DIVISION is beginning to appear in Nigel Adkins’ much-trumpeted United front and the revelation came straight from the horse's mouth.
It isn’t so much what he said as what he didn’t say following the 2-0 home defeat to Wigan. A result the Blades manager admitted had ruled out realistic hope of automatic promotion and set a daunting challenge to make the play-offs – 11 wins from the remaining 17 matches. As for recruitment to bolster his diminishing expectation, Adkins appears to be now pinning his hopes on discarded players who have joined the ranks of the unemployed. Sheffield United’s sixth home defeat of the season arrived in the wake of failure to strengthen his squad in the January transfer window prompting local radio presenter, Rob Staton, to ask if he was receiving the support he needed to win promotion. Adkins, usually forthright, dodged the question.
BBC Radio Sheffield’s Staton probed further, asking if everyone was pulling together to get the club out of League One. Again Adkins dodged the question. Quizzed as to whether his players were hurting, instead of a straight ‘yes’ Adkins said curiously: “What goes on in the dressing room stays in the dressing room but it should hurt. I know it hurts with me.”
Poor results aside, suspicion that all is not well at Bramall Lane has been percolating ever since the Boardroom shake-up in December which saw the sudden departure of managing director Mal Brannigan and four appointments made including Renishaw-based businessman David Green, who runs an engineering company, being entrusted with ‘football operations’.
Adkins had told United fans to expect arrivals in January, raising expectation of quality signings to plug the gaps in an under-performing and inconsistent team that has now slipped to 12th in the table, five points short of a play-off position.
Staton said: “Is communication good at this club and are you getting the kind of support you need to get this team promoted?" Adkins, not known for short answers, replied: “The buck stops with me. It’s my responsibility to find a way to make it work.” Followed by an uneasy silence.
“So everything as far as you are concerned,” continued Staton, “this club is all pulling together, working well to get this team promoted which is what everyone wants? Adkins: “That’s what we need to make sure it happens.” Another silence.
‘What we need’ is not the same as what we’ve got and ‘the buck stops with me' doesn’t address ‘are you getting the support you need?’ It was a major departure for Adkins, normally so positive and not one to use six words when 160 will do. You don’t have to be too cynical to surmise the answer to Staton’s questions was no and no.
From day one Adkins and his paymasters insisted that automatic promotion was a realistic goal and with the manager’s summer additions to a squad inherited from Nigel Clough, he had the ammunition to do it.
BRIDGE TOO FAR
Less than four weeks earlier, ironically at Wigan, the Blades boss reassured disbelieving supporters that promotion by the direct route was well within his teams grasp after snatching a draw despite trailing 3-0 with 30 minutes left. A year earlier Clough had made the same baseless statement when it was painfully obvious to paying fans the squad wasn’t good enough.
Defeat in the return fixture against promotion rivals Wigan at the Lane, forced optimist Adkins to finally admit it was now a bridge too far. “We’ve put ourselves in a position where we’ve got 17 games to go,” he said. “We’ve given ourselves too much to do, I would suggest, for the top two.
“If you win 11 of those 17 you probably put yourself in a position [to reach the play-offs] with a points total, give or take.” A tall order given that United haven’t looked anywhere near capable of that this season.
Adkins was hardly supportive, either, of Conor Sammon the striker he signed on loan from Derby in the summer and who has failed to fulfil his potential with a series of hesitant and ineffective performances, the latest of which led to him being substituted at half time for Che Adams.
Asked if he thought Sammon, who has scored six goals in 29 appearances, had been disappointing in his time at the Lane, Adkins said: “Listen, I’m not going to say out on the air and criticise all the players because I think that’s easy to go and do. Let’s say I made the change at half time and I was pleased by young Che’s introduction.”
Nor did the manager offer hope that he has anyone in the camp capable of providing leadership on the field. Quizzed as to whether there was someone he could turn to who “could provide a spark to lift his players and get the team going again”, Adkins was strangely neutral.
The man who said in the summer he had identified six leaders in the squad, is not so confident now. “That’s what I keep saying to everybody,” he answered. “Could you be the one that gives us that spark?”
Hope too, of signing loan players to reboot United’s faltering season seems an unlikely proposition. “There are players who have probably been – I’ll use the words carefully – people who have probably ended up no longer under contract who we can sign,” he said. “A lot of people ended up at the end of the window on the final day with their contracts terminated.”
There is a common reason for that. They are not good enough. I offer one Michael Higdon as an example. The striker, who joined non-league Tranmere Rovers on a temporary contract this week, was so poor United opted to release him and pay up the remainder of his contract.
Young lads, misfits, has-beens and those who couldn’t make the grade. Is that what United have come to? If so, why? An uncharacteristically downbeat Adkins may have inadvertently shed some light on the answer.