Tuesday, 22 September 2015

For Now........

Having thought long and hard about this in recent weeks, I have realised I can't commit the time required to keep A United View going. I really enjoy writing, but increasing work commitments and family priorities means that thought of posts and ideas haven't made it to screen.

I have really enjoyed the interaction that blogging has brought. It has introduced me to several Blades I am glad to now call friends and introduced me to several other writers some of whom I have shared a pint with. It has enabled opportunities to appear in print and contribute to an anthology of football writing. I have written for other websites, in several matchday programmes and even made an appearance on local television. It has had negatives as well, putting yourself in the public domain can attract negative comments (which I can take) but also abuse (there are block buttons, but I would be lying if I said it was easy to ignore).

For now though I have other things I want and need to do. A United View maybe resurrected at some point in the future, but it seems best to put some closure on the site. Thank you for reading, sharing, retweeting, +1ing and interacting over the last 5 years, it has been a good run. And............



Friday, 7 August 2015

Hope, Positivity and Filling the Onion Bag



Pre-season seems to have come and gone pretty quickly this summer. For various reasons, all good, I haven't seen the Blades so far. My first viewing of New Nigel's Blades will be at Bramall Lane for the Chesterfield game. On that basis I can't comment on the pre-season performances, so here are some thoughts as United prepare to travel to Gillingham.

The Squad

As it stands the squad is over sized and remains imbalanced, the former a result of Clough's pile 'em high policy, particularly with midfielders, rather than any fault of the new manager.

Having said that I (as did many) felt that the manager should have addressed the stark problem of last season, central defence. There's still time to get the right man but I would have thought it fair to assume it was a priority and that we wouldn't be in the final countdown to the opening game with no additions in this area.

You would also imagine there will be a number of players moved on and youngsters sent out on loan to pick up experience. The squad numbers issued today listed 33 players, by any stretch that is 7/8 too many and it doesn't include one or two youngsters who have made first team appearances in the last couple of seasons.

Some interesting additions to the squad have cost nothing, as players out in the cold under Clough find opportunities under Adkins. Whatever your view of Neill Collins you can be certain we wouldn't have conceded as many goals last season if he had been given a chance and a prolonged run in the team. It would have reduced the chopping and changing of the back four, removed a square peg from a round hole and added a constant to the defence. 

Also in defence Callum McFadzean must have assumed his Blades career was fading away, as criminal charges and subsequent loan spells away from the Lane suggested he didn't match Clough's expectations in terms of attitude and behaviour. Repeated pre season opportunities at left back in Bob Harris's absence suggest McFadzean has a chance of establishing himself at United, a chance he must have feared gone 4 months ago.

Then there's Diego. So much faith and hope placed in a young player with just 9 first team starts. We have seen brief glimpses of his capabilities, however if everyone who has raved about his academy performances had actually been there United could have made a fortune charging for admission at Shirecliffe. A new start under a new manager will tell us whether the hype is justified. To blame a relationship with one manager can be understood, to not breakthrough under the tutelage of two different managers would suggest a more deep rooted problem.

The signings made, all from the Championship, add strength and depth in forward positions and will hopefully improve both attacking threat and finishing off chances. Whilst defensive frailties rose to the fore last season, the inability to kill games off and a lack of commitment to attack teams was equally as costly.

Approach 

Adkins set up pre-season has been positive with 4-4-2 usually deployed and with United's attacking options added to pre-season, few, if any, managers in League 1 face the selection dilemma that Nigel faces this season. Whilst the front two and wide options seem quite simple I'm sure; Sharp and Sammon, Murphy and Adams for me, the options to move players around and shake things up are varied. Adams, Murphy, along with Done and De Girolamo can play wide or central, with Woolford, Flynn and Campbell-Ryce further options on the flanks. Higdon and McNulty offer alternatives to Sammon and Sharp.

Most comments I've read have been enthused by the incisiveness of our attacking play. The movement on and off the ball, from full back to ball nestling in the net as Adams scored his first goal at Macclesfield was a joy to watch.

In an interview early in pre-season, the new boss hinted at his mantra for the season. Quoting statistics around the goals scored and conceded by promoted  sides. 86 is the target he said, a target that should be achievable by an enhanced forward line playing with renewed freedom. Yet a note of caution is worthwhile. 

Last September Adkins issued a similar rallying cry at Reading where he had augmented their attacking resources with three new signings. 

http://www.getreading.co.uk/sport/football/football-news/adkins-sets-reading-fc-86-goal-7798548

Adkins was gone by Christmas and the team, albeit under Steve Clarke watch for the remainder of the season, scored just 48 goals.

Positivity

It oozes from every statement, interview and tweet emanating from the club. Adkins is renowned for his player motivation, he is the man-manager and whilst things are good we will take the sound-bites and clich├ęs. The danger is how well received it will be if/when things get tough and if the results don't follow as planned.

The hash tag #unitedtogether is regularly used. In a way it wasn't needed on Adkins' appointment as it was a rare moment of fan unity behind a club decision. Even those doubting the sense in sacking Clough could get behind this appointment. Signings have been questioned, inactivity queried, but for now we have to trust and follow the hash tag.


Attack, Attack, Attack

All the talk is of attacking football. There is acknowledgement that last season was too restrained and cautious. From players to chairman the messages have been the same. Jamie Murphy has mentioned his excitement at the shackles coming off. Chairman Jim Phipps offered the following thought in response to a Facebook query regarding season ticket sales.
  
"What we are trying to create is the most conducive environment possible in which to stage a serious promotion push. The home atmosphere is key to this. We already know we have the league's best away following. We also have its best home following. Now we need to turn it up at the Lane. 

I think the positive style of play will help and the emphasis on putting balls in the back of the onion bag will create excitement. We want visiting clubs though to feel the heat when they come to our house. Last year we kind of laid out the welcome mat, mainly perhaps because we seemed too often to be playing for a point."

This, quite public criticism of Clough's approach is telling and perhaps highlights why he eventually left Bramall Lane this summer. A negative approach and start to go is season would have had a much deeper impact than just results and the board had to reinstate the feelgood factor seen in the cup runs and the league form at the end of huge season before last.


Defence 

I am not sure that tweeting Jim or Nigel to tell them that, in your humble opinion, McEveley is awful will do little to change their mind. Stomping your feet on forums because you "demanded" two centre backs and the manager hasn't signed them is similarly futile. I would have liked to see the back four strengthened by now and there is still time to get the right players in, but as mentioned previously Adkins clearly sees certain players in a different light to Clough.

Players thrive under one manager and not another, as they respond better to different relationships and different motivational methodology. On the playing side they fit into systems and pairing with certain players in partnerships engender better understanding and team play. It is also worth remembering that McEveley played the latter part of the season with a shoulder injury.

Whilst I understand that there are still concerns about frailties after pre-season, we will be facing much different opposition to Hull and Newcastle. With a more positive approach and a willingness to go at teams that Clough restrained, maybe the pressure will be eased on the defence and all will benefit?

Captaincy

This remains a bone of contention. I suspect a fit John Brayford would have been captain, but in his absence we lack any sort of on-pitch leadership, dominance and voice. The testimonial match for Chris Morgan only served as a reminder that we have lacked a commanding leader since his injury enforced retirement and the relegation that left us in League One might well not have happened had he remained fit.

The choice of McEveley has caused anger and frustration, more due to the fact that many do not view him as a first choice defender, never mind captain. And again I am not sure tweeting him directly to tell him this is sensible. In this instance I am prepared to trust the manager. He has observed the players, he knows what he wants and expects, let's see how it pans out. 

It would seem he expects leaders to show themselves in different roles on a pitch and there are many managers who see a captain these days as a symbolic role, rather than a responsibility of one man alone.

Hopes

When asked by When Saturday Comes magazine "How will you do?" my answer was as follows.

"I said it last season and was proved wrong but automatic promotion should be achievable and we have a manager in place who knows how to get out of this division. Another season in League 1 is is unthinkable,although I said that 12 months ago too."

This was written before the signings of Sharp and Sammon and their arrival only strengthens my belief. We have a squad that only Wigan's can compare with and a manager I wouldn't swap for any other in the division. I think we might see some Vindaloo football, a few goals "and we're gonna score one more than you" but that will be enough. I have seen many contemplating, with an air of depression, going to Gillingham and conceding, but I just don't see going there and losing. And that is all that matters over the course of a season. I just hope that we remain #unitedtogether through the blips.

Up the Blades!




Thursday, 23 July 2015

ITK = Inherently Tedious Know-nowts

The need to be "In The Know" is a relatively new phenomenon. Perpetuated by social media, where transfer rumour sites and individuals set up accounts play on the insecurity of fans in the transfer window and soak up the hits. Posting stories with little verification of sources, they stir up the fans and watch their hit rate rise and followers and likes numbers multiply. Then there are the fans who take it all up as gospel, giving oxygen to the rumour mongers. Do they think that it must be true, as the account has Football League or League One in the name. Does adding this give it any real credibility?  ITK stories are like an opiate for the football  masses. Except the drugs don't work.

If you throw shit at a wall often enough, eventually some of it will stick. It's like that with ITK'ers. Billy Sharp is coming, done deal. Just a matter of time. He has had his medical. Just waiting to tie loose ends up.

Two weeks ago "Billy Sharp set to sign in next 48 hours, my sources are telling me". One week ago "Sources telling me that Billy Sharp is signing for the Blades in the next 48 hours". This week "Billy Sharp to sign for Blades in next 24 hours sources told me". They retweet other accounts, accounts with a hand full of followers but with a familiar twitter avi but with a (not so) subtle name difference. Can you see it?


So eventually, if and when Sharp signs, they can say "I told you so". Like it gives them some sort of hero status. If challenged they will refer to delays and problems, but they will be adamant the deal was on back when they first announced it to the world (or twitter). Because, you know, they are in the know.

What about the medical you said had taken place? How come he played for Leeds risking injury? Questions they can't answer but steadfastly stick by their claims. You heard it here first, last and at every possible point in between.

At the other end of the scale we have the wannabe ITK'ers. Pleading the chairman for the merest transfer hint on Facebook, regardless of how often he says he will not be drawn on specific names or transfers. They are pestering the press on a daily basis, sometimes every couple of hours during the day! "Any news on player X pal?", "Heard any whispers why player Y isn't playing a meaningless pre-season friendly?". As if the media boys are going to give them an exclusive rather than save it for themselves. It's their livelihood not some egotist in a verbal cock waving exercise for the usually flaccid.

Some use transfer rumours as click-bait to make money from clicks to their site, some are fantasists claiming to know, or even that they are, agents. The only contacts most of them have are the lenses in their eyes. They have more time on their hands than any reasonable person will find, although I guess it is easy when you are still sat there at your laptop, in yesterday's underpants, at 4 in the afternoon, eating Rice Krispies from the box.

Frankly it's boring. I blame Sky. Yes I know they are easy to blame, but Sky Sports News and it's sharing of "Breaking" news encourages these halfwits to believe they are the next Jim White (heaven help us) or Nick Collins. This "Breaking" "Sky exclusive" is usually something they have read on twitter or from another media service. Everything pre-fixed with "Sky sources….." - AKA some trainee on a laptop scouring the internet for any news that seems halfway credible.

To be honest the only thing breaking will be my phone screen when I see another 300 follower rumour account ask to follow me or seeing their bull retweeted on my timeline.

Whilst looking at some of these accounts when writing this piece, I was amused by the interchange between two of these rumour accounts below. Each claiming to be the verified source on a story, each demanding the other gives them credit before it then turns into the most cringe worthy interchange whereby they are arguing over the FC moniker used at the start of each accounts name and when they first set their account up. The irony of two twitter accounts, set up to repeat rumours read elsewhere on twitter, arguing about originality was clearly lost on them. Yet these cretins clearly believe their own hype. They thinks they are some modern day soothsayer.





Then you note that it was all over a story that wasn't true anyway. You just couldn't write it. Well actually, you can and they did.

Many people/fans could be classed as in the know, but it's more about how you manage your new found knowledge. I have heard things in the past, that have turned out to be true. Would I share them for a social media slap on the back? No, I wouldn't. Why jeopardise friendships and people's livelihoods just to say to everyone else "I knew before you!"? Then again, if the person who tells you is daft enough to keep telling you when you blab all at the first opportunity, then perhaps they deserve any outcome they get, especially  if they are a club employee and the story is traced.

In a way I like the fact we are going about our business quietly and steadily. Whilst I would like to see more activity, I trust the management to get on with it in their own time and in the meantime I will share with you my exclusive bit of ITK knowledge.

Apparently

United

will

win

some

games

this

season.

They

will

lose

some

and

probably

draw

a

few

too.

They

will

also

buy

some

players

and

sell

some

players.

And for now, that is all we really know.

Up the Blades!

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Truth not spin and the "Phipps Mafia"


A United View was out of the country for the last two weeks of May. When booking a holiday I obviously thought United wouldn't need a trip to Wembley to try and get out of League 1. I genuinely thought we had the resources and capability to gain automatic promotion. Make no excuses this was the weakest League One since we were relegated. How wrong I was.

Whilst I was away United made what, to many in the media and those from outside the club's support, was a surprising decision. Yet to most fans it didn't really shock. Even those who supported Clough and trusted him to put it right knew there was also a strong and vocal faction of support who'd had enough.

The timing has been criticised. Why wait until the end of May? The answer I think comes with what was happening that weekend. Given the geographical spread of our Boars of Directors and hectic business schedules, when would they be likely to have clear diaries to meet and hear Nigel Clough's plans, allowing for a period of reflection and looking forward? The same weekend they had hoped to be in the country to watch the Blades in the Play Off final.

I don't know what happened in that meeting - only those there and any they have shared the confidence of. But it has to be assumed that what was said was not convincing enough for the Board to commit the club's future in Clough's hands. I absolutely respect that and can understand why. As I wrote in a piece for The Star - prior to his departure - the case for Clough staying was based on a need for stability and the need for him to change. We can only assume that the manager wasn't for changing. A stubborn, self belief can only get you so far.

Following the announcement social media was awash with speculation and demands from fans. At times there were more dummies on the floor than at a coffee break at a ventriloquists convention. Reading twitter and Facebook to keep up to date left me wincing at some of the interaction I saw.

For me the the three stand out names in the betting market were Karl Robinson, Nigel Adkins and Mark Warburton. The other name I'd considered previously was Uwe Rosler who had found an opportunity present itself in another part of Yorkshire prior to the denouement of Clough's reign. All three of those names know what is required to get out of this division. All have managed teams playing positive football. Only two were readily available. Would any one take the step down from their current/previous status?

Adkins was that man. I have written, again for The Star, about how positively I viewed his appointment. To attract a manager who has delivered two promotions out of League One and a subsequent promotion to the top tier cannot be judged negatively. Yet in the den of the Internet trolls and the permanently aggrieved  (the comments section underneath the article) there was some lively debate. 

One commenter decided I was towing the party line - a member of the "Phipps Mafia". A fan happy to spout the rhetoric of the club and co-chairman. Another felt that I wasn't a big Blades fan as neither he or his mates had heard of me. That instantly invalidated my opinion it seems, but allows him to share his. But the big issue they seemed to have was that my piece was yet more spin and that it lacked a critical edge. I'm paraphrasing here.

Yet I struggle to see a negative issue with this appointment, so why look for one? He's the candidate that unified the opinions of a large proportion of a splintered fanbase. When other clubs' fans mocked and said "You'll never get him", it was a comment as much about their perception of Adkins status in the game as it was United's league position. 

Where criticism is valid I will offer it. I had concerns over the Clough appointment and have decried performances, even when results suggested there were few grounds for complaint. I have been criticised for negative stances as much as the positive ones. I'll support my club, but don't clap for the sake of it, nor when I feel it is undeserved. But it doesn't make me happy not to clap. It leaves me frustrated at what could/would/should be. That was the case for much of last season.

I'm sure for those who lurk on the comments pages, internet forums and social media waiting for the chance to pounce, always looking for the negatives, will find grounds to complain about our manager. Those who don't like spin will soon tire of a manager who loves to talk to the media without really saying very much. I've read comparisons with politicians and comments about saying a lot but little already. They will grow weary of his boundless positivity, a key aspect of his man-management techniques. That's because they're sat there waiting impatiently, picking away at the club like a crusty scab on their knee.

We all want to hear that the holes in the squad are being addressed, that players are being moved on, but many want to gorge on strawberries for a day, rather than have jam for weeks. Last season we were pleased by early activity in the summer, but it became a case of quantity over quality. This time the required additions are fewer in number and there is still time to have then in place whilst hopefully identifying ways to draw more incisive contributions from the players inherited.

I really hope that this appointment brings the success we crave. Whether it does or not there will be times the club and management make decisions that I don't agree with. At that point I will offer an opinion. But for now we can't judge. We need to be united as one. That's the truth, not spin.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Watching with the excitement of the long distance fan

This post was written by exiled Blade Giacomo Squintani a couple of months ago at my request. I wanted something that would tell what it is like to follow the Blades from afar, with only rare live viewings, hanging on the words on social media, fan forums and the briefest of highlights on The Football League Show.

You could say that Giacomo was lucky. He doesn't get dragged down by the week in week out performances and results. You could argue that in terms of the game he attended he was lucky, but going into the second leg at Swindon, maybe we need to approach it with the excitement of a long distance fan and realise that, like at Giacomo's game, a surprise can happen. Anything can happen.

Photo Copyright : Sam Cunliffe


Valentine’s Day. That commercial creation designed at shifting flowers, chocolates, cards… perennial source of teenage embarrassment and adult whinging (it’s always too much or too little, isn’t it?)… A right waste of money!

I solved the problem by proposing to the now Mrs S on February 12 (2005, that is). That way we have our own anniversary and don’t have to faff around with any of that malarkey. It also means that, when the fixtures threw up United at Ashton Gate on February  14, it was never going to be a challenge to secure a pass!

Ian has kindly invited me to jot down some thoughts about the day, from the perspective of an exiled Blade. Because, having made the mistake of leaving Sheffield for a second time in 1998, following my initial extradition (aged six weeks) to Italy in 1976, that’s what I am. When Saturday comes, I follow the rituals via Twitter: the pilgrimage, the hydration, the build-up inside the ground… rituals I remember well. Rituals by which I could once set my watch: whatever the weather, whatever the traffic, they always seemed to take place at the same time. Just like, regardless of the length of the Bible passages and the sermons, handshakes and communion seem to when Sunday comes.

But it’s different when you’re a lapsed stadium-goer. When Bramall Lane is 178 miles away, yet Ashton Gate is just eleven, but still you’re only going to cover that distance to watch Dem Blades. You no longer go through the rituals automatically: you need to think about your order of service and work out those milestones. And, if you’re me, odds are you’ll get them wrong.

I cautiously caught a bus just before 1pm, a time not dissimilar to the one when my late Grandfather would have turned the key and set the car in motion along Sharrow Vale Road. But back then we had to find a parking place, walk over and allow chatting time with the familiar faces. Here, it’s a five-minute walk from the bus stop to Ashton Gate, not being Mourinho I had no bus to park… so I found myself in Bedminster with what felt like an age to spare. Took a lengthy wander around Greville Smyth Park, finding time to sit on a bench for my first instalment of homemade sarnies… and eventually the time felt right to walk through the gates.

Ever the fashion guru, I was sporting my black-and-red 1997 AVEC sweater. It’s a good dozen years younger than the green polo I wore when Ian and I first met up in 2013, after all! But there was never any danger of aggro: like it or not, I could easily have blended in with the locals, most of them seemingly turning to red and white scarves. Having never seen that much white on Bristol City shirts, I did occasionally wonder whether we’d taken over Bristol. But such thoughts were… premature.

As I took my place in the Atyeo stand, I recognised a few people. Don’t ask me for names: but quite a few faces looked familiar. I must have seen them at The Lane, maybe outside the ground or maybe in the proximity of one Michael D. Rooker, or on the road. All I knew is that I’d seen them. And suddenly I felt at home. Because, for one day a year, the accent in BS3 sounds… local.

I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but even infidels will concede that ‘The Greasy Chip Butty Song’ is one of the finest, its blend of pride, passion, history, humour and self-mockery quintessentially Sheffield and quintessentially United. I could be anywhere on this planet singing it out loud with fellow Blades and I’d feel at home. Bedminster was no exception… and then we were off!

For a detailed match report, read here. My abridged version:
1. Down 1-0 at the break: unlucky.
2. Didn’t panic, kept playing football. Done looked quality.
3. Were denied a penalty shortly before Done’s equaliser.
4. Deservedly went 2-1 up as City never really increased the pressure as you’d expect the League leaders to do at home.
5. Jamie Murphy to seal it in the 82’ minute. 3-1. Three points. Job’s a good’un. And Done IS quality.

Not being able to drive and living in the UK’s largest town without a train station, away games are a rarity for me. Which is a shame, given my track record in recent years (with Wembley obviously not counting as ‘Away’):
25/04/2011: back from 2-0 down to end a disastrous away record under Micky Adams by winning 3-2 at Reading. A truly bonkers experience.
05/05/2012: 2-2 at Exeter: not quite the party that a few weeks earlier we thought it might have been.
23/11/2013: Roberto’s first (and, so far, only) game – and we nicked it 1-0 at Ashton Gate

Sincere apologies to the faithful Blades who travel up and down this country in weather far worse than we had in Bristol a few weeks back, for whom the elation of Ashton Gate is a rare feeling… that’s ten points from four for me! And we’d all but won in Exeter, but that would have been the most pointless win ever…

During the second half at Ashton Gate I’d got talking to the Blade next to me. He was a fellow exile, having driven up from Yeovil. Beyond the spoken words, there was a silent appreciation of this rare privilege of watching The Blades, accompanied by the chagrin that it was indeed a rarity. Least that’s how it felt for me: maybe he was just wondering what the traffic home was going to be like. I should have asked.

At the final whistle, having set off at that leisurely, post-match place, I made a run for the bus stop. There was an orderly queue: in fact, there were about three. Not quite sure if I joined the right one to secure one of the four available standing places, with some of the many home fans who’d left ahead of the final whistle having got on earlier to but fill the bus: but I got on there alright. I’d earnt the right to leave a few Robins behind. Well, Dem Blades had won it for me. Lots of red and white on the bus back to Portishead, but I was the only one smiling! And I duly celebrated with my second lot of sarnies. That’s how I roll.

No post-match pint(s) for me: best part of an hour on a bus, two minute walk to my front door and quickly got ready to go to dinner at friends’. I kept on my 125th shirt, but it was lost on them, neither big on football. Ah well.

So, there you go: some thoughts from an exiled Blade. A Blade who grew up in exile, in Italy, returning to Sheffield in 1994 only to leave a second time in 1998. My first departure was justifiable enough: my parents lived in Italy and clearly thought that I should grow up with them, Mum only having travelled back to God’s Own County to deliver me unto an unsuspecting world. But second time round… that was a mistake, and one that I look back upon every day. A mistake greatly influenced by an uncle’s passing comment that I should leave Sheffield for London upon graduating: I always regret not giving job-hunting in Sheffield a month or two. 

Driving back from Exeter in May 2012, that same uncle suggested I shouldn’t try to run a 10k, that it would be too much for me: and, as some of you may know, that’s one piece of advice I ignored. Had I done so first time round I’d probably have been a season ticket holder for almost two decades by now! As it stands, I have to make do with a couple of games a season. And I don’t just miss The Blades: I miss the whole experience, each and every ritual. Which is why, whisper it quietly…

…I would never begrudge my sons becoming Bristol City supporters. Just like United is my hometown club, City is theirs. So, whilst part of me hopes they keep wearing their Blades kits for the rest of their lives, I won’t deny there’s a part of me that would be happy for them to develop their own matchday rituals with their own friends and to live them out at least once a fortnight. Is that sacrilege? At least the scarves would look right…


So, Valentine’s Day 2015… how was yours?

Mine began with a 5k personal best (where I overtook a Bristol City fan late on to set the tone for the day!), ended with a nice meal with friends and featured a surprising (well I was!) but wholeheartedly convincing win at Ashton Gate. Good football, made the League leaders look like some frustratingly inconsistent side: so yes, true role reversal. If for just one afternoon. As I told my wife, it was the best Valentine’s Day of my life. 

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Time To Judge is Later




So that's the regular league season over. A United View has been quiet for a while, it's been hard to know what to write and even harder finding the time to write it. Watching United in recent months has been one of the most frustrating things I have done in that time.

Like teaching a child to ride a bike without stabilisers, you encourage, you urge them on and they briefly succeed, with apparent ease, before crashing back to earth with a bump. Then it's as if they've forgotten what to do. You know they're capable, but they can't put all the different aspects together. Failure, another failure, then they manage a good start before a major wobble and they land with a bump.

The difference being that with a five year old you hide your frustrations. You keep consoling, keep smiling, keep encouraging. With your football team you vent. You rant in your seat, in the sanctity of the pub, on the radio, or on social media.

To be frank, this league season has been disappointing. There is no masking it. Whilst for many clubs 5th place and play-offs would be an acceptable achievement, for a club with United's resources, larger than any other club in the division, it is not good enough.

This isn't just arrogance or being dismissive of other clubs. It's about having seen what these players are capable of and not seeing them deliver it on a consistent basis. It's about seeing a team chopped and changed, yet consistently play without leadership, drive and urgency.

For a manager tasked with promotion it is now left to the fine margins of 270 minutes of football, maybe with another 60 minutes on top or a penalty shootout or two.

I could talk about squad size. I could write about comparisons with Bristol City. How the comments about the number of matches played don't fully stack up. I could question the number and extent of the club's injuries. I could pick apart the unbalanced squad and the manager's apparent inability to know his best eleven after 46 league games. But now is not the time. That post can come at the end of the month, hopefully with a theme of "in spite of all this....".

Nobody wants Nigel Clough to fail. By inference that would mean United have failed. I did not agree with recent calls for him to go. Those writing on Jim Phipps' Facebook wall and tweeting him demand change but if pushed would've struggled to suggest who should replace him. For me Clough has not failed until the season ends and promotion has not been achieved. Only when the final ball has been kicked, hopefully at Wembley can we say whether he has achieved his objective.

I really hope he proves me and the other doubters wrong, I really do. Just because we doubt, doesn't mean we don't support, don't shout, don't sing, don't encourage. Nothing stops that, but the cold hard facts of this season say we were the 5th best club in League 1. We have scored fewer goals than any of the team's around us. On average we have conceded at least a goal a game. Our run of form going into the play offs has been dire.

Previous play off heartache means nothing to this team, but it still burns hard into the collective memories of supporters. It can have no impact on the outcome, only in preparing fans' expectations. My concerns are only emanating from the recent past; the last 46 league games.

To cling to hope means to think of the great cup performances over the last 18 months and how the team have raised themselves. Three back to back results are required. Accepted they don't need to be 3 wins, but the last time we achieved that was February.

Thursday's team selection will be interesting as injured and rested players should return. Collins is once again available; the only fit centre back we have following his return from loan. The excellent ticket pricing should mean a decent crowd and a lot of noise; hopefully positive backing and a result to leave Swindon chasing the game at home.

Let's hope we can truly be saying Up the Blades in 3 weeks time.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Sticks and Stones




It seems to be one of "the" unwritten rules in football; a manager should never publicly criticise his players. When they do, they often attract criticism themselves, from fans and media commentators alike. Much of the media condemnation comes from ex-players, often reflecting on their experience and how they would feel.

Just taking the last couple of seasons, Tim Sherwood has attracted condemnation from Michael Owen for the then Spurs manager’s criticism of his side and Peter Schmeichel suggested that Roberto Mancini’s constant disparagement of his Manchester City players contributed to their slump in form. 

Rarely, do you see managers doing it. Therefore when it happens it is bound to grab attention and make you wonder. Why that player? Why this particular game or moment? What is driving the decision to go public with the comments?

Very few top managers do it and Sir Alex Ferguson was clear about why he didn't berate his players in the press.

"My job is not to criticise my players publicly. When a manager makes a public criticism, he is affecting the emotional stability of a player and that cannot be the professional thing to do."

That is why, as a tool of man-management, public criticism of your own employees tends to be viewed so negatively, not just in football but any industry. Everyone prefers to be spoken about favourably, or at least criticised in private. I have never used that tactic and can’t imagine when I would.

Back to football, Jose Mourinho has a slightly different approach, based on how view the maturity of the players and their working relationships.

"It is part of my job, to try and find the best strategy to get the best out of my players. I love to praise my players publicly. I don’t love to criticise them. But sometimes, either by strategy or by frustration, I’ve done it.

I think the most important thing is the personal relationship. When you have a personal relationship, you can accept the criticism and are open to it. You know your friend, your coach, your father or your wife criticises you it’s for your own good. That’s the basis of our relationship. I have a fantastic group of guys and a great relationship with them."

“It reminds me of my first team at Chelsea, the same kind of relationship I had with that fantastic group of guys. I feel completely open with them. If they feel they have to do the same with me, I don’t have a problem.”

Closer to home, Nigel Clough has come in for criticism this season for his handling of Marc McNulty. Match winning and goal-scoring performances have seen the player return to the bench for the next game. Attempts to cajole praise for McNulty from the manager in post -match interviews, instead provokes lists of problems, things the striker has still to learn and could do better. Yes he scored, but……….

To some fans it feels like Clough is nit-picking. To others it adds to a perception that the manager likes to be contrary and go against the flow. Or, in a more positive light, that he is just being his own man - a manager in the mould of his father - willing to stand by his decisions however much others see it differently.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the mix. McNulty does have a lot to learn; both in terms of positioning and all round game play. At the same time, in a side struggling for goals, fans wanted to see some positive threat on the pitch, something that McNulty seemingly provided.

The manager has pointed out in interviews that this is part of how he handles McNulty, focusing on how the player responds to this criticism. This has in itself generated concern amongst fans. They view it as a risky strategy, one that only seems to raise the hackles of the striker's father on social media and doesn't seem to be to the overall of benefit of the club. Subsequently, the criticism has spread to other members of the team, as players were named as to blame for recent defeats. This blame game, with little self-flagellation from the manager seemed to raise ire further.

Bizarrely, public criticism is frowned upon by any fans, yet many of these very same fans are the ones who want and demand honesty from their manager. If the view from the terraces is that tactically the manager got it wrong, or a player underperformed they want it acknowledged, they want to see some form of action taken.

Yet we all see the game differently, within that view and opinion there will be some common ground, but everyone is looking at the game in different ways. At half time versus Scunthorpe, I was criticised by some for being too negative, given we were winning 2-0. Yet, if it hadn't been for Jose Baxter's penalty we would have been going in at half time 1-0 up, having rarely tested the Scunthorpe keeper and the nervousness at not capitalising on our dominance of possession would have left many fans fearing another slip up.

To test the water I praised the first half against Crewe, one all at the time, but with a very similar 45 minutes to the Scunthorpe game in terms of how we had played, passed and finished. I was criticised again. It was "rubbish", the passing was "awful". The responses highlighted the difference made by a goal, on a rare foray forward, from the opposition, but also how we all view matches with different tints of red and white. On this basis can a manager ever be seen to be getting this right? 

This isn’t the first time a United manager has used this as a means of motivating his players. Early in the 1991 season, with United yet again making a slow start in the top tier, Dave Bassett was highly critical of his players in the press. Rarely singling out individuals, he came down more heavily on the team as a whole, in his own forthright fashion.

A young 16 year old fan, read and listened to his comments, thought about it and sent him a letter. The letter largely thanked the manager for what he had achieved at Bramall Lane, they remain some of the greatest times that fan has had watching the Blades even twenty odd years later, but the letter also asked why he was so openly negative about his team.

A week or so later a letter came back to the writer, a copy is below. In Bassett’s reply, he touched upon the fact that many of his comments were well thought out and not a spontaneous, heat of the moment outburst that his style tended to suggest. He also suggested that used sparingly these comments are a useful management motivational tool in both business settings as well as sporting realms and that he would hope that his management style had matured to the extent that he knew the right balance to use with his players.

He went on to make a point about using public negativity to develop a united response from players, whether that criticism has come from the fans, media or the manager himself.

"What you see and what you are told by the press is only a small part of my overall motivational strategy that has the best interests of the club at heart."

So maybe we, as fans, have to accept a nuanced approach to man-management, more so in football. Whilst we, as managers in our day to day work, may not take the critical approach to personal development used by Bassett, Clough and Mourinho, we need to accept that the manager will see fit to use what they think is right. They will only act in a way they feel is in the best interests of the club, they have no reason not to as it is their livelihood at risk.

The fact that one of the most popular managers in United’s recent history used similar techniques is often forgotten amongst his success. It certainly didn’t inspire the kind of response Clough’s player criticism has generated, albeit the use of social media means the strength of views are amplified these days. Who knows how many others questioned the manager in letters to the club? We will never know.

It could also be argued that with his team under-performing in the league and recruitment decisions and team selection under scrutiny, this is just another verbal stick with which to hit the manager. But as he might argue when defending his treatment of McNulty, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but saying things won’t hurt me’.