NIGEL ADKINS talks a good game. Despite having yet to see a blade of grass at Bramall Lane – the pitch is being replaced – and enduring an enforced wait until the end of the month to meet his squad for the first time, Sheffield United’s new manager has already set the bar high.
Too high some might say. For me it can’t be high enough. It’s easy to talk, of course. Apart from finding a new home, bending Billy Sharp’s ear and acquainting himself with new surroundings and backroom staff, there’s not much else for Adkins to do. Other than talk up the job in front of him.
He hasn’t failed on that score. A recent gathering of local media invited by Adkins to Bramall Lane was a shrewd move. A man who showed a genuine interest in how it all worked from their point of view, as well as making sure his side of the inevitable bargain was clearly heard, is the mark of a man who knows where he is going and is comfortable in his own skin.
As far as United supporters are concerned, Adkins’ rhetoric might be predictable but it is also refreshing given the last 24-months-worth of enthusiasm-sapping reticence and caution uttered by the previous two managers. Neither of whom had won three promotions from League One.
The elusive goal, of course, is to be playing Championship football next season after what would be an absence of five very long years. Who would have thought amongst the 22,000-plus crowd at the Lane watching a 2-2 draw with Barnsley on April 30, 2011, at least half a decade would pass before another home fixture at that level.
Four managers and two caretaker stints by Chris Morgan later, leaves United with no room for excuses. Adkins knows this even though his job is more secure than those he has succeeded in the third tier at the Lane. I say that on the basis that United can’t keep sacking managers.
If he produces entertaining football but, unlike Nigel Clough, misses the objective, chances are, unlike Clough, he will be granted a second opportunity. Unless he falls well short of the mark, as did Clough, to do otherwise would make the club a laughing stock.
Adkins, however, is ebullient about United’s prospects of winning promotion in his first season. He is also confident about once again managing in the Premier League. Cynics may claim ‘well he would say that wouldn’t he’. It’s not a bad strategy, either, for keeping his paymasters happy by selling a few extra season tickets during the summer months.
He doesn’t, however, have to raise expectation further by promising come what may that Bramall Lane, to paraphrase with a little licence, is about to become League One’s Theatre of Dreams. There is rarely a dull moment for Blades fans but entertainment value, cup runs aside, has been in short supply for almost as long as rationing was in World War Two.
“It’s an entertainment business after all,” said Atkins. “We want the people who work hard to come and watch us to feel that they are getting value for money. Part of that is the atmosphere inside our stadium and everything that goes with it. The whole experience.”
Adkins could never be accused of a reluctance to set mantraps, even if he is the likely victim. But given his record with Southampton, back-to-back promotions to the Premier League, and Scunthorpe where he secured Championship football for a club with scarce resources, United’s new manager speaks with authority.
The elephant in the room is Adkins’ 20-month reign at Reading. Arriving in March 2013 to replace Brian McDermott, he couldn’t halt their relegation from the Premier League. Adkins was sacked last December after a 6-1 home defeat against Birmingham which left Reading 16th in the Championship, 10 points adrift of the play-offs.
It was a blemish on an otherwise outstanding managerial career which began in the League of Wales with Bangor City. Reading supporters might not agree but what sets Adkins apart is that he has the attitude of a winner. A quality in short supply around the city of Sheffield.
It is an under-performing city and by coincidence its two under-performing football clubs reflect that. The character and resilience of the people who live in Sheffield are its strength. The root cause for mediocrity is being led by poor decision makers with a lack of vision, leadership and determination to succeed.
There is a reason why the proposed redevelopment of the city centre is still in its early stages while many parts of Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle have long since been transformed.
Sheffield is the home of a world game known as football. It could be a mecca for tourists, instead of bingo, who for years visited Preston to see the National Football Museum and, more recently, the ubiquitous Manchester.
Like the city’s leaders, for far too long Sheffield United and Wednesday have been complacent. Second best will do. In my 58-year lifetime as a Blade the only ‘major’ title won was that of Division Four in 1982. If you include my late dad, who was born in 1927, add the Second Division championship of 1953. After four years of misery in League One, United’s average gate last season was 19,805. Remarkable. Wednesday’s, in the Championship and also starved of success, was 21,992.
Talking up the city and its expectations as well as delivering tangible progress for its citizens, is long overdue. The same goes for its football clubs. The long-term economic plan, to coin an overused phrase, isn’t working. Sheffield’s inertia means it is missing out to rivals on vital growth and investment.
Wednesday, and more acutely United, are becoming poorer year on year by not being competitive enough to jostle for the riches that top level football has to offer. The consequence is a diminishing status in the game and a difficulty to attract quality players.
I’m not at all sure about Wednesday’s prospects, but in Adkins United have appointed a seriously ambitious manager who isn’t afraid to say so. A winner, like all winners, risks falling flat on his face. The safe option means a lifetime of ifs, buts and maybes.
There are those who only three weeks ago claimed that an outstanding cup run and defeat in the play-off semi-finals represented progress. Utter nonsense when put in perspective. Not if it means a fifth year in League One it isn’t
Adkins for all his talk has to deliver. He’s won hearts and minds. Now he has to do the tricky bit and win the battle. Cometh the hour cometh the man. Few would bet against him.