Nick Blackman and Buckling Down at the Blades
We put an end to our Monday Profile series in the Summer after a two year run but, in a bid to occasionally recapture the spirit of that venture, will occasionally shine a light on a Football League player of our choice. Today, Ian Rands of A United View on Football surveys the first few months of Nick Blackman’s Sheffield United career and wonders if his encouraging early momentum can be maintained.
As Sheffield United have ground their way to second place in League One, displaying the sporting flair and efficiency of the Canadian snooker player Cliff Thorburn, one player in particular will have grabbed the attention of those outside the environs of the city of seven hills. Top scorer with 9 goals, Nick Blackman has netted over a third of the Blades’ league and cup goals this season, in a side struggling to create clear cut chances.
Detractors may point to the fact that three goals have come from the penalty spot, but credit to the 23 year old for taking responsibility in tight games where the penalty has defined the winning margin. He displays a calmness under pressure from 12 yards that belies the fact he has started just 51 league games both North and South of the Border.
A promising young player at Macclesfield Town, Blackman was picked up by Blackburn Rovers after just 12 appearances (most from off the bench) and one goal for the Silkmen. It was a rather unusual move from the then Premier League Rovers. It is possible that they saw potential in the 20 year old, although others may point to the player’s links to SEM – the agency of Jerome Anderson.
He struggled to make a breakthrough at Ewood Park and went on loan to North West neighbours Oldham and Blackpool, but 2 goals in a combined 17 appearances did little to strengthen his case. Reasonably successful loan spells in Scotland at Aberdeen and Motherwell raised his profile, his spell in Lanarkshire garnering 10 goals in 18 appearances.
Danny Wilson’s fifth signing over the Summer, Blackman’s arrival in S2 hardly set pulses racing; with little known of his capabilities, the arrival on loan of Old Trafford graduate John Cofie created more of a stir. Whereas Cofie has struggled both with the physical demands of League One and the knowledge of how to play off his teammates, Blackman has adapted much quicker. His age advantage, his increased stature and his prior experience of senior football clearly differentiating his contribution from that of his younger colleague.
So what does he offer? Well, when he is in possession, you sense something exciting might happen, but equally as likely is a wild shot from distance blazed over the bar. His clear strengths are his pace, particularly when running at defenders, and his ability to hold up the ball. However, these strengths become a weakness when he does the hard work but then fails to part with the ball when a teammate takes up a good position. It is interesting that his stats show a player who has scored a goal once every two games and half of his shots per game are on target. Yet he is yet to provide an assist to a team-mate.
He chases lost causes and often recovers the ball, but when there are easier positions to chase down, he is strutting around the pitch seemingly oblivious to the opportunity. He lacks little confidence and whilst that is no bad thing to have, the margins for error in a player’s judgment become much greater.
In his first few games you could see so much potential. The burst with which he started the season certainly excited Unitedites who may have thought they had found the 20+ goals a season striker we desperately need. This fuelled a level of attention, particularly to his twitter account, that a young player can only be swayed by and play up too. That natural self-confidence, buoyed by exuberant fans only too quick to tell you how great you are, leaves a player who needs to be pricked out of his bubble of attention.
His subsequent departure from twitter has perhaps helped his ability to to focus, but performances in recent matches have raised concerns, even if this could be put down to a lack of creativity in the final third and Danny Wilson’s conservative tactics, particularly away from home. Those who defend him from criticism point to his goals and detract from the contribution of the less prolific scapegoats like Chris Porter and Richard Cresswell. There is still over half the season to go, and if we may well have found the man to fire us to the Championship, doubts still remain.
Many Blades would like to see fellow Summer signing Shaun Miller given an opportunity to start, particularly given recent, brief, cameos from the bench and some excellent link up play with Porter, which led to 2 goals in the JPT at Notts County. In a squad lacking goals and width, the prospect of having Blackman run at players out wide, with Miller and Porter in the middle, is an enticing one.
Miller seems the more natural candidate to play off a target man like Porter and, before him, the now injured Dave Kitson. Blackman seems to wander too much and at times the industrious Kitson has won flick ons and held the ball up, only to find his strike partner nowhere near him. This complaint was again repeated by Blades attending Saturday’s game at Stadium:MK; commenting that Porter was winning much of the ball, only to have no real support. It is vital that this is addressed in a side that has gone much more direct in their attacking play than last season.
I think you can see why he has moved clubs and there could be an argument that he has found his level in League One. However, he is clearly benefiting from a run in a relatively successful side and a manger that has faith in him, something that has eluded him in his recent career. Whilst his contribution in a side struggling to score goals cannot be ignored, you cannot help feeling there is so much more he is capable off with a bit more application and thought; so much more substance to offer, over and above his obvious style.
As with many young players, the “undisclosed fee” is a veil of protection from undue pressure. If, as a recent tabloid match report suggested, the fee for Blackman was £350,000 I think we are vindicated in expecting more. An interesting comment from a Rovers follower backs up this view.
“A decent lad, but one who is going to have to work harder if he wants to make it. There are too many players like him, talented but no inner drive or inner motivation to work hard and succeed.”
He reminds me of a young Marcus Bent, when he joined the Blades from Port Vale at a similar age. For all his many faults and the frustration he generated, Bent’s goal per game ratio at Bramall Lane was very good. Nick Blackman could well do the same and will have another season at the end of this one to justify a longer stay. I just hope for his sake that he applies himself and succeeds rather than adding to the seven clubs already under his belt and becoming a footballing nomad like Bent.