ONE WINNER has already emerged from Bramall Lane without a ball being kicked in anger and that’s Neill Collins.
It was clear from last night’s Meet the Manager event at Bramall Lane new manager Nigel Adkins has high hopes central defender Collins, who he described as a model professional, will start the season as a key player in his promotion strategy. Maybe as captain. So too, is Chris Basham, another “model professional and role model”. Adkins favours him in midfield but that will probably depend on the success of re-enforcement at the back alongside Collins.
Adkins revealed he has identified a six-man leadership team in the squad and Collins appears to be a big part of that.
He, of course, was effectively banished from the club last October after a row with former manager Nigel Clough. A behind-the-scenes storm covered up by the local Press. We also learn this morning from the main culprit of the whitewash that United’s Board was seriously concerned about Clough’s “increasingly dictatorial approach” prior to the play-off semi-finals in May.
The Star reports: “Although Adkins has tactfully refused to be drawn on the reign of his predecessor, the 50-year-old’s brief, as instructed by United’s board of directors, includes establishing better relationships between the coaching and playing staff.”
Adkins certainly engaged with the 200 season ticket holders who had paid to attend the question and answer session last night. Much was learned about the Liverpudlian as well as what might unfold over the next ten months.
He didn’t flinch from giving straight answers to straight questions. Is the squad that United have at the moment good enough to win promotion? “No,” was the short reply.
Revealingly, Adkins said he was disappointed about the “condition” of his players generally but not their attitude, which suggests that his fitness regime is much tougher than what went before.
There was also a hint of the style of football fans can expect to see at Bramall Lane. “We need this place to be rocking,” he said. “We need an atmosphere to go hell for leather to break the opposition down.”
There will be no public criticism of his players in direct contrast to Clough’s morale-sapping habit. “If people are having a bad time, there will be no hanging them out to dry because if they make a mistake its an honest one,” said Adkins. “I would like to think that anyone wearing a Sheffield United shirt is going to have a right go. If they make a mistake it will be an honest one, by trying to do something, by trying to win games, by trying to force a pass. I need players to be brave, rather than timid.”
His recollection of injuries limiting his playing career to 336 league appearances in goal for Tranmere, Wigan and Bangor City was quite horrendous. Damaged cheek bones, a double fracture of the spine, knee problems, broken fingers and a thumb. “I was classed as 13 per cent disabled,” said Adkins. “Another one per cent and I think I would have qualified for invalidity benefit.” After damaging a second cheek bone at Wigan, his sight diminished. “The lads kept the ball away from me because they knew I couldn’t see it,” he told his audience.
MINI BUS DRIVER
Then there were tales of his time as manager at Bangor, where he won the League of Wales, when he used to drive a mini bus before matches collecting his players from building sites and other places of work before heading off to the ground. “I was always insistent that afterwards we had an hour together and a few beers,” he said.
If United were only looking for a man to unify what is increasingly beginning to like a divided and at times unhappy camp under the previous management, then it is clear as to why Adkins ticks all the boxes. He came across as honest, warm and with a good sense of humour some of which, because of it’s dry delivery, wasn’t always picked up.
He is a supremely confident individual with a positive outlook which suggests United will have a very different approach next season. Adkins insisted he wasn’t a one trick pony. He had a variable game plans, three in particular.
He added: “To win, you need to score goals and keep clean sheets. A book called The Numbers Games confirms you need to keep clean sheets. It’s looked a stats at the top level all over Europe for the last 20 years and particularly the Football League.” Worryingly for Unitedites, the tome co-written by a former goalkeeper in Germany turned football statistician, has a familiar echo.
Subtitled ‘Why everything you know about football is wrong’, it offers: “You'll discover why stopping a goal is more valuable than scoring one. Why corners should be taken short (Ugh!) and why it is better to improve your worst player than to buy a superstar.”
“You need 86 goals,” was Adkins’ precise definition of what is the job in hand. “For us to be successful we need 21 clean sheets. The principle is simple, it you’ve got the ball the opposition can’t score and you can.”
United have a relatively small squad when it comes to height and presence. That is something Adkins plans to rectify. “I’m looking to improve every area,” he said “We want to get it done now, but there will be movement right up until end of the transfer window.
“Thirty per cent of goals come from set plays, so that is high on our agenda. I think we need six players big enough to compete.”
Adkins also knows he has to move players on to help balance the wage bill. As part of his assessment he has staged one-on-one 30-minute talks with every member of the first team squad. “You can have too many players,” he said. “We’ll be honest with them if they are not in the team they move on.”
Adkins made the unlikely claim there are “six or seven clubs that have bigger budgets in this division”, although he later declined the opportunity to name any of them. But asked if he had the financial resources to ensure promotion, he revealed that club owners Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe are due in the UK to talk about the future.
Acknowledging there is a budget and it was pointless just throwing money away, he added: “We’ve [the management team] got to push it as much as we can. I’ve got to be able to compete for players that will improve what we’ve already got.” In what sounded like a message to the Board, he said: “We’ve got to give ourselves a chance to go up. That’s what everyone’s desire has to be.”
It was job well done for United’s new boss who received a standing ovation from his audience before shaking a few hands and posing for pictures. His stock is high but the honeymoon is almost over. To reach this point again he knows he will have to deliver promotion.
Of more concern to one supporter was Adkins’ frank admission that he has yet to learn the Greasy Chip Buttie Song. But fear not. He promised: “At the first home match I’ll be tapping along with it.”