SO WHAT have we learned over the last 12 months? A great deal more than any Sheffield United supporter could have imagined.
In early July 2014 expectation was rising as the squad was put through its pre-season training programme. The Blades, after a terrible start to the previous campaign, had rallied to finish seventh in League One.
Even more remarkably they came within 45 minutes of reaching an FA Cup final. Everything appeared to be in place to build on that.The stated ambition of club and manager alike was automatic promotion. The Board was confident the Blades were moving in the right direction and judging by season ticket sales, so were their supporters.
ON THE FRONTLINE
Fast forward to present day and the same squad which took United to the League One play-off semi-finals and a Capital One Cup semi-final has reconvened to be assessed once more. Expectation is high. The stated ambition of club and manager alike is automatic promotion. The Board is confident United are moving in the right direction and, judging by season ticket sales, so are their supporters. What’s changed?
The answer, of course, is newly appointed manager Nigel Adkins and his backroom staff. Such a lot rests on their shoulders and Adkins’ welcome can-do attitude has ramped up belief that 2015-16 is the season when United will finally escape five years of being stranded in football’s wilderness. He talks a good game, crucially has a record to match the rhetoric and enjoys the total support of Blades fans. Not a bad start.
There are many lessons to be learned from last season. The biggest of those is to begin with a workforce capable of achieving the objective and to strengthen where needed in the January transfer window. Not the other way round.
Into week two with his inherited squad and less than five weeks from kick-off, time is of the essence. As Lane regulars know to their anguish many recurring issues of the past have largely been ignored. Adkins has to work quickly to address them. A fresh tactical approach may go a long way to solving many of those problems. Anyone who thinks United’s current squad is good enough, however, is kidding themselves. The spine of the side needs an urgent overhaul.
Since Ched Evans was jailed for rape in April 2012, for example, United have never replaced him or come anywhere near to it. In season 2011-12 when they missed automatic promotion by three points and were beaten in the play-off final on penalties, United hit the back of the net 92 times. Two players scored 42 between them – Evans bagged 29, Lee Williamson 13 – as the Blades finished with a goal difference of plus 41.
Welsh international Evans was a natural striker, a talisman with a goalscorer’s instinct. United haven’t had one since and for the last three seasons it has remained an open sore. A quick look at the statistics bears this out. In 2012-13 United scored just 56 times and had a goal difference of plus 14; 2013-14, only 48 (+2); 2014-15, 66 (+13). Top league goalscorers during this period were Nick Blackman and Dave Kitson, 11 (2012-13); Chris Porter, 7 (2013-14); Jamie Murphy 11, (2014-15).
Marc McNulty could be a hidden gem if given the chance. He still managed to find the net 13 times, United's top scorer in all competitions despite being denied a regular start.
A striker’s quota can only be met if their is plentiful supply which is why a more serious concern is central midfield. United have failed so often to win the midfield battle. As a result, there is precious little service to the frontline and an increased workload on defence. Result; fewer opportunities to score and more invitations to concede unnecessarily. In a nutshell, United’s default position for much of their stay in League One.
Murphy, United's Player of the Year, is at his most effective running onto the ball approaching the box. His trademark strikes, much admired by other clubs, have come from that position. Supply, however, is so limited and in any case the previous manager preferred to deploy him as a provider on the flanks.
A holding midfielder who can influence the game, slow it down, speed it up, retain possession and make the difficult look easy would transform United. As would an attacking midfield partner supporting the frontline and capable of scoring himself.
Finding players of that quality willing to play in football’s third tier is, I acknowledge, a challenge. It’s not impossible. As the late, great Bill Shankly once observed: “Football is a simple game based on the giving and taking of passes, of controlling the ball and of making yourself available to receive a pass. It is terribly simple.”
Successive managers have relied on Michael Doyle, released in May and now beginning a new life at Portsmouth, to play that holding role. It’s not difficult to understand why. Doyle was a reliable captain and workhorse who gave 100 per cent. He made 231 appearances and scored 10 goals during many difficult times for the Blades. The downside was he had restricted vision and lacked the quality of a stand-out performer.
LACK OF PACE
As for an attacking partner, well the Blades really haven’t had a player of that description since Kevin McDonald. Ex-boss David Weir was building his team around McDonald before the player suddenly left for Wolves.
What they have maintained religiously in recent years, however, is a chronic lack of pace. United are painfully pedestrian on the break. Almost deliberately so last season which again, may be attributed to a cautious tactical approach. Watching United break out is often akin to being on a slow escalator and realising it would have been quicker to walk.
The potential of players who do have a turn of speed, such as Ryan Flynn, Murphy and Stefan Scougall, is often squandered by their teammates’ reluctance to leave second gear.
Then there is central defence. Another area which has been neglected. The gaping hole left by Harry Maguire's departure to Hull last summer was huge. The previous regime made it bigger by casting aside Maguire's partner and mentor Neill Collins following a behind-the-scenes row. New signing Andy Butler was dispatched three months after he had arrived on a two-year contract, presumably under similar circumstances. Butler made one appearance and scored.
Jay McEveley started at left-back but faltered as he and Chris Basham, the latter much better in midfield, failed to establish an understanding as centre-halves. Youngster Terry Kennedy who has come through United’s academy, looks promising. But he is injury prone and a work in progress. Craig Alcock, meanwhile, who performed well at right-back and central defence when given the chance, was largely overlooked.
With all this to contend with another right-back was not a priority. But United bought one, John Brayford, for £1.5million on a three-and-a-half-year contract. Amazing. There is no doubt Brayford, currently injured with knee ligament damage, is an asset if a rather expensive one. At least, however, the myth regularly put about by his previous boss that the player was outstanding deputising as an emergency centre-half, can be put to bed.
So much happened last season it is easy to forget that United dominated national news headlines for all the wrong reasons when former Blades striker Evans was released from prison in October after serving half of his five-year sentence following a conviction for rape. A shameful chapter in the club’s history and the the subject of prolonged, heated and repeated debate across the land and on political TV programmes such as the BBC’s Question Time and Newsnight.
What is clear from the whole avoidable saga is that the club’s decision to allow Evans to train at Shirecliffe was nothing to do with “a duty of care” for a former employee who, by the way, just happened to be a prolific goalscorer. Or being a standard bearer for British justice that said Evans, who is now awaiting a Criminal Case Reviews Commission decision as to whether he can appeal his conviction on the grounds of new evidence, was therefore entitled to resume his life unhindered.
No, it is reasonable to assume that Evans, was the long-planned missing piece to resolve United’s lack of fire power up front. Given his circumstances, wages wouldn't be an issue either. It was expected he would resume from where he had left off.
Why else was it reported that three United managers, Danny Wilson, David Weir and Nigel Clough, and co-owner Kevin McCabe had all felt it necessary to visit a convicted rapist in prison? Claims that have never been denied.
Why else would McCabe, as reported in the Sunday Times and again unchallenged, haveallegedly paid £170,000 out of his own pocket to Evans to meet the financial loss of the cancellation of his contract at Bramall Lane?
Whatever one’s views, it is indisputable that United scored a spectacular own goal and dragged the name of the club through the mud around the world. There was no inherent need to be dealing with a man which a court of law had judged to be a rapist. The idea that United's actions were motivated by a genuine social calling to aid an individual's rehabilitation into society, as was claimed at the time, is straying into the realms of fantasy. It was only financial pressure from anxious sponsors that brought the management reluctantly to its senses. Convenient, so-called principle evaporated when the prospect of lost revenue became a reality.
It also calls into question United’s apparently naive media department and the advice, if any, that was being given to decision makers. Indeed, is the Lane's media operation capable of dealing with much more than arranging press passes? The senior management’s verdict? “It went beyond any bounds that we might have imagined. We didn’t expect the response would be as it was.” Really? I, along with many others in the media, could have pre-warned them of the blindingly obvious. In fact I did but was ignored.
EXCELLED IN CUP
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. Young midfielder Louis Reed emerged to establish himself as a first team squad member. He was capped four times for England Under-18s. Another midfield youngster, Che Adams signed from Northern Premier League Ilkeston, shows great promise as he demonstrated so spectacularly with United's goals against Tottenham in the 2-2 Capital One Cup semi-final second leg thriller at the Lane in January. Callum McFadzean, on loan at Burton Albion, won a Scotland Under-21 cap.
In the league there was a memorable 3-1 win at eventual champions Bristol City and a comprehensive 2-0 dismissal of Barnsley at Oakwell. It was in cup competition once again, however, against Premier League opposition when United, playing without fear, excelled.
A sweet Capital One Cup victory at West Ham, the first time the two clubs had met since the Carlos Tevez controversy when the Blades were relegated from the Premier League in 2007. Another top flight scalp, Southampton, at the Lane to book the two-legged semi-final against Spurs who only just edged through 3-2 on aggregate. There was also a remarkable 3-0 win in the FA Cup third round at QPR.
In truth, however, United's cup triumphs were nothing more than a welcome sideshow. Bizarrely, they only served to highlight deep-rooted inadequacies in what was otherwise a bitterly disappointing season.
A line has now been drawn in the sand. A new era awaits and expectation has rarely been higher. No pressure then. Over to you, Mr Adkins.