THREE events shook Bramall Lane last week. First came the news of 68-year-old former winger Alan Woodward’s death in his adopted home of Tulsa, Oklahoma. A truly legendary figure in S2.
Then the sudden departure of manager Nigel Clough was announced, sacked after 19 months in charge of team affairs. If that wasn’t enough to digest, two days later James Shield, correspondent for The Star on all matters Sheffield United, broke his self imposed golden rule and finally came off the fence.
Yes, honestly, I’m not making it up. Tuesday, May 26, 2015, it was there in black and white across pages 38 and 39 under the headline ‘Yet another manager bites the Lane dust’. The man who has made it his business to steadfastly support manager and club whatever the circumstances during his years observing United, lashed out with a reasoned, well-penned opinion.
‘Sheffield United’, he began, ‘is the club that knows where it wants to be but seemingly no idea how to get there. The club thrashing around in the dark hoping to find an escape route into the Championship. The club, following Nigel Clough’s departure, now searching for its eighth manager since being relegated from the top flight in 2007 and third after a new ownership structure was unveiled less than two full seasons ago.
‘A woeful, thoroughly lamentable track record of capriciousness and incongruity which, more than anything else, explains why United are still in League One’.
Leave aside United began as an ‘is’ and turned into an ‘are’. Forceful words from Shield who normally won’t say boo to a goose where United are concerned. If you haven’t seen the article you can read it here. For any self respecting journalist there is no merit to ingratiating oneself with the very people one is supposed to hold to account in order to secure an easy life.
Which prompted my article in March questioning, tongue-in-cheek, who exactly was Shield’s paymaster. Read it here. So from a professional point of view his outrage is a welcome departure from the customary daily dose of platitudes and statements of the blindingly obvious dressed up as news stories.
As one who welcomes the sacking of Clough, I can’t agree with the reason which made Shield pull the trigger. 007 pun, for readers of my earlier article, unintended. There is, however, no disputing the historical facts which fuelled his outburst, namely the appointment of an eighth manager in as many years is not the way to run a football club. Or anything else for that matter.
Shield’s concluded, ‘whoever is responsible for rubber-stamping managerial appointments keeps making, by their own tacit admission, duff calls. A direct attack on co-owner Kevin McCabe who has been fully responsible for most of them and, in recent times, shared the burden.
Buoyed by the reawakening of what good journalism is all about, The Star’s man followed up the next day with ‘Why United should study their history’, using the club’s former PR slogan ‘The Blades Way’ as his starting point. Good stuff.
Which begs the question why has it taken our James so long to demonstrate he is not the club’s unofficial PR man? The same question may have crossed his boss’s mind, too.
Only Shield knows the answer to that. Maybe it was born from frustration. Despite being billed as the man on the inside at Bramall Lane, he like the rest of us clearly had no idea of what was about to happen.
Or maybe given his refusal to challenge Clough on any issue, he was angered by the sudden departure of someone with whom he enjoyed a cosy relationship.
It could, of course, have been an order from the boss but hopefully he was just doing what a good journalist should do. As a United fan who reads The Star every day long may it continue.
Rather puzzling, though, In a video interview which followed, Shield, who Clough could always depend on to give him an easy time, listed good reasons why United took the decision to sack the manager.
“The distance between Sheffield United and the top two in the table was obviously an area of concern and was a disappointment,” he said. “There were a few other things that had gone on during the course of the season.” (Really, what were they and why didn’t you report them?)
He added: “There is obviously still a lot of work to do and that is why the Board, the ownership has been led to taking the decision that it did. They did spend a lot of money last season, more than they would have liked to have spent, hoping it was going to get them promoted.
“And obviously there are certain positions in the squad, key positions, centre-half and centre-forward that do need addressing.”
He continued: “I think there are certain things his successor is going to have to look to do. To rectify the defensive problems is one. Dare I say a little more rebalancing of the budget. There are going to be players, even if it’s an in-house appointment, they don’t want that are possibly still under contract at the club.
Shield closed with words that, when closely examined, were damning of the regime he had supported so strongly. “I still don’t think they’re [United] a million miles off,” he said. “It’s just (just!) the spine of the side and, being in League One as well, bringing a little more presence to the team. Two centre-halves and a centre-forward, someone capable of bringing real sense of presence and power to that team.”
So there we have it, straight from the horse’s mouth. Clough was in charge for 19 months and the only problem was the spine (the most important bit) of the team. After all that time the manager had not resolved defensive problems.
They are lacking two centre-halves – hello, Neill Collins, a leader, dumped in October and eventually loaned to Port Vale – and a capable centre-forward. An acknowledgement that Clough failed on that score, too.
Add to the now growing list of Shield’s new-found disenchantment, Clough spent more money than was expected on players, some of whom are under contract and the club don’t want.
All in all a bit of a mess. I just wonder why Shield never thought to mention any of this before, choosing instead to make crass statements about those supporters who showed concern about the very issues he chooses to mention now.
Thankfully Clough is history. There’s a clean slate. It remains to be seen if Shield will keep up the good work. I hope so but don’t hold your breath.