DISAPPOINTMENT and frustration has lurked around every corner for Sheffield United fans this season. Occasionally downright despair. Which is why a recent upturn in form should not be allowed to cloud judgment on what has been a dreadful campaign.
Apologists have started already. Step forward David Edgar, the Canadian international defender on loan from Birmingham City where his contract is shortly to expire. "It's night and day from what we were doing before," said Edgar this week. "If you look at the way we were playing, the way we are closing the season out, I think that should give us massive confidence going forward."
He added: "If we keep playing the same way – the fans are enjoying it, we're keeping clean sheets and playing attacking football – that should stand us in really good stead."
Ifs, buts, shoulds and maybes. We’ve heard it all too many times before. Particular so this season. Acknowledged confidently by manager Nigel Adkins as automatic promotion favourites that vehicle never left the launchpad.
Edgar speaks like a man who is about to join the ranks of the unemployed and is anxiously seeking to secure his future at a well upholstered club. Compared to the bed and breakfast arrangements offered by its League One rivals and a good number of those above, it is akin to a five star luxury hotel that has become a shelter for too many disaffected players.
Expect to hear much more of that in the next few weeks, most probably from usual suspects such as captain Jay McEveley and Chris Basham. If it were remotely true, of course, United would have kept their unlikely play-off hopes alive by beating Barnsley at the weekend.
The stage was set. A raucous 23,000 crowd at Bramall Lane. A South Yorkshire derby in which both teams still had promotion hopes. It was a time for United to really show what they are made of.
They did. A goalless draw confirmed what everyone, even the most optimistic of optimists, now knows should have happened last summer. A ruthless clear-out.
A supporter in front of me summed up what was an entertaining, but ultimately worthless match as far as United were concerned after any realistic chance of reaching the play-offs disappeared as quickly as I did to the gents. “That,” he said, “was like watching two heavyweight fighters, neither of whom could land a punch.”
Supporters are divided once again on whether the purge should start at the top with Adkins. So is United's boardroom. My trusted source at the Lane tells me that all has not been well in recent weeks. Tension abounds.
For co-owner Kevin McCabe, despite such a poor season, dismissing Adkins has never really been an option. In a recent meeting with his partner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, McCabe accepted that this season's outcome was likely to be failure. Hence the decision to slash season ticket prices by 10 per cent.
Having been largely responsible, however, for the sacking of eight managers in as many years, he doesn’t want to go down that road again so long as results in the final few matches avoid meltdown. United’s recent resurgence – three wins and two draws – is enough to reassure him.
Prince Abdullah, however, is I am led to believe far from happy with the lack of progress at Bramall Lane. An avid follower of Premier League football, the man who holds office in the Saudi government in Riyadh, a member of the country’s royal family and who owns a swanky Beverley Hills mansion for good measure, is not one who shares an interest in the likes of midweek trips to Shrewsbury.
Trawl through those he follows on Twitter and you won’t find Billy Sharp, Che Adams or, indeed, David Edgar. You will discover, among others, Wayne Rooney, Sergio Aguero, Vincent Company, Gary Neville, Tim Cahill, Manchester City, Chelsea, Jurgen Klinsman, Raheem Stirling Daniel Sturridge and, bizarrely, Aston Villa’s man of the moment Joleon Lescott formerly of Manchester City.
Prince Abdullah thought his pound was buying into a football club with history, a great fanbase and was destined to quickly hit the heights. Providing him with a seat at the top table alongside the likes of Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich and, more importantly, Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City. Full name Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan bin Zayed bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, as well as his duties at the Etihad Stadium, a part of the world Prince Abdullah’s Twitter account suggests he has a fixation, he is the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, minister of presidential affairs, a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi and half brother to his boss, President of the UAE Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
You get my drift. To the champagne and caviar set with riches and lifestyles unimaginable to those of us who file through the turnstiles at Bramall Lane and puts even the likes of McCabe in the fish and chip shop (seated section), football is a game. But not the one that we watch.
It’s a hobby all about international status and profile. Prince Abdullah, whose reported net worth of £18billion is overshadowed by Sheik Mansours’ £20b and family fortune of $1trillion, has come to think he has been dealt a bum hand.
So, despite buying half the club for a third of the price of a match day programme, and in direct contrast to Sheikh Mansour who has transformed Manchester City, he is reluctant to invest. We are told the figure in his 31 months’ association to date is £15m – £15m and one to be completely accurate.
It’s beginning to look like a poor hand for McCabe, too, the man who brokered the deal. He thought he had lifted a burden and finally put United on a financial footing to compete with the best. As it turns out United can’t even compete competitively with tiny Burton Albion. Hardly a ‘game-changer’ as he described it in September 2013.
Then there is the thorny question of what to do with co-chairman Jim Phipps, Prince Abdullah’s likeable and well-meaning representative at the Lane. Many supporters will be aware the American’s prolific twitter account has fallen silent.
ViewFromTheJohnStreet.Com reported exclusively in December how McCabe, who is also co-chairman, was furious about Phipps’ engagement and openess with fans and has since ordered radio silence. Their relationship, I am told, is strained to the point of non existence. Expect movement there.
Promotion from League One at the sixth time of asking is an absolute necessity. A work in progress is not an option. Regarded as another unacceptable failure this season, it will be viewed as catastrophic 12 months from now.
The feeling in the remain campaign is to give Adkins the chance to put into practice what he has learnt at the Lane with the proviso that United have to be in the driving seat from the word go. Otherwise Adkins will become managerial casualty number nine before Christmas.
Those who believe United should cut to the chase and make the change now have been influenced by events nearby. Two ready-made managerial teams uniquely qualified for the challenge. Neil Warnock and Kevin Blackwell at Rotherham United, Danny Wilson and Chris Morgan at Chesterfield.
All of them, three former Blades bosses and a club legend and twice caretaker, have a deep understanding of what the club is all about and would almost certainly make an instant impact.
It didn’t go unnoticed either that Wilson and Morgan’s names were chanted by United fans in the recent 3-0 win at Chesterfield.
The idea of Warnock and or Blackwell ever returning to the Lane would have seemed extraordinary even just a few months ago. But the manner in which they have gone about rescuing the Millers and securing Championship football within two sensational months has changed all that.
Warnock has recently said that he wouldn’t rule out a return to the club he supports if approached. That has muddied the waters even further for those behind the scenes harbouring major doubts about the current incumbent.
Adkins, meanwhile, the eternal optimist, appears publicly to be undeterred by unrest in the boardroom. Why should he be. He still has two years remaining of his lucrative contract which he will either work or have fully paid up. It’s that simple. Contrary to what fans are led to believe, there has been no big project going on here. It’s been a shambles. The last 11 months have turned out to be an exercise for Adkins to get his feet under the table. The longest induction course in history. If he were to leave now it would be difficult to describe what he has brought to the club.
The kudos earned from his record of three promotions in League One has been diminished. But Adkins still holds one trump card. Namely he knows, you would sincerely hope, what he clearly didn’t last June. The need to ship out a vast quantity of deadwood in his squad – he won’t admit it publicly but he’s aware who most of them are – and rebuild.
I say ‘most’, because Adkins’ insistence, for example that midfield signings Dean Hammond, on-loan from Leicester City, and Martyn Woodford, favourites of his, are influential players, perplexes some of those in the boardroom as it does on the Kop.
This along with endless banalities uttered regularly for public consumption to instil confidence but produces the reverse effect and insults people’s intelligence, is the reason why Adkins has lost some support.
United’s Board, like the fans, want desperately to believe but it all comes down to a question of credibility.
Can a man who has failed to deliver on everything he has so enthusiastically pledged and who appears to rely far too readily on blind optimism, be entrusted to secure promotion next season? If not who is better placed to do so?
It's the biggest call Kevin McCabe and his not-so-merry-men will ever have to make.