LISTENING to some Blades the season is almost over before it has really begun. There is, however, cause for optimism.
Less than a week into the new campaign and Sheffield United have had the kind of start nightmares are made of. Defeat in the league opener at Bolton, despite dominating for 60 minutes, was questionable. Being embarrassed by League Two Crewe at Bramall Lane in the EFL Cup was unacceptable.
Yes, that’s right. The campaign was just four days old before the word ‘unacceptable’ quite rightly passed the lips of thousands of Blades supporters. They were just the polite ones. Add the £1.8million (which could rise to £2m) sale of Che Adams to Birmingham City this week accompanied by enormous scepticism that any of the money will be spent on strengthening the squad, it would seem that little has changed. Same old, same old. But is it really that bad?
On the surface it may look as if a hole the size of a bus appears to have been driven through manager Chris Wilder’s pre-season mantra. The optimism which saw an army of 4,300 Blades fans cross the Pennines and descend on Bolton’s Macron Stadium evaporated just as quickly amongst the 8,305 who were at the Lane three days later.
Now, as they were for most of last season, United find themselves on the backfoot before their home crowd. No margin for error in front of an expected 19,000 in the first league match of the campaign at Bramall Lane against Rochdale. Anxiety will set in quickly if the Lancastrians have the upper hand and we all know how that usually ends. United have only themselves to blame and it didn’t have to be this way.
Winger Harry Chapman, just signed from Middlesbrough on a year-long loan, could make a surprise debut. The 18-year-old who has played for England Under-18s, helped Barnsley win promotion to the Championship last season, making 14 loan appearances and playing in their triumphant Johnstone Paint Trophy side at Wembley.
Defeat will open the floodgates for further criticism; a draw will pacify but only a win – and a convincing one at that – will start to restore confidence and demonstrate the Blades are moving in the right direction.
ILKESTON FC are hoping a sell-on clause in the deal which took Che Adams to Bramall Lane will enable them to pay off debt and lift a suspension imposed by the EVO-STIK Northern Premier League which puts their season opener at home to Stafford Rangers on Saturday in doubt. The Derbyshire club have rubbished claims that Adams’ move to Birmingham City could earn them as much as £400,000 but it is believed to be a six-figure sum.
There is, however, much cause for optimism. United started like a team that meant business at Bolton. The first 20 minutes saw them produce their finest since, well it’s been that long I can remember. Had the ball fallen more kindly for Leon Clarke he could quite easily have had a hat-trick. A peach of a first-half strike by Jay Spearing clinched the points for Bolton but it was hard to fathom how the Blades had nothing to show for their superiorty.
Could and should are exhausted verbs in the vocabulary of anyone associated with United. Likewise, had shots from John Fleck or Mark Duffy been a couple of inches lower against Crewe in extra time, victory would have been assured. That an additional time was needed in the first place after Clarke put United ahead after only six minutes is more concerning. Again, after starting well and creating chances throughout, United contrived to lose 2-1.
Instead of doom, gloom and despair United fans would be talking about an improved back four led by central defender Jack O’Connell who at first glance looks to be the commanding figure the Blades have been missing for too long.
Duffy and Fleck’s performances in midfield, along with Chris Basham’s at Bolton, have shown great promise, whilst up front Clarke has already done enough to demonstrate that he, not Billy Sharp might be the dominant force. Given that Sharp scored 21 goals in a failing side last season, that’s not a bad place to be. Success and failure are judged by fine margins and United have fallen short at both times of asking. It could so easily have been very different.
That said there are causes for serious worries which manager Chris Wilder has not shied away from. Maybe the biggest of them are Wilder’s conflicting statements which suggests that maybe even he has been surprised by his team’s shortcomings. Having released 10 players, transfer-listed another seven and made seven additions, this is his squad.
“I can understand now why teams come here and get results,” he said after defeat to Crewe. “We haven’t been clinical enough in previous regimes and certainly not tonight.”
Tellingly, and very honestly, he admitted: “Maybe now I’m recognising how much there is to be done in terms of with the group and drilling them down in how we want to play.”
Wilder added: “The culture here is to play on the front foot with and without the ball. I just thought at times tonight we went safe, we went backwards, we went square and that’s not what I want us to do.
“We’re two games in and we got beat twice. We’re not in a good position.”
Contrast that on the eve of travelling to Bolton. “We’re not the finished article but I think we’re in a good place,” he said. “We feel with the additions we have made we’ve got good balance, we’ve left and right footers, we can play in a variety of systems if we want to. We’ve got good size in us, we’ve got decent mobility and pace. Athleticism in the team. We feel we’ve got goals at the top and we’ve got guys who want to defend.”
If any criticism could be levelled at Wilder it would be United’s pre-season programme. Three fixtures against non league opposition, one of which United lost 2-0 at Halifax, and a kick-about against a Murcia regional X1 at the La Manga holiday complex was hardly putting the squad through its paces. A trip to League Two Grimsby was huge in comparison. The only fixture to provide a challenging test and offer proper analysis was a 1-0 home defeat to Championship Derby. Seventeen goals scored in pre-season tells you that, apart from team bonding purposes, how artificial and largely meaningless it all was.
Adams inevitable sale was confirmed this week when he moved to Championship Birmingham for an undisclosed fee widely believed to be £2million with possible add-ons to follow.
Given United’s history when it comes to selling the family silver, some fans regarded his departure as another demonstration of a lack of ambition. But to many more it represents good business, provided the majority of the cash is made available to Wilder to invest in the team.
Adams and John Brayford, if you ignore the deal the latter was offered and the eye-watering £1.5million transfer fee, are the positive legacies left by former manager Nigel Clough. Adams, plucked from EVO-STIK Northern Premier League Ilkeston in 2014, made 55 appearances in all competitions, scoring 15 goals. His finest hour was early in his Blades career when he came on as a second half substitute to score twice against Tottenham Hotspur in the second leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final at the Lane which United lost 3-2 on aggregate.
But Adams, now 20, an exciting talent with great potential, also had disciplinary issues away from the field and remains very much a work in progress. Given that United are starting their sixth season in League One under a stricter budget than previous manager’s have had at their disposal, the benefit of a cash windfall, used properly, outweighs the loss. It gives the manager an opportunity to plug gaps which by his own admission are becoming increasingly evident. In midfield, for example, where a play-making general is still lacking, and much-needed competition for goalkeeper George Long.
“I’ve talked to the people at the top of the club and told them we’re in a situation where we are light,” said Wilder who is confident that given his record so far – seven players signed and only three fees paid, one nominal – the Board will support him.
Unlike previous regimes, it is Wilder’s forthright manner and honesty that will keep Blades fans on board over the next few months, even if there are more downs than ups.
“I’ve said to the players, even players I’ve signed, they have to do what we want. There has to be a structure set by us and the players have got to adhere to that. If no we look elsewhere.”
It’s genuine fighting talk that pleases fans but ultimately will count for little if United fail to establish themselves as promotion material. Sadly, because the club is where it is, largely average players, some still drawing salaries tantamount to theft and basking in surroundings and support they have done little to deserve, are what the manager has to work with.
You get the feeling though that if anyone can change a culture of long-standing complacency, drive the message home and put the pride back into Sheffield United it is Wilder. If he does just that during the next nine months it will be an achievement in itself.