SO now we know. The extent of Sheffield United’s ambition has been exposed for all to see and it’s not a pretty sight. But is anyone really surprised?
Faced with the choice in the January transfer window of making up for lost time and trying to reboot another hugely disappointing season of false promises, or simply gambling on reaching the play-off semi-finals, the club ended up with the latter. Whether circumstantial, down to a lack of planning, financial conviction or simply failing to sell the club as an attractive proposition, it doesn’t matter.
The result is the same. United can forget about automatic promotion – in truth they have never been in the running – and chances have not been improved should they earn the right to attempt promotion the hard way.
It would be ridiculous to argue that Board, manager, coaching staff and the players don’t want what is best for the club. Championship football next season is a must. The problem is collectively they don’t know how to do it while continuing to delude themselves under a morass of baffling management strategies, rethinks, upheavals and protocols.
The top brass lack any semblance of leadership and have a track record to prove it.
Despite a ludicrous squad size of about 40 ‘professionals’ it is unfit for purpose given that the original target was automatic promotion.
United have a manager who has won three promotions from League One with Scunthorpe (2) and Southampton but has been caught out by the fundamental flaw in the club’s make-up he failed to appreciate when he accepted the job in June. As a result he has to massage egos above and below him while giving an impression to the outside world that everything is under control and going to plan.
The problem for Nigel Adkins is that he knows it isn’t and Blades fans know that he knows. The Birkenhead bonhomie is beginning to wear thin. He hasn’t anything new to say as his players continue to let him down. Adkins’ media offerings sound like an old record. It doesn’t help that among those betraying his confidence, with the exception of Billy Sharp, are individuals he added to former manager Nigel Clough’s unbalanced squad.
Club owner and co-chairman Kevin McCabe, Sheffield-born, a decent man with his heart in the right place, has nevertheless presided over eight-and-a-half years of rapid, catastrophic and costly decline since relegation from the Premier League in 2007. The fall from grace has been breathtaking, including the appointment of eight managers in as many years.
Brussels-based property developer McCabe prides himself on the business acumen which has accumulated a personal fortune and allowed him to embark on a prolonged quest, which began in the 1990s, to make Sheffield United one of the top names in English football. As accusations and insults fly from a loyal but disillusioned fan base that shouldn’t be forgotten. Anyone who has met him will know how approachable, open and frank he is. Sometimes too frank for his own good.
Since 2013, after selling 50 per cent of the club for £1 to Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud who pledged to make “substantial investment” to ensure the quickest possible return to the Premier League, the pair have steered United further into the long grass of English football’s wilderness.
SOLD A PUP
A ‘game-changer’ was how McCabe described Prince Abdullah’s arrival. How hollow does that sound now. As far as Unitedites are concerned his presence is tantamount to myth and one suspects that McCabe, reported at the time to have written off £35million of loans to the club, must be wondering if he was sold a pup.
The Saudi royal, a member of his country’s undemocratic government in which he is General President for Youth Welfare and reported in 2014 by Forbes Magazine to be among the top 100 on Saudi’s rich list, is said to have invested £13million at Bramall Lane.
Presumably that is propping up United’s inflated wage bill of many under-achieving and ill-chosen players in a bloated squad. As a stand-alone, how he and McCabe have allowed that unnecessary financial burden to happen calls into question their authority, wisdom and know-how.
It is something that has clearly held the club back in its efforts to strengthen. The priority in January being to offload, hence the decision to shed seven players, four permanent moves and three loan deals. So desperate were they to get rid of striker Michael Higdon he was released and the remainder of his contract paid up.
A sixth home defeat of the season at the weekend means United have dropped 22 points of the 45 so far available at the Lane this season which makes a mockery of a constant stream of delusional comments emanating from the club at all levels.
The league table does not lie, however, and United are 11th, 14 points from an automatic promotion place but crucially just five from the last play-off spot. Despite the Blades inconsistency they are still in with a chance. This illustrates how poor League One is and by comparison how poor United have been.
United’s remarkably loyal and long-suffering supporters, the vast majority being remarkably tolerant and understanding, deserve much better. Unlike previous seasons, however, where the problem lies is now abundantly clear. At the very top.
The progress that has unfolded in a remarkably short space of time under new ownership at Sheffield Wednesday demonstrates what is possible in the right hands.
Mr McCabe and his suspect Saudi partner must take a long, hard look at themselves. More of the same is not acceptable.
Either discard a failed, ill-judged and misguided strategy, however well intentioned, demand a clearout at the end of the season and provide Adkins with the resources to start giving Blades fans something to be proud of.
If not, step aside and find a buyer who can.