BACK to the drawing board for manager Chris Wilder and his coaching staff. Whatever they have been trying to achieve for the last 14 weeks it isn’t working. Less than a fortnight into the season and he readily admitted: “It’s sink or swim now.”
The gravity of that simple statement before there has even been time to work up a sweat demonstrates systemic failings remain despite a ruthless clear-out in the summer. He added: “I know there will be a lot of people talking negatively about us and do you know what? We deserve everything that anybody chucks at us and we have to take that on the chin.”
Of Wilder’s nine summer signings so far, four – defenders Chris Hussey, James Wilson and Jack O’Connell and midfield man Mark Duffy have proven themselves to be suspect. Three we don’t know enough about – Jake Wright, recent loan addition Harry Chapman and goalkeeper Simon Moore just arrived on a £500,000 deal from Cardiff City – to make an assessment. Only two pass the litmus test – striker Leon Clarke and ball-playing central midifield man John Fleck. It is difficult to understand, however, how the latter fits in under new rules of engagement which often leave him a bystander as long balls fly over the top.
Wilder’s repeated declarations that United will take the initiative and press opponents has not been evident since the first half of the opening day defeat at Bolton. Neither has his affirmation that the days of teams rolling up to Bramall Lane and having an easy time are gone. In his four competitive matches in charge to date, three of them at home, the manager’s record reads played four, lost three, drawn one, goals for two, goals against six.
He sounded bereft on Tuesday's 3-0 defeat to Southend United, all three strikes shipped inside the first 15 minutes. “The goals we conceded tonight were unacceptable and we’ve given ourselves a mountain to climb. For us to go to where we were at Bolton to tonight is very disappointing.”
He added: “There was no hiding place. They (his players) had to step up and I am learning a hell of a lot about the group and I’m learning even a lot about the players that I’ve brought in.” Wilder's willingness to keep referring to the performance at Bolton where United were beaten and in truth both teams were evenly matched in the second-half, is beginning to sound like clutching at straws.
The first suspicion that something was amiss came after squandering a sixth-minute lead in the EFL Cup and a dominant position before eventually being knocked out in extra time by League Two Crewe. Reality dawned after scrambling an undeserved draw against Rochdale in what was, even Wilder agreed, a desperately poor performance. The damning evidence of a team playing with negligence and without due care and attention was there for all to witness in the shameful performance against Southend. Shameful is an overused and cheaply used adjective but that performance was as the dictionary definition intended.
Everyone of those miserable scenarios played out in successive matches at Bramall Lane. Wilder held his hands up after the latest catastrophe. To paraphrase: It’s a fair cop. Guilty as charged.
The furious manager spared none of the participants – and to his credit included himself – in a devastating dissection of one of the worst performances, if not the worst, seen at the Lane in modern times. Certainly in my 46 years of service to the cause. It almost put last season's home defeats to Shrewsbury and Burton Albion in a better light.
Football is supposed to be a leisure activity for people to enjoy. Yes, there are ups and downs, moans and groans and, even for Blades, moments of happiness. The problem for Sheffield United supporters, outstandingly loyal fans by anyone’s standards, watching their team for the last seven years has become a chore. For a growing number it’s now accompanied by such an unpleasant stench it may be time to ditch the marigolds and disinfectant and say ‘to hell with it – keep your lousy job’.
That may sound over dramatic but believe me, the anger Unitedites are feeling, fuelled by endless years of mismanagement, is close to breaking point. The same supporters whose relationship with the club they love had become so fractured that United felt it necessary to slash season ticket renewal prices in the summer following the last calamitous campaign under Nigel Adkins. An apology/bribe where it hurt the club most. In the wallet.
There is no suggestion here that Wilder’s job is under threat. Nor should there be. Only an unthinkable series of defeats between now and the end of October could leave him in David Weir territory. Even then, former boss Weir had no proven managerial experience. Wilder has.
In the whole sorry mess that is Sheffield United since relegation from the Premier League in 2007, the many catastrophes and lack of joined up thinking which followed, Wilder is perhaps the club’s biggest asset. United have long since lost their identity. An identity the manager, a Blade since birth, knows all about.
Yes, events of the last two weeks suggests he is guilty of serious misjudgment. So was Adkins early in his tenure which set the scene for United’s worst finish in 33 years. But there is one major difference. Unlike many of his predecessors Wilder isn’t trying to pretend otherwise.
It may be a blessing in disguise for the lifelong Blade whose heart and soul is entrenched in a club he also played for, whose intentions and demeanour are widely admired, that endemic problems within have re-emerged so early on his watch. At least he still has plenty of time to do something about it.
Even so made in Sheffield and talking tough has a limited shelf life and fans need to see immediate improvement, if not in results, in performance. Otherwise Wilder's team will be playing before a half empty stadium as continued League One irrelevance becomes too much for many to bear. “We’re in a situation where the performance over the last two home games are nowhere near where I want it to be,” he said. “I don’t get anything out of second half we were 0-0 and garbage like that. I’ve looked the players in the eyes and said what I feel to them. I’ve named names in there, I am not going to hide away from the fact of that. We’ve possibly had one, two performers out of the 11 and that at any standard to win a game of football is not good enough.
Asked about whether there are the characters in the squad to lift United, Wilder was non committal. “We’ll have to wait and see,” he said, “because there is certainly a lack of them. I’ve brought some of these players in so I have to accept some of that responsibility as well.”
“It’s sink or swim for swim for some of our players, well all of us because we’ve got to show a reaction or we’re not going to get the results that this club wants and demands.”
He added: “Some will come through it and they will be part of the group that moves forward. Some will fall by there wayside and they are will be the ones that have missed a fantastic opportunity to play for this really good club.
“You have to be big and strong to play here, it isn’t an easy place to play especially when you are three nil down after 15 minutes but we shouldn’t really get to that situation. The goals were absolutely comical.”
Despite publicly questioning the character of some of his signings, Wilder said: “I believe the players we have brought to the football club are going to be good. They are at the right age and they will come (through). I’ve said before about the ones that we already had. But it’s no good me just believing in them. They’ve got to produce at three o’clock and at a quarter to eight on a Tuesday night.
“Physically we’ve not been strong enough so I have to go and make sure that happens and pick a side that gets us over the line. We were physically strong enough at Bolton and they were a big side.
“Technically there are a lot of good players there. It’s the mentality. They’re not showing that. We were slashing at things, we’re booting the ball out of play, we’re not dropping balls into the front men. The quality they have they’re not showing but it’s the mentality. It’s the mentality of being a professional footballer. When the chips are down what are you all about?
“Easy to play when you’re three or four nil up when the sun is shining and it’s the last 15 minutes of the game. It’s these moments now that makes or breaks footballers, that makes or breaks myself as manager and the coaching staff.” At this point being three or four nil up with 15 minutes to go seems like a pipe dream. A couple of positive results, however, and the crisis could recede as quickly as it arrived.
As the man says it's make or break for so many individuals starting at Millwall. After all the pre-season optimism, United's serial under-performers are suddenly walking a tightrope without the aid of a safety net.