Conversations with Ian Rands (Sheffield United)
We complete a quartet of Conversations by picking the brains of Ian Rands and it will be hard to beat this one for anguish given that its topic is Sheffield United Football Club. Ian is of course the proprietor of the superb website A United View on Football, famous for its series of offbeat footballing charts and a burgeoning set of Dislikable XIs. Here, Lanterne Rouge chews the fat with Ian over the Bramall Lane apocalypse:
LR: Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s been a calamitous season for the Blades. In hindsight, did the board over react when Kevin Blackwell was sacked after the 3-0 defeat at home to QPR? Or had Blackwell’s time run its course?
IR: That’s a simple question, but not a straightforward answer. Yes they were right to get rid of Kevin Blackwell, but the timing was terrible. Rumours at the time suggested it was an impetuous decision by Kevin McCabe, embarrassed by the mauling his team was receiving whilst entertaining potential investors. How much truth is in this? I am not sure, but in the absence of any credible or rational explanation…..
Having allowed Blackwell to recruit and reshape the squad over the Summer we had picked up a good point away at Cardiff, having had Matt Lowton sent off, and lost to a QPR side that would be far and away the best in the division. In between was a disappointing Carling Cup defeat at Hartlepool, a match that saw the small squad already stretched to its limits with several youngsters taking a place on the bench alongside the semi-retired coach Gary Speed and goalkeeping coach Paul Crichton.
Despite the multitude of frustrations that had built up over the previous 12 months (with team, performance, manager, officials) and the fact that there was a vocal minority calling for Kevin Blackwell’s head after half an hour, a majority of Blades fans were shocked and stunned to hear the news of his departure drifting across the airwaves as they journeyed home.
There were two occasions when Blackwell could and probably should have gone. The first may seem a little harsh, but after the Blades habitual play off final failure (vs. Burnley in 2009), as most fans were dejectedly heading home, Blackwell virtually resigned in a post-match interview on Sky. He suggested he had reached the limit of where he could take United and you get the feeling he knew that he had just had his best shot at taking us up and the financial belt tightening was imminent. Many people, particularly in the media, put this down to an emotional outburst at a difficult time, but really it should have been taken as an admittance of defeat. He could have been allowed to walk away with his head held relatively high, having taken the Blades from the relegation places ,on taking over from Robson, to the edge of the play offs in his first season and following it with a final day chance of automatic promotion and subsequent play off final defeat.
The following season, the first without parachute payments, saw the loss of the two Kyles, a high turnover of players and numerous loan players utilised. In the end this did little to reduce an exorbitant wage bill and the Naughton/Walker monies absorbed increasing debts. Fans can cope with unattractive football when it is successful, but the churn of players and Blackwell’s tactical limitations saw the Blades playing pedestrian “hoofball” with little or no pace anywhere in the side. Frustration increased in the stands and in the dugout as the manager became more and more irascible in post-match interviews, the strain clearly visible. On the back of this, I expected him to leave last Summer, but as the pre-season wore on and players such as Leon Britton were signed, much was made about the change of style Blackwell was going to implement. In the end, neither Blackwell nor Britton lasted the season.
Having blocked Swansea’s approach for coach Gary Speed last Summer, I think the board had a (now clearly misplaced) long term plan in mind. Given Speed’s increasing presence on the touchline and at the training ground, I think they thought that succession and continuity would not be an issue, despite the ridiculous timing. How wrong they were and, with hindsight, how delighted must Swansea fans be!
LR: Of course, Speed lasted only a short period before jumping ship to the Wales job. You allude to the unspectacular nature of his spell in charge. How did Speed approach games tactically and did he attempt to subvert the meat and drink style of the Blackwell era?
IR: Speed talked of change, but ostensibly could affect little of it in the short time he was in charge . With the transfer window near closure when he took over, yet again the club were heavily reliant on loan players, a situation exacerbated by the continuing long term absence of Darius Henderson and a serious injury to captain Chris Morgan. When he took over, he talked confidently at a fans forum – the stated objective being a Premier League return. That aim was soon revised downwards, to something akin to stability.
You could see signs of Speed making small l changes on the pitch and we certainly looked brighter with Leon Britton in a deeper role than Blackwell had planned. That aside, Speed seemed to struggle to change things when matches were slipping away. At times games were lost by the odd goal when a point or more could have been salvaged. Throughout his reign goal scoring was a problem, although no one in charge, or involved in coaching the squad, over the course of the season seemed capable of solving that conundrum. We played with more width than at any point in the season, but often without incisive end product. I also had hopes that he would unlock the potential of the enigma that is Ched Evans but that never happened. He often spoke of the Welsh international’s great technical ability and the power and accuracy of his shooting, but we saw little of it transferred from training ground to match day.
At the other end of the pitch, the defence seemed hell bent on making a weekly “brain-dead” blunder that no amount of coaching could ever eradicate: a trait that continued to plague performances until the end of the season. Post-match interviews saw Speed appearing more and more frustrated and downbeat – no amount of media training could help disguise it. When the Wales job came knocking it was probably best for all parties that he moved on.
There was no great hand-wringing from Blades fans at his departure. When he first joined, I was adamant that he needed time and 4 months was never long enough to accurately rate his ability. There was significant change required throughout the club and significant restrictions in terms of what was feasible short term and I think he under-estimated the size of the problem. Certainly he didn’t fully appreciate the financial restrictions that would hamper his ability to reshape in a way he wanted. I think that he might well have been the right man for United, but it was completely the wrong time.
LR: To take a breather from the managerial whirligig that brought Micky Adams to the club, I’d like to ask you about the team as it shaped up throughout the Autumn and Winter – which players failed to love up to expectations the most and where were the side’s main weaknesses?
IR: How did we shape up? Without a shape – most of the time. We didn’t seem to know what to do with marquee signing Britton and it was no surprise to see him move on, although it was a little surprising that he returned to Swansea. We seemed to be searching for the right formula, however an inability to win more than two consecutive league games and the chopping and changing of personnel and tactics perpetuated the problem.
The side’s main weakness was at the back, although you could argue that a lack of goals up front and creativity from midfield contributed equally to our position. Having said that you can get away with a lack of goals, if your defence is strong. Unfortunately, it wasn’t and behind the back four we had Steve Simonsen, who had impressed at the end of the previous season, but was now joining the defenders in a race to see who could make the most costly errors.
Probably the biggest disappointment was Nyron Nosworthy. Supposedly a Premier League defender and Sunderland’s Player of the Season in 2007, he was just an accident waiting to happen, week in week out. The signs had been there in his loan spell the previous season, yet if anything his play deteriorated in his second spell. The experience you suspect he was expected to bring, especially in Chris Morgan’s absence, was non-existent.
Other disappointments were the injury prone wing pairing of Jamie Ward and Mark Yeates. Shorn of any real width, we were left with a very workman-like midfield and chances, when provided for Ched Evans and Richard Cresswell, were at a premium. They were rarely taken.
LR: Glossing over the fact that my own favourites Reading have been linked with Nyron Nosworthy, let’s turn to the managerial reign of Micky Adams – I remember corresponding with you at the time of his appointment and you backed him as a sensible choice. Then came the bad start, followed by a revival of sorts, and then the axe courtesy of Kevin McCabe. How would you assess Adams’ spell in charge and how would you assess McCabe’s time at the Bramall Lane steering wheel?
IR: I honestly thought Adams’ was a sensible choice. An experienced head who knows (and supports) the club, a stabilizing influence who, although he wouldn’t pull up any trees, was surely capable of freeing us from a relegation dogfight? How wrong I was! In one word, his reign was a disaster and something that will no doubt haunt him for the rest of his life.
Unable to get the best out of the squad he inherited, seemingly on collision course with two (on their day) of our more creative players in Ward and Yeates and supplementing the squad with two permanent signings (Neill Collins and Michael Doyle) who were so stunningly bad, they struggled to hold down a first team place at the end of the season. Add in loan players who offered little for their wage – I am referring to you Marcus Bent – and an inability to identify his preferred XI and system, Adams never got to grips with the task in hand.
At times there were positive signs, a cup defeat at home to Aston Villa still provided hope in terms of individual players and overall performance, yet the longer we went without a victory the more desperate and forlorn Adams appeared. That can only have transferred itself to the players. His upset often materialised itself in ways that, although welcomed by the support who wanted honesty about the mess we were in, could not have helped his standing with the players. His emotional outburst after the Blades threw away a 2 goal lead at Glanford Park, included barbs at the players and at (unexplained) things he had uncovered since taking charge.
Fans were split on his departure. There was some ill feeling, but not the amount you would expect to be aimed at a manager who has overseen relegation. There was an underlying sympathy for a man who appeared out of his depth, unable to deal with expectation, some of which he was heaping on himself. Maybe he was the right man to get us out of League One, in the same way Warnock would have been the right man to get us out of the Championship following our Premier League relegation. As with the Warnock conundrum, we will never know.
As for McCabe, his stock, with the fans, is probably at an all time low. His personal wealth continues to prop up a substantial loss making business. His gambles on diversification (both globally – Ferencvà¡ros, Chengdu, Central Coast and operationally – property joint ventures) were hit by the two R’s – relegation (from the Premier League) and Recession. There are those who question his motives, his decision making and those he chooses to surround himself with. Former Chief Executive Trevor Birch and former Chairman Terry Robinson are frequent recipients of fans’ ire, yet both have great credibility in football circles.
Ultimately, I think McCabe made all his decisions with the best intentions. The fact that many of them haven’t paid off and we find ourselves in League One is to his financial detriment. People ponder on where the Tevez monies have gone and look for monies McCabe has purportedly “taken out of the club”. Missing the amounts he has had to invest through share issues and loans to keep us going. Tough times are ahead, both for the club and McCabe personally. He couldn’t find the investment required to allow him to take a back seat over the last few years. He is unlikely to find such people chasing after a League One club.
LR: I’m not surprised there was sympathy for Adams who comes across as a decent man although a recent post we published by Port Vale fan Tom Bourne again called his judgement into question. I’d like to finish on a positive note though — United did splendidly to reach the FA Youth Cup Final and youngsters such as Jordan Slew provide hope. There’s also the prospect of a couple of mighty derby battles with Wednesday to look forward to — do you think Blades can be optimistic for their medium term future?
IR: I have to admit to not being a fan of the derbies. As much as they are great occasions with a wonderful atmosphere and as much as you want to “put one over on the other lot” (and that is something we have done to them more than they have done to us ;-)) there is an over-riding fear of losing that means I always sit their thinking negative thoughts throughout. But that’s just me. I would rather be a division apart and let the league tables do the talking.
As for being optimistic about the medium term future? To be honest, I don’t really know! Very few clubs below the Premier League are not selling clubs and given our financial situation we will continue to be one for the foreseeable future. Players will have to be sold and, although we will want to lose some of the high earners (Darius Henderson being the first of several anticipated departures), there is always the possibility that we will be left with players that other clubs are unwilling to take on based on their existing terms and no amount of financial arm-twisting in terms of a deal will prove otherwise. Richard Cresswell will no doubt be one of the best paid players in League One next season.
In these circumstances, it is likely that the club will cash in on some of our young academy players especially if a decent amount (or often indecent amount) is offered. These are always emotive decisions, but for every Phil Jagielka, Kyle Walker, Kyle Naughton, there is a Wayne Quinn, a Lee Morris or a Nicky Law. If players choose to move (and at the end of the day it is their decision) it could not only be to the detriment of United, but also their career. We will have to wait and see what happens. I might feel more comfortable in a month’s time when the squad has taken shape!
Follow Ian on twitter at @unitedite