minute was shambolic. Nathan Byrne, allowed time and space all night, directed a tame hit-and-hope ball from 25 yards which caught keeper Mark Howard, who had saved a first-half penalty, unawares. United had lost 2-1.
GRASPING AT STRAWS
Clough, who had spent the match leaning nonchalantly on the side of the dugout, abusing officials with wild gesticulations, or sitting slumped on the bench, bleated about decisions going against his team. His “we should have had three penalties” claim sounded like a man grasping at straws.
Yes, referee Darren Bond made some questionable decisions and failed to spot a handball in the visitors’ box. In truth, however, after weathering an early storm, Swindon recovered and emerged the better footballing side. They were well organised, played with confidence and, crucially, showed no fear.
A draw would have been more representative. The Blades shaded the first half, Swindon won the remainder. But United paid the price for taking their foot off the gas and, ultimately, for basic errors. Just as they have done all season.
This set of players will always make silly mistakes. The evidence for that lies abandoned across an error-strewn campaign. Something the coaching staff have failed miserably to address. Those same individuals are, however, capable of so much more when taking games to opponents. The fans know it, so do the players. United have under achieved for many months in what is, let us not forget, the third tier of English football. The players appear to be operating under a restraining order. Which calls into question the season-long strategy employed by Clough.
He, no doubt, would argue that it was good enough to get United to the play-off semi-finals and the last four of the Capital One Cup.
His critics would offer that it was responsible for 13 League defeats, six of them at home, and falling short of automatic promotion by 20 points. Remember, 32 points were squandered at the Lane.
For a club or manager with ambition that is just not good enough.