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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Less Waste, More Speed

With Sheffield United replacing Kevin Blackwell with Gary Speed, Nobes looks at the state of play at Bramall Lane.

Kevin Blackwell had been in charge at United for two and a half years

So the dubious honour fell to Kevin Blackwell. Discounting Steve Coppell's resignation from Bristol City, it was the Sheffield United manager who became the first in the Football League to be fired this season.

Trying to justify sacking a manager two games into the season is never an easy task. Why, just 180 minutes into a new campaign is the man who began as manager now not up to the job?

What has happened, too, in the first two matches to suggest that a managerial change has to be made?

More often that not,
such decisions are nothing more than a delayed reaction to the previous campaign. As is the case with United's decision to part company with Blackwell.

In such scenarios, giving the manager the start of the new season is nothing more than a token gesture. He is a dead man walking - simply waiting to be sacked at the first convenient time.

For the South Yorkshire club, that convenient time was a midweek League Cup loss at Hartlepool followed by a painful 3-0 home defeat to QPR. Painful, not only because it was all over after only half an hour, but because of the opposition.

The return of former boss Neil Warnock always guarantees a spicy occasion - a feeling only heightened with keeper Paddy Kenny also coming back to Bramall Lane with the Rs.

It was a game Blackwell desperately didn't want - and now it's apparent he couldn't afford - to lose. Albeit so early in the season, his dismissal wouldn't have come as a surprise to the 51-year-old.

With two Championship Play Off finals on his CV, the former Leeds and Luton manager shouldn't worry too much about finding employment again.

Ultimately though, his departure from South Yorkshire is the result of last year's underachievement. He failed to get the most of a talented squad that should have at least made the play offs.

Had he left last May, nobody would have been surprised had the manager had paid
with his job for the lack of a top six finish.

Indeed, surely removing him then would have been more beneficial to United, too. Giving them time to find a new manager, who could bring in his kind of players during the summer and have a full pre-season behind him.

If the Blades didn't want to fire him but, instead, give him time to make amends this term, then giving Blackwell two games is hardly fair or realistic.

It's the kind of managerial policy which bemuses onlookers and frustrates supporters. Where is the thought? Where is the planning? Where is the replacement?

On that last issue United can, at least, defend themselves though. With Blackwell's first team coach, Gary Speed, being promoted to take overall control.

Indeed, the former boss probably knew the writing was on the wall when United vigorously fought off interest in Speed from Championship rivals Swansea to fill their managerial vacancy this summer.

Why were they so keen to hold onto, not their manager, but just a first team coach? The answer is now clear - he was always their manager in waiting - the ready made replacement when Blackwell felt the Blades' axe.

The Welshman has long been spoken about as a potential manager and now has the opportunity to prove himself in the top job.

It is arguably not the identity of the new manager which is the most interesting question at Bramall Lane though. Rather, it is about the whole identity of the club itself.

Like it or not, and most fans resent the tag, the Blades have become a club associated with playing the game a certain way.

From Dave Bassett in the '90s, through Neil Warnock's long tenure, and lately under Blackwell, United have always been seen as a big, physical, perhaps even dirty team, playing a long-ball style.

Not that they would have cared. When it brings about success, fans are never too bothered about how it is achieved.

Under Bassett they spent four years in the top flight and reached the FA Cup semi finals in 1993.

Warnock, after plenty of near misses, took them back into the top flight in 2006, after memorably guiding them to both the League Cup and FA Cup semi finals.

Under Blackwell they were within 90 minutes of reclaiming a place in the top flight but lost out to Burnley in the 2009 Championship Play Off final.

The truth is, while not pretty on the eye, United have always been at their most competitive when they've adopted such tactics.

Blades coach Gary Speed has been promoted into the manager's job

With a change in the managerial chair an opportunity to change the culture of the club presents itself though. The appointment of Speed can herald a new approach to playing the game.

He must try and find the happy medium - a combination of achieving results with football that is both exciting to watch, but also of a higher technical quality than United have been playing.

True, it would be folly to try and change too much too quickly. Changing the style of a team can be a lengthy and expensive process, often involving the shipping out of players unable to make the transition and bringing in other individuals more suited.

It can sometimes mean sacrificing a year that could be spent gunning for promotion in the hope that, in the long term, you will be better placed to achieve your goals.

It was notable though how, in their play off final with Burnley, the Blades couldn't respond to Owen Coyle's side's combination of physical strength allied with a craft and guile sadly lacking in their own team.

Percentage football has its strengths, but the most worrying percentage for the Blades is the 100 per cent record of losing Championship play off finals - three in total.

United have been here before, too. After Warnock's departure following relegation from the top flight in 2007, they turned to Bryan Robson as his replacement.

Is was with the intention of trying to play a more attractive and patient style of game. However, when the results didn't come, Robson was dismissed and the club turned to Blackwell and his more direct methods.

There was even talk that Blades supporters had, instead of warming to Robson's footballing philosophy, found the lack of penalty box action and chances created frustrating to watch.

Years of watching the fiery Warnock, barking orders on the touchline for his team to put the ball into the box towards the big men, had become so ingrained in their football culture that they didn't care about how attractive their play was.

Of course, had Robson's football been winning matches, such stories and feelings probably would have drowned out by the positivity towards the new regime.

They didn't, and Blackwell's appointment meant Bramall Lane once again became a venue where visiting teams could expect an aerial bombardment to contend with.

That kind of style wasted the attacking array of players which were the envy of most other Championship teams twelve months ago though.

Once again, with the likes of Ched Evans, Jamie Ward, Richard Cresswell, and summer signing
Daniel Bogdanovic, United have one of the most potent attacking line-ups in the division.

Leon Britton, another summer capture, also has the ability to provide the spark of invention and quality so badly lacking in a midfield too frequently bypassed.

His partnership in the centre of the park with the robust Nick Montgomery has the potential to be one of the Championship's most effective, too.

It presents new boss Speed with a playing squad more than capable of challenging for the play offs.

For the future of the club though, how they make their challenge will be just as interesting as whether they're successful or not.

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