DEFEAT tonight against League One leaders Burton Albion would be unacceptable on so many levels it’s difficult to know where to begin.
The return of former Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough only nine months since he was sacked turns what has already become a hot potato for the Blades into a pressure cooker.
Clough, appointed Brewers boss in December, couldn’t have written the script better himself. Nigel Adkins, his successor, will have everything crossed that Clough’s 13th match in charge of Burton is unlucky.
Two managers will stand side by side on the touchline at Bramall Lane. Positive Nigel and Negative Nigel. Embarrassingly for Adkins and United co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, it is Clough who can claim the moral high ground. It remains for Adkins to prove otherwise.
Striker Billy Sharp aside, he has brought nothing to the unbalanced squad he inherited. Even today's signing of Alex Baptiste on loan from Middlesbrough is something of a gamble given the 30-year-old has yet to play this season after breaking a leg in pre-season.
Most of the problems under Clough that so infuriated fans – and as it turned out the Board – remain intact. Unless the Blades win promotion, which most regard as unlikely, the man handed his P45 so suddenly at the end of last May would have every right to claim ‘you should have stuck with me’.
He would point to two cup semi-finals and a play-off semi-final as evidence that the reconstruction project to restore Championship football at the Lane was working. Many supporters who had to watch it being built and despite what is unquestionably an impressive record, will say otherwise. A view which confounds some media critics most of whom were not regulars in the Press box.
The major contributor to Clough’s dismissal, however, wasn’t his record on the pitch or a shambolic play-off semi-final defeat. It was his divisive, stubborn nature which caused major rifts within the squad and a refusal to accept that not winning promotion with the resources he had at his disposal must be regarded as failure.
Managerial issues aside, tonight’s meeting regardless of the outcome, calls into question the fundamental judgment of McCabe and Prince Abdullah. Burton, a small club from a small town with a budget and fanbase to match, were a League Two club this time last year.
Under good leadership from above and Clough’s predecessor Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, a meteoric rise has put them on the brink of the Championship. Not only that, with 14 matches remaining, Burton are looking most likely to achieve it via the automatic route.
What are Burton doing that Sheffield United, a giant in comparison, are not? Indeed, with all due respect to Burton, it’s embarrassing. It also suggests that eight managers in as many years wasn’t the problem. Maybe it rests with those who set the direction in the first place.
McCabe and Prince Abdullah should have a good look in the mirror.
And what about the business of the evening. Prior to kick-off United are four points shy of the sixth promotion place. But that is a misleading statistic which masks inconsistencies which would otherwise have proved fatal.
It’s only down to the implosion of Coventry City, in sixth, who have taken just five points from their last seven matches including four defeats, that United’s season remains alive.
Which makes victory tonight imperative. Blades fans can only hope the stars have aligned. Burton arrive at the Lane without a win in two matches and a 0-0 draw at home to promotion rivals Walsall at the weekend was the first time they have failed to score since Clough arrived.
We know only too well that the Lane’s former boss will already have settled in his mind for a clean sheet and another point. Anything gained on the break is a bonus.
That leaves an opportunity firmly at United’s feet. The question is can they take it?