Broken Britton? Leon leaves Blades to seal Swansea return
Despite spending little over six months at Sheffield United, former West Ham trainee Leon Britton is heading back to his “career club”, Swansea City. It seemed quite a coup for United to attract the midfielder to Bramall Lane in the summer. Ian Rands explores why Britton was less than great for the Blades.
When Leon Britton moved to the steel city in June, big things were expected from him. Heralded as the player who would drive a change in style of play that was being demanded by the fans, expectations were heightened by reports that Sheffield United had held off interest from Wigan (managed by former team mate Roberto Martinez) and Middlesbrough. There were also newspaper reports suggesting that he had signed a deal reportedly doubling his Swansea salary. This coming at a time when United were supposedly scaling back their wage bill. Now he is making the return journey to South Wales – 24 starts, two substitute appearances and four managers later.
Britton started the season playing just off a lone front man in an advanced midfield role and in the opening games he settled in with a couple of steady performances that set the template for his future performances for the Blades. Although the position varied the performances were the same. Always comfortable on the ball, he held onto possession well and generally found a team-mate with a pass. Often, though, this was a simple, short, sideways pass, rather than the incisive through ball Blades fans were wanting. To be fair, this may well be due as much to the lack of movement from the forwards as Britton’s footballing capabilities.
When Gary Speed took over, he tried Britton in a deeper role just in front of the back four. On paper this seemed a good idea, forcing United to build play with a passing game from the back. However, that left Johnny Ertl and Nick Montgomery as the attacking midfielders in front of Britton which did little to improve the Blades paucity of goals or protect a flailing defence. John Carver (briefly) and Micky Adams followed, but neither drove Britton to the flashes of inspiration the fans craved.
Maybe an expectation gap was the problem. Britton’s goal record for Swansea was not great and the number of assists in recent seasons was equally low. Maybe Blades fans’ perception of what he might do and the way he is best utilised are two different things.
Britton follows in the footsteps of many highly-rated midfielders, highly-rated footballers even, who come to Bramall Lane and move on swiftly. Some, having seemingly had the football knocked out of them, take the Brian Howard route and go on to struggle elsewhere. Perhaps Britton represents the player Sheffield United fans always think they want, but in reality doesn’t fit their style of play or circumstances.
Now Sheffield United are in a proper scrap and the much publicised “Blades Way” of playing and operating as a club is no longer the modus operandi. Expectations were set when, in his introductory press conference, Micky Adams referred to the need to get the ball in the box and cause some carnage. There is not really a place for Britton in that.
The return from injury (and a spell on a life support machine) of Lee Williamson is both remarkably swift and welcome. He is more than capable of filling the role Leon has performed, whilst also adding a much more physical presence to the midfield.
There are other factors that could well be playing a part in his departure. Certainly his wages are high relative to others in the squad. If he doesn’t fit into manager’s plans, the savings in wages and a potential recoupment of signing on fees as part of the departure will give Adams a bit more leeway in the transfer window, where he has been told he has to wheel and deal.
Rumours also make reference to Leon’s homesickness, although whether he is pining for London or South Wales is open to question. Whatever the circumstances, it cannot have been easy settling in Sheffield and finding time to visit his child in London and girlfriend and family in Wales. These factors have just added to the fans indifference at his departure. There is no point keeping an unsettled player on a good wage, as long as the place and money he frees up is put to good use.
Leon goes with best wishes. He did little wrong, but in a struggling squad hit by injuries and peppered with loan players he did not excel. When his side needed some one to get hold of the ball and grab hold of the game, he was sadly lacking.
Maybe a return to Swansea will revitalise his game. However, with six other players competing for a midfield berth, the first team opportunities he has had at Bramall Lane may no longer be guaranteed at the Liberty Stadium.