Although we move down a division in our season preview to League 1 today, the club to which we turn our attention – Sheffield United – are as big as they come in the Football League. Here, Ian Rands of A United View on Football ponders whether it’ll be second time lucky for manager Danny Wilson in 2012-13.
It’s been an interesting summer for Sheffield United fans. After the slow motion car crash-ending to last season, a veil of uncertainty and anxiety has been thrown over the club. With wealthy benefactor Kevin McCabe in search of new investors to share the burden of existance on an unsustainable cost base, a failure to win promotion was the last thing that he or the Blades needed.
The near silence emanating from Bramall Lane in the weeks following the play-off final heartache at Wembley did little to alleviate concerns. In the end, several players were released following the expiry of their deals while new terms were offered to the out of contract Kevin McDonald and Lee Williamson; both key players in terms of dictating our attractive style of play and also, in Williamson’s case providing goals from midfield.
Even so, whilst retaining the services of these two was seen as important, there was concern that keeping our brightest stars might be more difficult. So it initially proved, with Matt Lowton leaving for Aston Villa whilst McDonald and Williamson deliberated over the reduced terms on offer. Even now, local papers continue to run stories linking Harry Maguire with a move, Leicester reportedly being the most interested club. Yet these stories seem to be paper-filling articles in the absence of any other news. Early in the summer, fans berated the lack of news; now they are becoming sick of repeated non-stories or unsubstantiated tittle tattle.
Deep down fans know more changes are to be expected; players are likely to leave to allow cheaper, new blood to flow in. A loss making League 1 club, getting to grips with a salary cap set at 65% of turnover will struggle to build a challenging squad with players such as Stephen Quinn, Richard Cresswell and Nick Montgomery on reported five figure weekly salaries. The question remains: will anyone be willing to take them on at such a cost? Quinn – a player who generates divisive opinions within the support, despite being judged good enough for the PFA Team of the Season by his fellow pros – is the one most likely to move on.
Whilst players remain in situ on high wages, the club is undergoing a radical cost restructuring behind the scenes. Two thirds of back office staff have been placed at threat of redundancy and – whether the club is over-staffed or not – this cannot make for the best of atmospheres at what has always been a happy and welcoming Family club. As players argue the toss over an extra £1,000 a week, people on that a month are at risk of being put out of work.
In the last fortnight a letter has been sent to shareholders stating Kevin McCabe’s intention to transfer the fixed assets (read Bramall Lane and Academy) from the football club to the plc; the stated aim being to make the football club a more attractive proposition for investors. Yet the limited detail of the letter and lack of further communication around it raise more questions than answers.
The club has felt rudderless; lacking decisive leadership and clear communication to supporters. The absence of off-field direction has coincided with sad news of an on-pitch leader; the inevitable retirement of former club captain Chris Morgan. His, now career ending, injury was picked up during our last Championship season and his absence – both as player and captain – as the club pursued survival against a backdrop of high player (and manager) turnover was a key factor in our eventual relegation. You can’t help feeling that his presence might have given some much needed continuity and cohesion.
The fact that McDonald has committed his future to the club has given United fans some much needed hope for the new season. His could be described as the best signing in League 1 this season. McDonald is the fulcrum on which our whole style of play depends and a player whose absence in the latter part of last season certainly affected our final league position and play-off performances. That said, there are still gaping holes to fill, not least the 31 goals supplied by Ched Evans; central defensive cover; and a wide player to attack the box like Williamson, who is now looking elsewhere for a club.
The goals are unlikely to come from Cresswell, more likely a foil for a more pacey striker, or Chris Porter, a back-up striker last season. This places significant pressure on Manchester United loanee John Cofie and Shaun Miller, a signing from Crewe. United were linked with Miller last season, on the back of a decent League 2 return in 2010-11. Out of form and out of favour for much of last season, however, Miller was unable to replicate that quality after the opening salvo of games. Will Danny Wilson be the man to unlock the obvious potential Miller has? Or that of fellow new signing, right back Darryl Westlake, who has not fulfilled the promise demonstrated when he was Walsall’s young player of the season a couple of years ago?
The additions of Tony McMahon from Middlesboro and Matt Hill – who was released by Blackpool after a loan spell at Bramall Lane at the end of last season – add the vital defensive cover that was lacking for much of last season. Now we await the injection of pace we so badly require.
In the aftermath of Wembley, bookmakers immediately installed United as favourites for the League 1 title this season. They say the bookies are never far off the mark, but the general sentiment amongst Blades fans was to suggest that they might well be this time. It appeared a gut reaction by the odds-setters to the fact we had done so well last season, overlooking the changes that were likely to follow over the summer.
Recent activity has given Blades fans renewed hope for the season and maybe a realisation that we don’t need to be as good as we were at times last term to put up a strong challenge. I tend to conform with the view that League 1 will be weaker this time around, yet if no team stands out, it’s easy to envisage a real scrap amongst a large group of teams for a top 6 place. I just hope the appetite is there for the fight.
Fans of Bristol City and Swindon Town told me that Danny Wilson struggled in his second season for them. After the galling denouement to his first campaign at the Lane, not to mention our off-field troubles and the need to replace key players, his second season could well provide his hardest challenge yet.