NIGEL ADKINS was keen to point out that Sheffield United arrived at Craven Cottage in midweek with a game plan. It would have been remiss not to but in any case It clearly didn’t work. A 3-0 defeat by Championship Fulham and two red cards of the brainless variety proved that.
In fact it is unclear what the Blades manager was hoping to achieve in making 10 changes to the starting line-up which beat Blackpool 2-0 at Bramall Lane three days earlier. James Wallace, skipper for the night, was the only survivor.
At best it was a training exercise to sort the wheat from the chaff whilst resting key personnel for the League One promotion campaign. At worst it was a naive leap of faith to win a tie against faltering Fulham with a group of players unlikely to line-up alongside each other again.
Adkins is far too experienced for the latter. It must be assumed the chance of a good cup run for last season’s semi-finalists was a sacrifice worth paying for the common good.
This flies in the face of Adkins’ mantra that his objective is always to win. There aren’t too many Blades fans, however, who would disagree with the general idea. Two cup semi-finals in as many years provided excitement but ultimately were mere sideshows to gloss over serious failings for the main event.
So what did we learn? First and foremost striker Michael Higdon is a passenger who needs to get off, not least for his sake. Two season’s ago on their last visit to Craven Cottage, a last gasp extra-time winner in the FA Cup against then Premier League Fulham scored by Shaun Miller a repeated chant from the Putney End was “when (Chris} Porter scores we’re on the pitch”.
A little unfair to the former United striker, now at Colchester, who did score goals, some crucial, just too infrequently. He hit the back of net 21 times in 105 league and cup appearances over three-and-a-half years for the Blades. But you get my drift. Higdon received the exact same treatment during the second half on Tuesday night. When supporters start taking the mickey, the end is nigh.
Signed by former manager Nigel Clough last August from Dutch club NEC Nijmegen, it was the Liverpudlian’s 21st appearance in which time he has scored five goals, three of them in the Capital One Cup run. Higdon, who has struggled with injury, is a model professional. I say that from an asthetic point of view. At 6ft 1in and powerfully built, he looks the part but that is as far as it goes where United are concerned. Whatever helped him to average almost a goal every two matches in his last season for Dutch Eredivise Nijmegen, has not translated well in South Yorkshire.
Against Fulham he had the chance to impress his new manager for the first time. Given the entire match he failed the test with flying colours whilst striker partner Marc McNulty and Diego De Girolamo, from midfield, looked sharp and took up the slack. Even 84th-minute substitute and golden boy Che Adams made more impact in the short time available to him.
Given United’s newly acquired strength in depth up front, it is impossible to see how Higdon fits in other than as an emergency striker and it would have to be an emergency. A move before the transfer window closes on September 1 must surely be on the cards. Is this really the man who scored 40 goals in 72 appearances for Motherwell in the Scottish Premier League. His 26 league strikes for them in 2012-13 was a post-war club record and he was voted Scotland PFA Players' Player of the Year. Take a look at his spectacular effort prior to that for St Mirren. Something has gone spectacularly wrong since Higdon's move to Bramall Lane.
Craig Alcock, meanwhile, for me shone at right-back and used his chance well to move up the rankings. It won’t be enough to dislodge first choice Kieron Freeman but Alcock did more than enough to impress upon Adkins that he has another capable option.
Like Higdon, signed last summer, Alcock is an intelligent defender who dropped down the pecking order through no fault of his own following the arrival of John Brayford.
Goalkeeper George Long, pilloried by supporters after the 4-0 opening day defeat at Gillingham and subsequently lost his place, was another who stood out for all the right reasons. Yes, United conceded three goals, but none of them were his doing. Long made three spectacular saves, the last of which Fulham converted a fortunate rebound to give make the scoreline more emphatic than it actually was.
Callum McFadzean, another who suffered in the aftermath of that crash at Gillingham, produced an assured performance to match those of pre-season. I still think the 21-year-old is a better option than Adkins preferred choice and captain Jay McEveley who is prone to needless errors despite the 30-year-old’s experience.
It is significant that McEveley was moved out from central defence following the arrival of loan signing David Edgar. It is also noticeable that at left-back McEverley looks calm and assured until he’s put under pressure. Recently against Chesterfield for example, he patrolled comfortably until the 70th-minute introduction of midfield man Gyboli Ariyibi who gave him a torrid time for the remainder of the match.
Harrison McGahey, now fully fit, did not do his claims any harm at centre-half. His partner on the night, Kieran Wallace moved from his preferred midfield position, did himself no favours. Jose Baxter was heavily crticised for a needless lunge at Fulham’s Tom Cairney which resulted in a red card. It was no less irresponsible, however, than Wallace, the last defender, who scythed down Moussa Dembele. United were trailing 2-0 and deep into injury time. Where was the sense in that?
Adkins’ frustration in picking out Baxter’s dismissal is born out of knowing that the midfield man's three-match ban will have far more bearing on his immediate plans. But what happened to “no individual will be singled out; we win together, we lose together”?
The result flattered but Fulham deserved to go through to round three and earn a home tie against Stoke. Their first win of the season, it was honours even after 45 minutes. For most of the second half, however, the Londoners made United’s second string look like a team well and truly from the third tier..
A chance missed or lessons learned? Whatever, no way was this a blot on the landscape of the scale of defeat at Gillingham. Adkins discovered more about some players than maybe he would have liked. If United pick up at Swindon on Saturday from where they left off, no-one will care.