MUCH gnashing of teeth after the transfer window closed. Indeed, first visible cracks, albeit minor and limited to the usual suspects, in a two-year love affair between Sheffield United fans and manager Chris Wilder.
But knee-jerk analysis aside, is there any real cause for alarm? It would seem not.
The arrival of experienced midfield man Oliver Norwood, on loan from Brighton, a move which will become permanent in January for a fee belived to be between £1.5 to £2million, is a stellar signing. Add at least one proven striker, preferably two between now and the end of the month when the loan market closes, and the jigsaw is complete. What’s all the fuss about?
Handled correctly, recent recruitment difficulties could work in United’s favour. Forwards with successful track records don’t come cheap in the wages department. But Wilder, who failed in his £5million bid for Ipswich’s top-scorer last season Martyn Waghorn, presumably still has the cash in hand to help in a wage-share agreement to possibly attract a higher calibre than was within reach in the permanent window.
Whatever the outcome, it would take an apocalyptic event to break the super-glued bond between Wilder and Unitedites. Not mere disappointment about recent recruitment sticking points. But nevertheless criticism has been heard where previously only praise existed.
Comments that moved Wilder to say following 2-1 victory at QPR which registered the first points of the season at the third attempt: “I said to the players 'the only way you're going to show people if they're questioning you is when you step out onto the pitch'.
“Noise and nonsense or whatever it is, we have to keep our cool and go through these periods. The expectation levels have gone through the roof over the past two years.
“We've done some things over the two years we like to think have been quite good. When you fall a little bit, which we have done in certain periods of the [first] two games, you have to take it on the chin what people say.”
Among dissenting voices, a questioning of the calibre of players brought in and discarded. Eight of Wilder’s 14 additions, either permanent of loan, last season remain. Four of those – wing-backs Enda Stevens, Geroge Baldock, central defender Richard Stearman and midfielder John Lundstram – are established first team choices. Ryan Leonard has still to get a firm footing in midfield and striker Ched Evans is on loan to Fleetwood. As is Ben Heneghan (Motherwell) and Nathan Thomas (Notts County). Samir Carruthers, signed in January 2017, is on loan to Oxford United,
Now Wilder has a couple of weeks remaining to quell panic among a minority that the Blades Championship fate may already have been decided. An mid-table finish from wherever you stand on the transfer debate, however, will not be held in high esteem as was the last one.
United, despite all the talk ended last week not much stronger than when they finished last season. But Norwood, 27, signed in time to possibly play at some stage for the visit of Nigel Adkins’ Hull City in the Carabao Cup, represents a great start to redress the balance.
The Burnley-born Northern Ireland international is a quality addition and an improved replacement for the sudden departure of Lee Evans to Wigan.
Norwood played his part in the Seagulls’ promotion campaign to the Premier League. Last season, on loan to Fulham, the best footballing side in the Championship, he made 41 appearances and scored five goals on their way to the top flight. He came on as a sub in their play-off final win against Aston Villa at Wembley.
Wilder said in May he wanted a goalkeeper, a defender, a midfield addition and two strikers. By my reckoning, following the reported arrival of Norwood, and taking into account first team squad departures of those not listed or at the end of agreements, they stand at plus two. Dean Henderson for Jamal Blackman in goal; John Egan, Kean Bryan additions in defence; Ben Woodburn for David Brooks in midfield but minus first team regular Evans; up front David McGoldrick for Clayton Donaldson.
Henderson, loaned from Manchester United, has been quick to impress. Egan ticks another box along with little-known bonus defender Bryan. Woodburn is a temporary like-for-like replacement for Brooks. If he is anywhere near as good as Brooks, hopefully he’ll get more of a chance than the latter did to prove it.
It is the forward line which concerns most fans. Leon Clarke and Billy Sharp returned 33 goals between them last season but few anticipate a repeat performance.
McGoldrick, 30, out of contract at Ipswich came on trial and impressed enough to earn a 12-month contract. He could prove to be a gem, but with the best will in the world he is not what fans imagined firing United towards the Premier League.
If United do complete the jigsaw and bring in the calibre of striker needed to spearhead a successful campaign, McGoldrick is likely to be most useful from the bench.
As Wilder eluded to, early results didn’t help to lift the mood in some sections of the stands in a league deemed to be far more competitive this season than the last. United leaked goals in defeats to Swansea and Middlesborough whilst looking ineffective up front.
The pattern appeared to be repeating at Loftus Road despite four team changes. The Blades fell behind after dominating QPR before levelling through Billy Sharp and clinching their first points from a fortuitous and questionable penalty award converted by sub McGoldrick.
He stepped up only seconds after replacing Sharp, a substitution that was met with a chorus of never-before-heard disapproval of a Wilder intervention from Blades fans. Such is the fine line of football management. It’s just that Wilder has never experienced it before with United.
Had McGoldrick not been adjudged to have been fouled in what was a soft penalty award, or indeed missed it and the score remained 1-1, Wilder’s decision to remove United’s most likely-looking goalscorer, not a labouring Leon Clarke, would have only added to the feeling of discontent. In the event, it worked out perfectly and Sharp’s removal was quickly forgotten.
A summer of missed opportunity is the cause for unease. When United set a new club transfer record of £4m-plus for defender Egan from Brentford, quickly followed by a £5m offer for Waghorn, expectation was high. The Blades top brass had indeed put their differences aside temporarily, seized the day and stepped up to the plate.
Waghorn, 16 goals for the tractor boys in 2017-18 and also being chased by Derby and Middlesbrough, signed for Frank Lampard’s Rams. Since then 21-year-old Manchester City graduate defender Bryan is the only paid-for addition to the Blades squad.
Wilder rattled his sabre in early May, threatening to quit if management issues were not resolved with the club’s warring co-owners. Including the promise of an increased budget to attract better quality players.
It worked. He apparently received all assurances he needed. With a long, hot summer stretching before him at a club of rising stock, a well-publicised plan to strengthen key areas and his personal reputation at an all-time high, what could possibly go wrong?
Enough for a small number to start believing the club’s dramatic climb under Wilder is about to reach a plateau despite still having cash from the initial £12m sale of Brooks to Bournemouth.
That fear, of course, is hugely premature and should be rendered unfounded. What cannot be dismissed, however, is the quality of the remaining loan signings he makes will determine whether those Blades fans currently clutching glasses half empty have good reason to cry into their beer.
Wilder has an encouraging message for remaining cynics. “I do believe when the window shuts we'll be stronger in terms of personnel. We'll show we're here to compete.”
Most Blades won’t doubt it.