IT IS a mistake, however tempting, to rush headlong into blaming one man for the sorry state Sheffield United find themselves following an abysmal midweek defeat at Bury. If only it were that simple.
Manager Nigel Adkins has been let down by the players he trusted and by the club owners who employed him. Now he finds himself a scapegoat for both.
A source close to one of those involved in December's boardroom shake-up has told me that the relationship between co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has cooled and was a contributor to United’s failure to strengthen in the January transfer window.
McCabe, believed to have ploughed about £85million into the club and written off debts of £35m, is said to be unhappy at Prince Abdullah’s input since the Saudi bought a 50 per cent share of United for £1 on the promise of major investment 29 months ago. A ‘game-changer’ was how Brussels-based McCabe described it at the time. About £13m is how the Saudi royal views it so far.
McCabe, I am told, fears the financial burden should the San Fransisco 49ers American football fan and Premier League-loving Prince’s interest in United erode to the point where he pulls out. His appointment as Saudi Arabia's General President of Youth Welfare in June 2014 precludes him from taking an active role at the Lane.
McCabe, also co-chairman, is unhappy, I am told, with fellow chairman Jim Phipps, Prince Abdullah’s representative, insistence on engaging with fans via Twitter which McCabe views as unnecessary and detrimental to the Board’s image. The silence from Brussels, Riyadh and more recently Phipps’ Twitter activity is deafening, leaving Adkins to act as the loyal employee and take all the flack minus any hint of support.
What may he occurring behind the scenes would matter little to Unitedites if the team had not descended from pre-season automatic promotion favourites, a position encouraged enthusiastically by manager and Board, to become play-off outsiders.
Even now with the Blades trailing a sixth and final spot by five points with 45 left to play for, a run of victories would change all that. But for a dramatic and costly intervention in the loan market – two attacking midfielders and a striker of the quality, highly-paid mercenary kind – it would seem unlikely.
Adkins’ is not without considerable blame in this. He is after all the man who was only too ready to accept the cost-saving 'we've got a great squad' hype sold to him at his interview. Having secured the job he then failed to recognise the squad was in fact nowhere near good enough. Or if he did Adkins chose not to confront his paymasters so early in their relationship.
Billy Sharp apart, the manager’s introduction of striker Conor Sammon, midfield men Dean Hammond and Martin Woolford and, defender David Edgar have been, to put it kindly, underwhelming.
Adkins monotonously talks of unity, supporting each other and winning games of football. Putting the ball in at one end and, yes, keeping it out of the other. Which would have some credence if his over-paid and under-performing players actually did it on anything approaching a regular basis. Whatever he preaches on the training ground they are clearly not listening.
Apologising for performances is becoming second nature for United this season. A 4-0 defeat at Gillingham on the opening day and a shambolic 4-2 crash at home to Shrewsbury immediately spring to mind.
Now we have Jose Baxter issuing an apology on his teammates behalf for the lacklustre display at Bury. “We’ve let the fans down too often this season,” and “We’ve got to learn how to win,” is not what you would expect from promotion hopefuls as they enter the final third of the campaign.
If there is any ‘banter’ up at Shirecliffe this week then the players should be even more ashamed of themselves than they were at Gigg Lane. How some of them can look in the mirror and see anything but below average Third Division players staring back and then hold their heads up high, beggars belief.
They are stealing a good living at a football club they are not worthy to play for. They have made Sheffield United a well-established mid-table League One club. Also rans in a league, with respect, full of no-hopers.
Nevertheless United’s biggest and most abused asset, the supporters, have stuck by Adkins. That backing is now wafer thin. Anger his high A seventh home defeat on Saturday against Port Vale and that fury could easily erupt into a car park protest, leaving Adkins in a precarious position and the Board in an embarrassing one.
In that scenario it is likely the Board would take the brunt of the criticism. But once you lose the fans, even if the majority of the blame lies elsewhere, the game is almost up. There is only one fall guy.
Adkins doesn’t help himself. Cringeworthy performances in front of the media insult the intelligence of supporters and, frankly, call into question his own. He clearly never listens back to his own interviews. If he did he would be embarrassed.
Even in good times blind faith and painfully simplistic cliche-ridden rhetoric stating the bleedin’ obvious doesn’t sound good, but he can get away with it. He's a likeable charachter and it's quirky. In bad times it sounds, shallow, clueless and desperate.
Adkins also has a track record to be proud of. Repetition and boundless enthusiasm to learn from his errors is how he has risen from physiotherapist at Scunthorpe to winning four promotions as a manager, three of them from the third tier.
The fact he took Southampton from League One to the Premier League in successive years clinched his appointment at Bramall Lane. It was a no-brainer for club and the majority of fans alike. If ever a man was perfectly qualified for the job it is he.
Adkins has made more mistakes this season than he could ever have imagined but most have roots in a summer of lost opportunity. Believing what he was told by McCabe and Phipps at face value before accepting the job. Failing to see the inadequacies of his inherited squad. Signing players who, Sharp aside, have brought little if anything to the team. They have only added to a wage bill which the Board allowed to spiral out of control under previous manager Nigel Clough.
Adkins, as eluded to earlier, is a man who learns from his mistakes. Whatever the outcome of this campaign, he won’t fall into the same trap for a second time. If nothing else that will make his first 12 months at the Lane worthwhile.
But he also needs to be man enough to stand up to the Board and explain the cost involved of a clearout. If that doesn’t fall on sympathetic ears, rendering the job not worth doing Adkins needs to consider his position.
Which brings us back to Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. They must resolve their differences and give Adkins the full backing needed to put the pride back into Sheffield United. Either that or rid the club of the dark shadow that hangs over it and sell to someone who can.