Monday, 30 May 2011

Charting the Week in Football 8

As the domestic and European seasons come to an end, I leave you with a bumper selection of charts and graphs covering the stats that tell different stories for some teams' seasons, the anonymous footballer, an anonymous (and expensive) striker, rent-a-quote managers, Teflon Blatter, the truth about Premiership relegation, the composition of Scottish football and a conundrum for Jeff.

There may be a few intermittent Charting the Weeks over the Summer if the stories warrant it and if you the readers want it. Until then, enjoy these.......

Coming later this week: A new series for the Summer as various writers select their own "My Dislikable XI"


If you want a recap of the seven previous weeks of charts:

Friday, 27 May 2011

Is Dan the Man or are the Blades Desperate?

Today, at 12pm, Sheffield United announced the appointment of their 4th manager in less than twelve months. An appointment that, when it hit the media, the internet forums and social media sites yesterday afternoon, generated a level of anger and vitriol I have never seen towards a Sheffield United manager and the club as a whole. Not even the appointment of Bryan Robson generated this much bile, events surrounding his eventual departure came close.

So what is it about Wilson that is a problem?

To some he is a let down, particularly after chairman Kevin McCabe dropped Roberto Di Matteo's name into the mix in a radio interview following Micky Adams' departure. From there on an expectation level had been set. The perception of fans now being that there are better candidates out there, or more attractive names. Having said that Di Matteo was unlikely to be happy working under the financial constraints likely to be imposed and Chris Hughton publicly stated that he was waiting for a Premiership opportunity.

To others, the fact he played for and managed the other lot across the City is an issue. I prefer to see the problem for United fans highlighted in his failings whilst in S6, although they brought me much enjoyment at the time. He oversaw Wednesday's heaviest defeat in recent times, 8-0 at Newcastle. He failed to man-manage the big named players and his reign saw the departure of Paolo Di Canio, Benito Carbone and Emerson Thome amongst others. His signings failed to impress; Phil O'Donnell and Simon Donnelly taking home between £800,000 and £1m a year in wages, on 4 year contracts, whilst making a combined total of 73 appearances over that period. His reign at Wednesday culminating in an eventual relegation from the Premier League.

His role at Barnsley is also mentioned as a problem, despite his success there. Although this is often combined with his Wednesday connections. Barnsley alone is not enough to rule him out. Many of those same people would accept Mark Robins, so the argument makes little sense. It is also possible that the acceptance of Robins might be more down to the fact that, in an apparent two horse race of unpopular candidates, Robins is the lesser of two evils. 

A lot of fans point to his lack of achievements in his managerial career. The facts suggest they are right to be concerned:

1996-97 Barnsley - Promoted to Premier League
1999-00 Sheffield Wed - Relegated from Premier League
2005-06 MK Dons - Relegated to League Two
2006-07 Hartlepool - Promoted to League One
2010-11 Swindon - resigned prior to their eventual relegation to League Two

So what hope, if any, can Blades' fans find in his appointment? I asked supporters/bloggers of two of his previous clubs for their views on his reign; Ron editor of the Swindon blog The Washbag and Paul Binning editor of Bristol City blog The Exiled Robin.

Firstly Paul told me of events following Wilson's departure from Hillsborough;
"Danny Wilson arrived at Bristol City in 2000 having recently been singled out by four Sheffield-based MP’s, who called for his head in the House of Commons after he led Wednesday towards the lower reaches of the Premier League.  Easy to forget he had in fact led Barnsley – yes, Barnsley, to the top table just a few years earlier."

"Wilson inherited a Tony Pulis inspired, Wimbledon-esque, mainly talentless bunch of players – one of the worst Bristol City sides in 20 years.  Wilson set about the task immediately, ridding the club of many of the abrasive, unpopular journeymen and bringing through a number of locally-born youngsters from the club’s youth system (a good sign for the Blades perhaps?)"

Perhaps indeed, our squad contains many talentless players. Thankfully some have already returned to their clubs after loan spells, but his ability to weed out the rest may prove difficult as it's increasingly likely that our more talented players will leave to bring in funds and free up wages. With Jamie Ward already sold to Derby before the new manager was appointed, it will be interesting to see how he copes with players such as Mark Yeates, another player Micky Adams seemingly had difficulty handling.

The point about the youth team is a good one, but as you may have read here and here, there are few players immediately ready to take that step up. Those that are ready, are just as likely to be cashed in on, as one of the few valuable playing assets left at the club. Where Wilson may have problems is in trying to re-shape his squad and standing up to the board room purse holders. The last thing United need is another yes man, but as Ron explains that is how things turned at Swindon.

"Wilson was able to work with a high calibre of quality players, such as Cox, Paynter, Greer, Ward and Austin, who when sold, just couldn't be replaced. In the case of Greer, Wilson completely underestimated his massive importance to the team and shot himself in the foot by not being strong enough to stamp his authority with the board to ensure he got a new deal. Of course every team would struggle after losing these figureheads, however the efforts Wilson made to replace them were hasty and ill-advised."

This makes me question whether, with a wage bill that still needs to be halved, we have the right man at Bramall Lane to rebuild the squad. Unless McCabe is willing to further fund the restructuring from his own pocket.

So what about matters on the pitch. With the Blades Academy playing attractive passing football and much clamour from fans for similar provision from the first team, chairman  McCabe has suggested that any incoming manager must add verve and style alongside success. Both Ron and Paul's comments hint at a manager trying to play attractive football, brimming with ideas when things are going relatively well, yet too stubborn or blind to the change required when things turn for the worse.

"At City he was always popular with the fans and Wilson proved himself tactically astute.  Not a prisoner of a 4-4-2 game, he made the critical decision to switch Brian Tinnion from the left wing where he’d played his entire career into the left-hand side of a three man midfield.  With pacy, energetic wing-backs bombing outside, Tinnion controlled matches in a way he never had previously."

"A couple of years moulding his team resulted in a couple of play-off near misses, followed by two consecutive third-place finishes, although each time promotion proved beyond reach.  Any article on Wilson’s time at Ashton Gate would be incomplete without mention of his dumbfounding decision to leave Leroy Lita on the bench for the 2003 play-off final loss against Brighton.  Lita had made a stunning impact in his debut season and would go on to score more than 30 goals during the following campaign.  This decision, along with rows over funding of back-room staff, saw a perhaps rather harsh dismissal and the end of Wilson’s reign."

"At Swindon, his 120 games over 26 months lacked any consistency throughout. A fluid and attacking team performed miracles a year ago with double 3-0 victories over Leeds United (one for the Blades fans!) and a 3 month unbeaten run culminating in a shot at promotion. This was followed by a Jekyll and Hyde campaign beset by an unsettled team, disjointed with no direction, players out of position, making numerous mistakes and culminating with the inevitable defeats."
"His Swindon sides always seemed to lack the fight. An example being that we were able to come from behind to secure a victory away from home just 3 times under his tenure. Mentally, Wilson seemed unable to motivate his players when they're down, highlighting that he's got plenty of ideas when it's all going well, however when it's not, there's only one way and that's down."

Picking up a squad at a very low ebb and with a fan base directly at odds with his appointment, these comments don't fill me with immediate hope. The reference to a lack of fight, something that none of the Blades' managers over the last couple of years has seemed capable of instilling, is a worry. Good football alone rarely gets teams out of League One and to do so we are going to have to show some guts as well as guile.

So what of the mental state of the manager we are inheriting? Bramall Lane at its most caustic is no place for the mentally weak. Ron's answer suggests one who ended his time at Swindon displaying characteristics last seen at Bramall Lane in Blackwell and Robson, with a failure to acknowledge his own failings.

"In early March Danny Wilson was a broken man. After coming so near to promotion less than a season ago, his Swindon side were staring relegation in the face and Wilson decided to resign, helped by the fact that it was made clear he no longer could count upon the support of then Chairman Andrew Fitton."

"Despite the many problems we've had this season many fans still trusted him, myself included, blinkered, like Wilson, to our declining fortunes. What really did it for me with Wilson was his persistence in late January (with Town  just above the relegation zone) that we still had a shot at the Play-Offs. He still  believed in his own hype and that rubbed off on the players. This certainly didn't go down to well with the supporters, who in the end, could see past this. We just wanted realism."

"It’s sad to say that it ended this way, but if Wilson stayed around any longer he’d further tarnish his achievements, would further damage his reputation and leave even more bitter memories with Town fans, which he just doesn't deserve."

Paul put it another way; " have the Blades got a perennial Devon Loch or contender-building entertainer?  Possibly a bit of both."

"He has master-minded Barnsley’s first and only promotion to the top flight, had two play-off campaigns with City including 106 goals in one season, gained promotion with Hartlepool which included a 23-match unbeaten run and eight wins on the spin without conceding.  He took Swindon from the bottom of League One to the play-off final, unearthing a gem in Charlie Austin along the way."

"It is worth giving him a chance, but he may need a couple of seasons to mould a side in his style.  If this is granted I have little doubt that he’ll get the Blades back into the Championship, playing a style of football that will be worth the price of a season-ticket."

The question is, will he get that time?  Former Blades striker Keith Edwards said on local radio this morning that both Wilson and McCabe are either brave, or stupid? Opinion on this would differ from fan to fan, but at a time when McCabe has talked of unifying the club and the "Blades family", his decision to appoint Wilson is a divisive move further alienating the club from a large proportion of the Blades fan base. The fact that over 400 fans protested in the car park this lunchtime, drowning out parts of the press conference, says a lot.

My view, for what it's worth, is that he isn't the right man. I partially agree with McCabe in that Wilson has worked well with young players before and played the football fans want to see (the comments from Paul and Ron support that view). But for McCabe to describe him as the one man for the job in those respects and the one man for the job in respect of getting teams out of League One, does take some stomaching.

What we must do now is accept his appointment, get behind the team and manager. Another sudden change of manager early in the season is only going to be detrimental to the team's prospects of staying in the division, never mind challenging for a return to the Championship.

Everything changes with results and whatever happens we have to support the team, back the players; a poisonous atmosphere at Bramall Lane will do nothing for performances or results. Whatever Wilson achieves, he is stymied by the fact he will always have to achieve more than others would have done to get any sort of credit. At the opposite end of the spectrum, if results don't come quickly he will no doubt feel the heat much quicker. Christ, he is feeling it now before a ball is kicked.

The apple in McCabe's eye was a Championship return. He seemed determined to be more hands on in the running of the club, making brusque, sweeping changes and taking tough decisions. Yet a simple, back to basics approach  with a promising young manager may have been so much better.

"If you want the fruit to fall,
You have to give the tree a shake,
But if you shake the tree too hard,
the bough is going to break"

McCabe might be left with a broken branch and no apple. I hope not. What gives me a bit of hope, amidst all the frustration today, are the positive factors brought to light on two of Wilson's more recent appointments. 


Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Talent Show at The Theatre of Dreams

I hadn't looked forward to a game of football this much for some time. The first leg of the F.A. Youth Cup Final had whetted an appetite for football subdued by a season of turmoil at Bramall Lane. After giving such a good account of themselves last Tuesday, bloodying the nose of Paul McGuiness' latest batch of world talent, I was looking forward to another attractive, competitive game of football and the hope (you know just a little nagging hope, the kind that you try to dismiss) that I might see the "Junior Blades" lift the F.A. Youth Cup.

Driven across by my mate Simon, a Manchester United season ticket holder, roles were being reversed. Last week, Simon had sat alongside me in the heart of the Bramall Lane Kop, politely clapping all the goals and acknowledging the good football on display. This week, I had agreed to join him amongst the home fans at Old Trafford. The problem being, that I am slightly less rational than Simon.

A pleasant drive across the sun soaked Snake Pass ensued, chatting about Survival Sunday, twitter and that player who couldn't be named - until 5Live news at 6pm revealed to us that he had been outed in the House of Commons. Passing through Glossop, which always struck me as the Land That Time Forgot, even the prospect of the queue up the hill at Mottram didn't dull spirits.

25 miles and nearly an hour later, we meandered our way into Manchester. Our route affected by roadworks and events across the city, you know, those once every thirty five years type events.  In-car speculation ensued. Was Tevez there? Was Balotelli there? Was Balotelli's dog Lucky on-board?  

Eventually, some two hours after setting off, we were driving past the new home of Football Focus (Media City) and pulled into the car park at Salford Quays. Emerging from the car park and seeing the self-appointed Theatre of Dreams across the canal, in the distance.

Theatre in the distance

A brisk walk to the ground and after a brief meeting with my brother by the statues we headed into the ground. Drink and Hollands pie (£2.50 and still the best football pie for me) in hand we headed to our seats to find the teams on the pitch and going through the pre-match presentations.

We were sat on the half way line, a third of the way back in the North Stand. To my right, the Stretford End was sparsely populated. Opposite, the Directors' Box was filling up, with a small adjacent area for guests and players' families. Then over in the left hand corner stretching out across the rear of the East Stand were some 6,000 noisy Blades fans, trying to create some atmosphere and sense of occasion. Still arriving through the early stages of the game, many encountering the traffic problems we had encountered.

Pemberton's Red & White Army

Balancing, pie, drink, programme and with my knees under my chin (I though nothing could beat the Bramall Lane Kop for a lack of leg room until Monday night) we sat down to watch the match.

Compared to the Blitzkrieg start made by the Red Devils last week, the opening period was a cagey affair. Both teams sticking to their footballing principles, but without some of the pace and incisive play demonstrated last week.

Many supporters around me were a little surprised by the manner in which the Blades played, although I bit my tongue (and not for the last time that night) when the lad you in front expressed his shock at the fact Sheffield United even had an Academy. The insularity of supporting the Champions.

As the game settled down the home side took the upper hand, a mis-kick from Keane just inside the box fell fortuitously to Ravel Morrison who finished with aplomb. There then followed a period where both sides created opportunities, the more clear cut to the home side, and you sensed the next goal was vital.

Towards the end of the half there was a period of prolonged pressure on the Blades goal, in amongst which Kennedy did tremendously well heading the ball clear as a shot was fired on goal. Time to bite my tongue again. There was a middle aged couple sat behind me who had wittered on for most of the half, mainly criticising Morrison prior to his goal - after which he was the best thing since Warburton's sliced, unwilling to acknowledge there were two teams making this a game. They were probably surprised to know we had an Academy as well.

Following Kennedy's header, the wife commented, like me, on how well he had done. Hubby, not impressed, just replied "What? Rubbish clearance, gave the ball back to us". The scolded wife replied with "Come on, let them off, they're from Sheffield, they haven't got anything else going for them." I felt myself start to rise out of my seat, only the fact that I was in the wrong end, the match was nicely poised and I didn't fancy missing it by being thrown out and the fact that the lack of leg room had affected the circulation in my legs held me back. As someone commented later, an accidental spillage of Bovril might have been in order at half time.

With the next goal vital, I was thinking "just see this out to half time, re-group and get back out doing more of the same and the Blades had a chance". A penalty right on half time changed that. We couldn't see the incident clearly from our seat and I haven't seen it since however, if it was handball, I was surprised that a card wasn't brandished in Kennedy's direction. Keane tucked away the penalty with ease and it felt like game over.

The Blades started the second half brightly, but the loss of Maguire on a stretcher, who was playing particularly well alongside Kennedy, left the Blades re-shuffling the defence and I think then I acknowledged that we were as likely to concede another as we were likely to score ourselves. Pushing forward through captain Whitehouse and the hugely impressive Slew, the Blades were still creating openings without testing Johnstone.

The likelihood of getting caught on the break increased and so it was no surprise that the Blades went 3 down before immediately pulling one back through Ironside. Latching on to a perfectly judged chip from Slew, he slipped it past Johnstone and kick-started a short period where the Red Devils wobbled a little. Unable to clear lines, losing out in tackles, the Blades looked likely to get another. if only they had pulled one back at 2-0, then it would have been interesting to see the home side's response.

As it was, the Blades were to be undone on the break again and, although they continued to press, the fourth goal for Manchester could have been followed by more but for striker profligacy and the impressive Long in the Blades' goal. It was disappointing to see some Blades fans leaving as the fourth went in, I think the lads deserved to be applauded off by a full contingent of support at the end, although I appreciate it was a long journey across and not the shortest journey back.

At the final whistle went both teams deserved rousing applause. Whilst I couldn't disagree with the home side winning, the score line flattered them. I was proud that the Blades had stuck to their footballing principles right through to the end and certainly when other teams might have adopted a more direct approach to try and claw their way back into the match.

Of the Blades players on view, the central defensive partnership of Kennedy and Maguire continued to played well together (Kennedy's penalty aberration aside),  until Maguire was stretchered off.   Whitehouse quietened Pogba and matched up to his physical challenge much more adroitly than last week. Yet again, Slew impressed the most; holding the ball up well, before turning and accelerating away from defenders. He was unlucky with a couple of chances and set up Ironside's goal beautifully. Finally, an despite what the scoreline might suggest, Long impressed in goal. a save from a Pogba free kick sticking in the memory.

For Manchester United, both Morrison and Pogba were less effective than last week. Morrison starting more advanced, rarely dropping deep and only really coming to the fore when the play was stretched and his confidence was up (post goals) later in the game. Pogba still displayed enough in glimpses to see what a quality player he could be, however it was his central defensive colleague Tunnicliffe who excelled. The driving force behind the victory he tirelessly ran, tackled and passed his way out of the middle of the park. Physically and in terms of the quality of his play, he looked like a senior pro playing with the boys.

Young Blades collecting their medals

The trophy and medal presentations followed, unfortunately a vast majority of the 24,000 crowd didn't see it. Why the South Stand wasn't opened I am not sure, but if it had, a few more people other than directors and guests would have seen it. For most the hoisting of the cup could not be seen for the backs of the Manchester squad gathered on the podium and the subsequent celebration photos were then taken in an adjacent spot, again with the players facing away from the majority of the crowd.

Most fans' view of the trophy presentation

That said the home crowd disappointed me in several ways. Granted they had Blackpool and the Premier League trophy presentation the day before and Gary Neville's testimonial the day after, but at £5 adults and £1 kids you would have thought the world's biggest club could have generated more than 17,000 fans. I accept when you are Manchester United you have bigger things going on and, unlike the Blades (A Fourth Division Championship, Third Division Runner Up, twice runner up in the Championship (or equivalent) in my lifetime), the possibility of your club winning a trophy has less resonance. But those who didn't come along really missed out.

The other thing was that a large proportion of those who did stay left prior to and just after the presentation, before their team had paraded the trophy in front of them. I can never understand that. Having said that the FA and or their club made a decision to exclude them from the trophy presentation, so maybe you cannot can blame them in this instance?  The final thing was that I am sure I heard a few boos as the Blades players went up to collect their medals, I hope I was wrong.

So ended what will probably be my last trip to Old Trafford for a few years. A decent match, good company on the trip, a good pie, a few irritants (but every ground and even your own support can supply those) and an over-arching sense of pride in what my team had achieved. The Academy class of 2011 in one half of Manchester and one half of Sheffield have graduated with honours, but how many of them will go on to forge a successful career?

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Charting The Week In Football 7

This week; a relegated team puts up a fight at the wrong place and far too late, Blackpool potentially facing weakened Champions, Blackburn still at risk, the state of Scottish Football, the FA and the FIFA vote and the perilous financial state of one of the most poorly run industries in the UK.

Previous weeks:

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Future is Red & White

And the kids are United

Last night, Bramall Lane hosted its biggest crowd of the season as close to 30,000 attended the FA Youth Cup Final first leg between Sheffield United and Manchester United. The home side's superb ticketing policy allowing a full ground to watch some of the best under 18 year old footballers in the country. To understand how important youth development is for the Blades and what an achievement reaching the final is, this article I wrote for When Saturday Comes prior to the match will tell you more. So what did we see....

A noisy crowd welcomed both sides on to the pitch, but the home crowd were quickly silenced as the young Red Devils opened with a pace an intensity which the Blades struggled to match. The time and space afforded to the Blades by semi final opponents Aston Villa, which allowed them to play their passing game, maintaining possession for long spells, was not on offer from the visitors. Harried and hassled by opponents who looked physically bigger and stronger led to possession being lost and misplaced passes. However, unlike when the Blades first team misplace a pass, there were no catcalls or groans of discontent, just encouragement and patience. Despite being on the back foot, the best chance in the opening stages fell to the Blades, with Corey Gregory heading over whilst well placed.

At the other end of the pitch the movement of the Red Devils' front players started to pull the Blades defence around.  They then made their possession count when Lingard gave them a fortuitous lead, his shot looping off keeper George Long with Maguire unable to stop it on the line. Some thought that it hadn't crossed the line and it took referee Oliver several seconds before he gave the goal. The issue muddied further by Maguire's flailing hands being raised as he cleared. From my viewpoint behind the goal there was a fear that he had patted it away with his hands, although replays suggest a lack of contact and that the ball didn't cross the line. Certainly to the naked eye it was hard to tell how he cleared it, in the end it came off his head on to the crossbar and out.

The visitors built momentum on the back of taking the lead and George Long in the Blades goal continued to show the impressive form that saw him make his first team debut at the end of the season. Impressive one on one stops from Morrison amongst others and he continued in the same manner during the second half.

The Blades eventually started to settle and late in the half a break from the back by captain Elliot Whitehouse saw him eventually lay the ball off in the centre circle to Callum McFadzean. The young left winger who took the ball on into the space ahead of him, before unleashing a bullet of a shot straight into the bottom left hand corner. A fabulous strike from the youngest Blades player on the pitch and an example of the ability which has seen him playing above his age group for much of his academy career.

The Blades opened the second half much sharper, improving the possession stats with better ball retention and creating more chances than the visitors with better link up play and Slew ever willing to turn and run at the Manchester defence. The visitors were by no means out of it though and, after a spell of Blades dominance including having a shot cleared off the line, a very open game ensued with both sides finding plenty of space, particularly in wide areas. However, slightly against the run of play, the visitors again took the lead. The Blades getting caught out down their left, after an earlier warning went unheeded. The cross could only be deflected by Long into the path of Will Keane who tapped in with ease.

Within minutes the Blades were back level with the ever willing Slew willing to take on the shot and a deflection looping it past Johnstone. Further opportunities fell to both sides, with an majority falling to the visitors and Long again came to the fore with several vital blocks.

A 2-2 draw sets up beautifully an intriguing second leg at Old Trafford next Monday and an appreciative crowd applauded off both sides for what had been an evening of good football, open play and a demonstration of plenty of promise for the future for both sides.

For the home side, George Long pulled off some great saves, a couple with his feet and shows confidence in his actions. Commanding his box well, he looks like a keeper with instinctive actions and could have a key role for the first team in coming years.  He played a large part in ensuring that the tie is level going to Old Trafford and will be just as vital next Monday.

Up front, Slew and Ironside worked tirelessly. Ironside perhaps not as effective as in the semi final, but Slew's running in particular pulled defenders out wide creating space for others. His raw pace and willingness to turn and run at defenders is a commodity that has been rare in the Blades first team for some time. He was also willing to take on a shot, often out of nothing and that paid off for the goal. With little room to play with he squeezed out a shot off the defender and in.

At the back, Maguire and Kennedy faced a difficult challenge against the highly rated Will Keane and the deeper lying Ravel Morrison. They stuck to their task well, although you feared for them every time Morrison picked the ball up and ran at them. Maguire certainly has benefited from his first team experience and any player that puts Craig Bellamy on his backside so early in his career lacks little confidence. Kennedy looks a more accomplished footballer, yet without a significant late growth spurt you have to assume he would look to  a different position in senior football.  Both sides found space out wide and it's fair to say full backs and wingers on both teams impressed more going forward than for their defensive capabilities.

The midfield battle was intriguing. Both Tunnicliffe and Pogba impressed for the visitors. The Frenchman showing some brilliant touches, but also a fragile temperament. His run and lofted pass to the wing that led to a first time cross and a tap in for Keane was sublime. Judged to perfection dropping on to Lingard's boot for a volleyed cross. Other times Pogba's more casual approach led to passes not finding team-mates and a frustrated flailing of arms, seemingly because they were not on his wavelength. There was enough skills on show to see he is something special but will need careful monitoring.

Tunnicliffe was less noticeable in many ways, but for positive reasons and played the game with an ease and comfort on the ball which suggests both could step up to the first team over the next 18 months. Long denied him the chance to be a match winner in the last couple of minutes and my only criticism would be that he seemed to delay his shot too long allowing the keeper to close down the shot.

Pogba and Tunnicliffe were up against a more diminutive midfield pairing of Harriott and Whitehouse for the Blades, their physical size making them look like under 12's in comparison. Unsurprisingly they lost the physical battle against the Reds' pairing for much of the game, but they more than held their own in footballing terms. More  often than not they were the driving force, bringing the ball out of defence and putting the Blades on to the front foot, particularly in the opening stages of the second half. Late in the first half, it was a dogged run out of defence by Whitehouse, shrugging off several challenges and a tussle with Pogba, that led to the ball being laid off to McFadzean who advanced up field to strike the Blades' second goal.  

The central attacking pairing for Manchester United impressed greatly. After Will Keane's hat-trick against Chelsea in the semi final against Chelsea he was kept relatively quiet last night, his goal being a simple finish into an open goal. What impressed more was his work rate and movement off the ball. Easy to dismiss as a lanky target man, his movement and turn of pace is very good and, largely on his own, he led the line well.

The main attacking threat came from Ravel Morrison who showed glimpses of why, providing his personal life remains on the straight and narrow, he has the potential to go the very top in the English game. He had very much a roving role, in the mould of Wayne Rooney, coming deep to collect the ball and link play before bursting forward towards the Blades defence. His turn of pace was blistering and it took a good save by Long first half when Morrison eased free of the Blades defence. As the match wore on he clearly tired and came deeper and deeper for the ball, once or twice popping up in front of his back four, but always trying to make himself available to accept the ball and keep play moving.

You can see why both Keane and Morrison are highly rated and how the young Red Devils scored three against Liverpool and six over the two games against Chelsea. It could be another difficult night for the Blades defence at Old Trafford, but I am sure they will have learnt a lot last night.

Leaving the ground, the match left a warm glow as the sun went down and the temperature dropped. Football being played the right way, with short sharp passing to feet. Players of promise, some of whom you could potentially see in big tournaments in 4 years time. Sportsmanship, with a lack of histrionics and very few bad tackles. A Manchester United player took a nasty tumble after a nudge over the advertisement hoardings, but just got up, brushed himself down and ran back on the pitch to get on with the game. No petty repercussions or revenge. An appreciative crowd that warmed up as the night progressed to create a friendly and encouraging atmosphere. And Blades Academy Manager John Pemberton, resplendent in woolly hat, rocking backwards and forward on the edge of his technical area  like a modern day Randle McMurphy.

I look forward to more of the same at Old Trafford next Monday.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

FA Youth Cup Final - Preview

Bramall Lane hosts its biggest crowd of the season tonight. The "SOLD OUT" signs are out for the first leg of the FA Youth Cup Final against Manchester United. When Saturday Comes asked me to write a preview focusing on the Blades and the importance of the academy going forward.

You can read it HERE

Friday, 13 May 2011

Charting the Week in Football 6

Well... the week and a bit. Delayed by the distraction of my club sacking it's manager (by the time next season starts, 5 different people will have taken charge of a first team game in a 12 month period) and the fact that Blogger was broken, we return with a bumper selection looking at North London managers, Bale-Hype, the Savage conundrum, the relative airtime to contributors to Alan Sugar's investigation of Football Finance, stupid ticket pricing, stupid points deductions, trophy damage and Tony Cascarino's journalistic talent. 

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Fading Actress

At one time it was thought that this report might be a post mortem, but the patient is still breathing…just. Analysis shows that the patient's precarious position was the result of many, often self-inflicted, blows over a prolonged period of time. So many poorly thought out decisions have led to physical and mental pain being inflicted and it may take a while to rebuild her life and return to full strength.

Probably of as much concern is the mental condition of those close to the patient, who had to witness such behaviour and the corresponding downturn in health, and we should monitor their continuing well being.  Many have already chosen to walk away from the patient, yet their ongoing support - however distressing it may be- is vital at this time.

Evidence points to the first blow being struck as long ago as January 2007. The patient, a long-standing familiar face but fleeting high flyer, had only recently returned to the premier spotlight. A decision was made to invest a relatively  considerable amount on cosmetic surgery in an attempt to preserve her top tier status, one she had fought so hard to re-establish.

Unfortunately, the surgeon used to undertake the significant task - a Mr N Warnock - lacked sufficient experience and skill to deal with such significant change. Much of the money was spent with little overall impact, leaving the patient disappointed  and a good league below the look she was aiming for.

At that point the patient sacked Mr Warnock, when actually the simpler, minor reconstructive surgery that would have been required was more his speciality. Instead the patient decided a more world renowned, "name" surgeon was required. However the only candidate she met with had seen his best days behind him and in a slightly different and more practical field.

It was also around this time that the patient was fortunate enough to come into significant compensation. Although many saw Mr Warnock to blame for her fall from grace, he was relieved to see that his professional standing suffered only minor damage, as some of the blame for his failings was successfully deflected onto others.

Friends of the patient quickly became concerned, as the patient threw more money at reconstruction than necessary. Some of which might have been better spent back in January. Money that Mr Robson (the unanimous choice as surgeon, from a short list of one)  was spending with carefree abandon.

It took  prolonged prompting and protestation from her friends before the patient realised that they were chasing a dream that was not to be realised with the existing strategy. That, despite protests to the contrary from Mr Robson, he was in fact only making the situation worse. His dour demeanour gave little hope that he could put right his failings.

It was during this time that, prompted by her sugar daddy, the patient decided to look at other ways to make money, to finance the pursuit of fame and success.  The first of these was a decision to travel the World. Quite public relationships were sought as she felt that these friendships were going to be profitable both emotionally in the short term and financially in the long term. After all, an international jetsetter presents a  more positive look for potential suitors. Unfortunately, over time, these relationships unravelled as it was revealed that the patient was being strung along by these new partners and incurring significant financial losses.

She also invested in properties, however this was to prove to be poor timing, just before the property crash. All in all, these proved more of a deterrent to potential suitors than an enticement and her sugar daddy suffered alongside her.

At such a distressing time, she took succour in a common sense talking to from a direct, straight talking psychologist, a Mr Blackwell. His strategy was simple; to  first stabilise the patient and then help them acknowledge there was a more direct route to achieve the desired outcome. The end product might not be as pretty, but it was hoped that it would be effective.

Within 18 months Mr Blackwell came close to delivering what the patient needed, but was unable to push the patient that final step. Following his "failure", the cracks in the working relationship between Mr Blackwell and the patient became more apparent and Mr Blackwell broke down on live television, questioning his own ability to do the job asked of him.

Following the fall from the spotlight, income streams had started to dry up for the patient. Year on year the extravagances were being reigned in, only for monies to be splurged in other ways. Despite this, they continued to work together, although Mr Blackwell expressed doubts about what he could achieve on a much tighter budget. He was right to be concerned, as he was unable to repeat or better his earlier near success.

It was also around this time, that the patient started making passing acquaintance with a number of supposedly top level "players" on the scene, in a desperate attempt to pull herself back into the spotlight. These did little to help her situation, only around fleetingly they spent large sums of her money and did little to improve her standing. Despite reassuring her friends that she would not continue with such behaviour, these relationships have continued over the last 12 months. Alongside this others have hung around more permanently, content to receive financial support, often whilst recuperating, yet giving her little in return. The financial and emotional bruising from these encounters have left the patient at her lowest ebb for some time.

Back in August last year, the patient took the surprising step of ceasing to use  Mr Blackwell's services. Surprising in that it had been expected much earlier and the timing, shortly after Mr Blackwell had invested her money in new ideas and resources, could only be to her detriment.

Not unexpectedly, given the timing, she took a chance with Mr Blackwell's young understudy, his media popularity attracted her in the same way Mr Robson had previously. It was hoped that the experience of working alongside Mr Blackwell and many of his more illustrious contemporaries would hold Mr Speed in good stead.

Unfortunately very little improvement was made and Mr Speed soon sought better paid work, in a more stable environment, where the likelihood of failure was halfway expected and he was less likely to be sacked. A Mr Carver briefly stood in, but next the patient sought the counsel of a self-confessed, boyhood fan. This had (briefly) worked well for her before and she believed it might just be the impetus she needed to move onwards and upwards once more.

Unfortunately Mr Adams' methods rankled with those she relied upon and he struggled to get the required results for some time. Her self-confidence plummeted and may friends questioned the apparent passion he, this so-called fan, displayed for her when talking in public.

So what now for the patient? A small injection of youth started to have a revitalising effect recently, but it was too late to prevent a set back that had been apparent for a while. Further injections of youth are most probably the way forward.

Estimates of potential rehabilitation time vary. It depends how much experience the patient holds on to, in order to combine with the youth and energise an aching body. With the patient spending beyond their means for so long, financial hardship is likely. With close friends, of many years standing, walking away and her sugar daddy unable to financially support her whims, the ability to spend her way back to that better place is not going to be possible.

A tough and painful rehabilitation is ahead. The patient needs to be patient. Friends might also need to hold back on their ambitions, as the patient should not try to walk before she can run. She is now operating in a new tougher environment, where she may be viewed as a big fish in a small pond and with confidence and strength knocked out of her. There may be more physical and mental blows ahead and a full rehabilitation is by no means a certainty.

Postscript 10th April 2011:

Just days after compiling this report, the patient's sugar daddy pulled the plug on funding the treatment provided by Mr Adams. Friends are increasingly worried about her mental state, as short term decision making upon a litany of previous short term decisions is leaving her increasingly confused and illogical. They all know she has to be stabilised quickly, but there is little concensus as to how to do it. Sad days....

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Charting the Week in Football 5

Week 5 and this week we have Avram Grant and his superiors at West Ham, players turning up (or not) on the big occasion, paranoid managers, a recipe for a Sheffield relegation and yet another Neil Warnock chart......sorry I can't help myself!

Graphs and Charts from previous weeks are here:

Week 1
Week 2
Week 3
Week 4