ANYONE under the impression that next season is going to be the answer to all of Sheffield United’s prayers, think again.
Fortune, it is said, favours the brave and there can be no doubt on the evidence presented so far that new Blades boss Chris Wilder is fearless. Even the most optimistic of fans surely cannot have envisaged the sledgehammer approach he took to dismantling a squad now universally recognised as not fit for purpose.
Wilder showed no mercy as ten players hoping for new contracts, including last season’s captain Jay McEveley, were released. Another seven still tied to the club were transfer listed and three loanees were dispatched forthwith.
Of those released, left-back Bob Harris, loaned to Fleetwood following injury, must feel hard done by. A competent no nonsense defender popular with the home crowd. Ryan Flynn may also have had a genuine claim for a new contract offer.
But that is a judgment call. Wilder has been ruthless and Blades fans stand with him shoulder to shoulder. In doing so, however, it has to be acknowledged that United’s painfully prolonged efforts to escape from League One may be extended for longer than originally hoped. Something that co-owner Kevin McCabe, the Grim Reaper as far as managers are concerned, has already come to terms with.
Wilder’s recent declaration that slackers will not be tolerated at Bramall Lane – a less than thinly-veiled attack on the squad he inherited – was music to the ears of Blades fans. But it is also a bitter sweet symphony. The realisation of what a huge rebuilding task awaits and with it an uncomfortable recognition that by this time next year it may still be a work in progress – in League One.
United, we are now told, financed the biggest wage bill in the third tier of English football last season, exceeding £6million. A rough calculation based on a bloated squad of about 40 players in place for much of the campaign, reveals that the average weekly wage was £3,000 or £156,000-a-year.
Given that half those players were not first team regulars and not earning that figure, the average must rise for those who were. With the exception of big earners John Brayford, Billy Sharp and the outrageous deal failed loanee Dean Hammond was allowed to negotiate which now affords him a 12-month contract even though he is not wanted, those days have well and truly gone while United remain in the football wilderness.
Wilder, it would seem, has been told to cut his cloth accordingly, something he had extensive experience of last term when guiding crisis-hit Northampton Town, issued with a winding up order in October for unpaid taxes, to the League Two title by a 13-point margin.
BIGGER SHOES TO FILL
There, however, the similarity ends. With all due respect to the Cobblers, who will be visiting the Lane next term with ex-Blade Robert Page in charge, Sheffield United is an entity with much bigger shoes to fill.
Expectation, big crowds, one of two clubs in a major football-loving city, pent-up frustration and anger with those at the top whose repeated misjudgments are ultimately to blame for where United are now. Their lowest point for 33 years. It’s a melting pot. What could possibly go wrong?
Wilder’s task is to reconstruct a team on a tight budget made up of those from the lower leagues and home-grown youth, who will do what four managers, two caretaker stints and countless players have failed to in the last five years. Return the Blades to the Championship.
It’s possible to turn around a severely listing oil tanker within a relatively short time frame, but unlikely even if the captain is ready to give it his best shot. “If it can be done it will be done,” Wilder told the media after being appointed. McCabe, who has sacked eight managers in the last nine years, was much more circumspect than he has been in the past.
The bar has been lowered. “At the end of it [last season] you’ve not seen much evidence of the team getting stronger to be right and proper for promotion this coming season and that’s one of the reasons behind deciding to make change,” he said.
“If it were to pass that towards the end of next season, we’re seeing good football, an intimidatory atmosphere at Bramall Lane that brings back spirit among supporters and players but we miss out; if improvement’s been the case we’d all be not quite content, but accepting it’s taking more time than we’d wish.”
McCabe acknowledges he has got it wrong in the past but on this occasion he is spot on. Such has been the damage inflicted on United by the previous two managerial appointments, the co-owners along with, I suspect, the majority of Blades, view the coming season as part of a longer term project. Something that was inconceivable during their tenures of Nigel Clough and Nigel Adkins over a full campaign.
If by the end of 2016-17 Wilder has pieced together a spirited, honest team which plays attacking football and re-establishes a bond with supporters but isn’t quite ready for promotion, that will be generally accepted as a job well done. If he manages to go one step further and restores United to the Championship, Wilder will be one of the hottest managerial properties outside of the Premier League.
Such is the fine line between success and failure, anything short of those two scenarios doesn’t bear thinking about. Stocksbridge-born Wilder, a Blades fan who has twice signed as a player for the club, knows all about United. It provides a priceless head start and has enabled him to make a savage, but constructive cull after just eight days at the helm.
In the cold light of day, however, the complexities of the job are probably bigger than even he imagined. The honeymoon, as ever, will be short but long suffering supporters are right behind him with everything crossed in the hope he hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew.
Mark Howard, Bob Harris, Callum McFadzean, Terry Kennedy, Harrison McGahey, Jay McEveley, Florent Cuvelier, Ryan Flynn, Jose Baxter, Jamal Campbell-Ryce.
Kieron Freeman, Kieran Wallace, James Wallace, Dean Hammond, Paul Coutts, Martyn Woolford, Diego De Girolamo.
LOANEES WHO HAVE LEFT:
Alex Baptiste, David Edgar, Conor Sammon