The Burton Blade
Sheffield United supporter Ian Rands has his own side to worry about. The Blades are currently bottom of the Championship and look set to tumble out of the division without so much as a whimper. But there is another relegation-threatened team that he has one eye on, thanks to a former Bramall Lane hero.
Thursday 15th May 2003 saw one of the greatest matches I have ever seen in my life and perhaps one of the greatest play-off matches ever: Championship Play Off Semi-Final Second Leg – Sheffield United 4 Nottingham Forest 3. After a one-all draw at the City Ground, Forest took a two-goal lead in the 58th minute of the second leg and appeared all set for the Millennium Stadium. That was until the Blades hit back twice, pulled level and took it to extra time.
Eight minutes from penalties and the Blades took the lead for the first time in the tie. Paul Peschisolido latched onto a Paddy Kenny goal kick and ran at the Forest defence, his weaving run ending with a shot rolling past the wrong-footed Darren Ward. His iconic celebration, throwing off his shirt, a run containing more dropped shoulders and weaves than his run on goal and a repetitive shout of “Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God” has gone down in Blades folklore. You can see it here.
That moment aside, Peschisolido was viewed as a popular and somewhat under-used player at Bramall Lane, more often than not employed as a super-sub by Neil Warnock when many fans would have liked to see him given more starts. Maybe Warnock was right. On moving to Derby, his goal-scoring and appearance record followed a similar pattern. His departure for Derby, although disappointing to many fans, saw him leave with only goodwill and best wishes from Unitedites.
Blades fans’ interest in Peschi peaked again when he took over at Burton Albion in May 2009. Taking on what many would view as a poisoned chalice; his first managerial position, the club’s first season in the Football League, the permanent replacement for the Brewers’ messiah, Nigel Clough, who had headed North east up the A38 (albeit with Roy MacFarland in temporary charge in between) and a club which had made virtually continual improvements in league position, year on year, for eleven years.
The fact that he took newly-promoted Albion to 13th in League Two impressed many, although his near-symmetrical record saw defeats outnumber victories by one. What caught the eye as much as the finishing position was the way they went about it, with plenty of fun along the way. 71 goals saw them achieve the fourth highest goalscoring record in the division, whilst an identical 71 goals conceded was as bad as two of the bottom three with only Crewe, Accrington Stanley and relegated Darlington conceding more.
21 of those goals came courtesy of Shaun Harrad, a striker who had been with the club for over 6 years and was a key contributor to their rise from the Conference. With goalscoring not an issue, defensive strengthening was made with the arrival of the experienced Darren Moore as club captain and all looked fair for the Brewers to push on this season. With a strengthened squad, a year of experience of league football for the club and a year of league management for Peschi to build on, expectations of a play-off place were not unreasonable.
Pre-season saw the Blades travel to the Pirelli Stadium for a pre-season friendly, with a healthy away following attracted by the visit to a new stadium and a reunion with Peschi. They went home disappointed, although, with the benefit of hindsight, Burton’s 1-0 win said as much about the Blades’ prospects for the coming season as those of Albion.
The season started steadily, but the pre-Christmas cold snap, combined with FA Cup success, including a third round victory over Middlesbrough, left Burton with a fixture backlog that Peschisolido described as “ludicrous”. The final 24 games were to be fitted into a 96-day period. In effect, a game every four days. With up to eight games in hand on some teams, they sat second bottom of League Two in early February, but the play-off places were still a possibility if they successfully played catch up.
To make matters worse, unsettled striker Harrad, who had thirteen League and Cup goals to his name, moved to Northampton in the transfer window. Since then, both Harrad and Burton’s form could optimistically be described as patchy. Peschisolido has a team built around experience (the word veteran was made for 46-year-old goalkeeper Kevin Poole) pepped up with a sprinkling of young players and loanees, but he has struggled to find the right blend in an interrupted season.
This seems to be the fans’ biggest gripe, that his inexperience is unhelpful in such a pressured situation and his inability to find the right formula and stick with it is perpetuating the problem. It has been said that he is benefiting from the fact that chairman Ben Robinson gambled on his appointment and is keen to show loyalty to “his man”. He may also be receiving some slack for the circumstances beyond his control that have led to the club constantly chasing their season.
Despite this criticism, his name was mentioned in dispatches each time the Bramall Lane vacancy has arisen this season and, although thought of fondly, most would acknowledge that he was not the right man and it wasn’t the right time.
As the season rolls on, those games in hand are diminishing and a four-goal burst from Peschisolido’s former strike partner (and scorer of the equalising goal against Forest) Steve Kabba enabled Barnet to close to within two points. A midweek visit from Northampton Town, one place above Burton, looked the perfect opportunity for Harrad to come back and haunt his old club. Again, he failed to get on the score sheet and a one-all draw did neither side any favours.
If Peschisolido can get over this second season hump, it could be the making of him as a manager. If he fails, then a second managerial opportunity will be much harder to come by.
There will be many Blades fans watching with interest and hoping that squad fatigue and managerial inexperience do not halt his career development. If it doesn’t, we might be coming knocking on the doors of the Pirelli Stadium in a couple of years time. As long as they haven’t passed us en route.