The Thursday Preview: Middlesbrough Vs Sheffield United
Twenty years ago, Gordon Strachan and Gary Speed were the wide men as Leeds United captured this League’s title. Speed, a youngster who had broken through that season, scored a memorable fourth goal as the Peacocks defeated their nearest rivals Sheffield United 4-0 in the run in, but even these significant events were topped two years later as the Yorkshire club won the biggest domestic prize of the lot, clinching the last ever top flight Football League title with a dramatic victory at Bramall Lane.
So, to have appointed something of a nemesis as their manager will have provoked mild surprise amongst the denizens of S2. Speed, however, has already caught the eye as a coach in his short touchline career, so much so that Swansea came knocking on his door in the Summer, part of a concerted Welsh attempt to recapture their lost sons. He resisted those advances, perhaps expecting the demise of his boss, and so it has come to pass – defeat against Hartlepool in the Carling Cup followed by an apocalyptic 3-0 reverse in their first home fixture in the League led Kevin Blackwell out the door.
As argued in a recent excellent piece on Soccer AM/MW (not Soccer AM, I hasten to add), Speed’s arrival provides United with a chance to jettison the ugly, unpleasant football that has characterized them for some time now. At times, Blades as a club have seemed almost congenitally suited to the long ball – a tradition running back to Dave “Harry” Bassett and the High Priest of Hughesian tactics, a certain Cornish resident called Neil. Whether the arrival of John Carver alongside Speed will please aesthetes is doubtful in the extreme after his less than effective spell at Plymouth, although the cultured Leon Britton will welcome a change of approach.
The scrapping Mark Yeates, on the other hand, will be disappointed to see Kevin Blackwell leave, but he’ll be relishing a chance to get stuck in to his former club at the Riverside on Sunday. Industrious as Boro made a just about acceptable start to last season, Gordon Strachan didn’t fancy him, deciding instead to rely on home comforts as the campaign and the following Summer wore on. There will be warm handshakes all round in the technical areas on Sunday, but Strachan will have watched Blackwell’s departure with nervousness. He’s not under threat yet and Steve Gibson has backed the wee Gingerman with a lot of hard cash, but it’s not been a start to justify the pre-season favourites tag, as The Seventy Two recently analyzed.
That said, there were moments of entertainment in a respectable second game draw at Leicester and Chesterfield were once again put to the sword in the Carling, evoking memories of one of English football’s all time classic encounters. Brad Jones has also upped to Liverpool for silly money and this will perhaps provide Jason Steele with his opportunity. Boro will fancy themselves at home, but like last season’s televised August opener, it has 0-0 etched over it.