DEFEAT against Burton Albion provided a steep learning curve. Not for Sheffield United’s loyal supporters but for manager Nigel Adkins, his players and many members of the media.
The manner in which the Blades layed down and died at the feet of League One leaders Burton Albion was nothing short of disgraceful. It was even worse than the home defeat to Shrewsbury in November, previously regarded as the season’s low point. Even Adkins now admits that lack of character “is becoming more evident.”
There could be no excuses and Adkins knew it. Dropping his guard he could scarcely hide his anger and was openly critical of his players. Something that former manager Nigel Clough was too fond of, but Adkins had always vowed not to follow suit.
What happened at Bramall Lane was met with shock by many in the Press pack. Quite where they have been for the last two seasons is a mystery. United fans were as unhappy with largely the same set of players in the last campaign as they are in this.
The reason is simple. It was never more evident than on Tuesday night but those same failings have been on view for two seasons. Seven home league defeats to date says it all. Last season’s inadequacies were almost identical, masked by a great cup run.
Six home defeats including those against Fleetwood, Crewe and Barnsley. A nervous scrap to secure a play-off place and a shambolic display in the semi-final tie, conceding seven goals, against a Swindon team steamrollered 4-0 by Preston at Wembley. It should not be forgotten either that United finished 20 points shy of automatic promotion.
The Blades are as fragile at the back now as they were under Clough. They lack just as much pace and creativity in midfield now as they did under Clough. Playing up front is as lonely an occupation now as it was under Clough, except their are usually two strikers chasing shadows instead of one.
The United manager has, of course, known for sometime that his squad is not good enough. It lacks leadership and backbone as it did under Clough. Adkins’ error was not to recognise it in the summer.
He soon got a rude awakening but by then it was too late and so the freak show continues under Adkins as it did under Clough. The team, whatever configuration deployed, is totally unrepresentative and unworthy of the 18,000-20,000 fans who refuse to abandon the cause no matter how miserable the experience becomes.
The same fans who are patronised by many in the local media. They speak of a great fanbase before condemning it for being critical of a Bramall Lane regime that is not fit for purpose. How much pain are the paying public supposed to accept?
They criticise those who accused Clough of being ‘Negative Nigel’. The same Clough who played one man up front in a team that struggled to score. Whose philosophy was clean sheets. Why risk three points when one will do?
The self-satisfied man who said on the eve of the play-off semi-finals: “People ask ‘Is it total failure if we don’t go up?’ We don’t think it is. Other people might judge it differently.”
A man who created a divided dressing room which produced unhealthy cliques. A man who banished players without believing there a need for explanation.
Maybe those members of the media who are so blind to such a decisive figure shouldn’t be so ready to condemn the paying public as they collect their match passes, sample the half time hospitality (such as it is) and revel in subservient chats with the manager and the usual rent-a-quote players whose opinions, quite frankly, are worthless.
Those same supporters, by the way, who offered up a respectful round of applause to Clough on his return to the Lane after being sacked nine months ago. The same supporters who backed their team without collective dissent until referee Sebastian Stockbridge brought the agony to an end. You will travel a long way to find a more tolerant, good humoured and loyal set of supporters. That tolerance is now reaching breaking point.
Finally the penny dropped for Adkins. Defending the indefensible, trying to put a positive spin on far too many negatives and banalities such as ‘being judged in the arena’, ‘endeavouring to win football matches’ and ‘putting the ball in at one end and keeping it out at the other’ just wasn’t going to work.
Adkins has been let down too many times by players in whom he mis-placed his trust. Most of them are stealing a living. A very good living at that. Keeping up the pretence was only making him look as inept as them.
Now Adkins is starting to talk the same language as the much-maligned supporters. As are, surprise, surprise, the Press. Maybe the bone-heads who pass through the turnstiles like lemmings aren’t so stupid after all shock!
LACK OF PRIDE
The end of the season can’t come soon enough for Adkins, fans and, judging by their shameful lack of pride and professionalism, the players. It’s all about damage limitation from now until Sunday, May 8. “There has to be change but we’ve got to keep on going,” said Adkins following the Burton defeat.
Two days later he reflected: “Sometimes it’s good to lose it (his temper).” He added: “Perhaps that (lack of character) is becoming more evident. I’ve tried to protect the players but when you are here you have to give everything.” You get the impression there will be no more Mr Nice Guy. At least not until some of those he’s forced to work with start to shape up.
Such is the paucity of League One, United remain only four points short of the play-offs despite languishing in mid table. It’s a long shot, but not impossible this rag-bag team of journeymen and misfits could yet restore some pride.
Adkins, however, is by no means an innocent party. Granted, team selection is limited despite the size of an unbalanced squad amassed under Clough. But Adkins’ confusing tactical and positional changes, none more so evident than against Burton, only contribute to the impression of a team lacking confidence and direction. For that he has to accept full responsibility.
His choice of signings, leading scorer Billy Sharp aside, have been poor. The latest, Alex Baptiste on loan from Middlesbrough, is of better quality but until his arrival prior to kick-off, had not played a competitive match this season due to a double fracture of a leg.
Do United need another right-back? To accommodate him when trailing to a soft 49th minute goal scored by Lucas Akins, was it wise to switch John Brayford, the £1.5m right-footed one they already have, to left-back?
Clough, meanwhile, enjoyed what amounted to a perfect return to the Lane. He couldn’t have written the script any better himself. Extending Burton’s top-of-the-table lead with a 1-0 win as United slipped to 12th. In doing so he delivered one in the eye to the Lane co-owners who dismissed him, Kevin McCabe and silent partner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
“This was just another three points,” insisted Clough who maintained his dignity throughout and cut an unusually animated figure on the touchline when twice responding to chants of his name from Brewers fans. Indeed, it was just three points. Privately he must have enjoyed that win more than most in his 18-year managerial career. And why not?
HOUSE OF STRAW
Clough, however, built the house of straw at the Lane and Adkins, irrespective of what league United compete in next season (try not to laugh – or cry), must do this summer what he failed to implement on his arrival in June.
Instead of huffing and puffing, he must blow it down and start again. But he needs the full and unhindered backing from owners and a Board who have to start recognising it is there mis-management for many years which has got United in a mess in the first place. In short…they’re not that good.
After a 2-0 home defeat to Wigan at the beginning of February Adkins set a target of 11 or 12 wins from the remaining 17 matches to guarantee a play-off spot. Since then his players have responded by losing three of their five fixtures.
Stadium announcer Gary Sinclair said rather desperately immediately before kick-off on Tuesday: “The season starts now.” Unfortunately, the players were still not listening. For Nigel Adkins’ sake and the fans who deserve so much better, I hope they are all ears now.