TIME is running out for Sheffield United to put their season back on track. Monday, February 1 is transfer deadline day and if the Blades don’t act promotion will be where it was last year. In the lap of the gods.
With a 12-point gap to close and 20 matches left to claim an automatic route into the Championship, the prize remains but only if the Board are prepared to invest and manager Nigel Adkins has done his homework.
Two attacking midfielders and a recognised striker to support Billy Sharp are absolute priority. Assuming they are available. Quality costs money but it would also be an investment for life in the Championship. At this stage and the gravity of the situation, even short-term, over-paid mercenaries who can’t get regular football at a higher level would suffice.
Given the mismanagement which has led to United languishing in League One for half a decade, it would be a price worth paying. A price which is going to have to be funded from the pockets of a Brussels-based tax-efficient co-owner and his Saudi Arabian partner who is worth a reported £18billion.
If they don’t recognise the current squad, despite its bloated size of more than 40 professionals – and how was that allowed to happen? – is not good enough to avoid the play-offs and claim a direct route into the Championship, then they’re deluding themselves.
Financial well being is, of course, paramount as is the fact that United can’t afford to be in football’s third tier for a sixth season. Something has to give along with the £1.7million United received from Brighton for Jamie Murphy. Unless co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud prefer instead to spend at least another season in football’s shadows.
The elusive Saudi prince, whose arrival at the Lane in 2013 and described by McCabe as “a game-changer” bought 50 percent of the club for £1 and has since invested just £13million. To an exceptionally loyal fan base – and maybe McCabe, too – it now looks more like a speculative move to buy into a substantial football club with the minimum of input.
United’s inadequacies on the field should have been addressed in the summer. It was hardly a secret. To pin the blame entirely on Adkins’ door, however, would be unfair. It probably reveals more about the people at the very top.
Adkins inherited a squad which had reached the play-off semi-finals and the last four of the Capital One Cup. A tweak here and there was all that was required and that was what he was led to believe.
The majority of regular observers knew otherwise, hence the deep divide concerning former manager Nigel Clough. Apparently the club’s leadership didn’t, believing that it was merely the stubborn, abrasive, negative nature of Clough that was the problem. So here we are in mid-January scrapping for a play-off place amid the din of platitudes emanating from the Lane.
Many footballers by their very nature take every opportunity to big themselves up, shirk responsibility, utter comments which insult the intelligence of fans and reveal much about their own. United have far too many of those with a penchant for regularly repeating the same mistakes at the workplace which for you or me would result in a written warning followed by dismissal.
Which is why since the turn of the year Matt Done, rent-a-quote Chris Basham and Dean Hammond, for example, would have you believe that there is no reason to be concerned by United’s error-ridden inconsistency and under performance for the last five months. They are part of the same group of players whose shameful incompetence in November led to a chorus of ‘Your not fit to wear the shirt’, unprecedented in my 45 years at the Lane.
Done, who thankfully is better at thinking with his feet, told us that United were “nearing their best” on the eve of a a dreadful performance at relegation candidates Colchester, redeemed only by the winner, a bolt from the blue, in the 91st minute which had never looked likely.
United went into the match having taken one point from six, conceding six goals in the process and but for the unlikely late intervention by defender David Edgar would have made it two points from nine.
At promotion rivals Wigan, a match in which United badly needed to demonstrate their promotion credentials or risk falling 11 points behind the fifth-placed Lancastrians, they managed to trail by three goals after 66 minutes in an abject display. That United recovered to snatch a point is commendable – in better times a signal of intent – but they should never have found themselves in such a position.
Whatever the original ‘game plan’ was it didn’t work. As is so often the case. United rarely dominate the opposition. If you're lucky they emerge from the mist in a cavalry charge that skews the real picture and provides opportunity for cheap, throwaway lines which have little substance.
Hammond, the man lauded by Adkins as a model professional with bags of experience, a great example to the others, and who crudely upended Memphis Depay at Old Trafford in a brainless injury-time challenge which cost the Blades a lucrative FA Cup third round replay with Manchester United, said this week that we are at the stage of the season where winning is all that matters.
He’s right but if he and his teammates had adopted that approach from the start instead of wallowing in ‘what a great squad we have’ and ‘what a big club we are’, they would have been a good deal closer to the well publicised plan.
As it is and as Hammond suggests, we’re now in ‘win ugly’ territory, the language regularly used by football desperados at the wrong end of the table or those not comfortable in their own skins nearer the top.
Adkins, meanwhile, does what he has to do. Taking the positives, minimising the negatives and maintaining morale among a squad which he now knows is seriously lacking and will look a great deal different next season whatever the outcome of this campaign.
All that matters is the next three months. If the manager has stated his case, the Board must help him act over the next few days. In trying to balance the books they have somehow contrived to oversee the creation of a huge, unbalanced and costly squad of players clearly not up to the job. For that they must finally take responsibility.
At the eleventh hour and if automatic promotion remains the aim rather than a punt at winning the lottery, now is the time to try and put some of that right before it’s too late.