11 December ~ Sheffield United fans approach today's local derby with Barnsley in a bit of a malaise, with differing views about the state of the club and much finger-pointing as to where the problems started and who is to blame. There is an inexperienced manager, Gary Speed, trying to impose himself and his methods on a struggling team. The chairman, Kevin McCabe, is still seeking investment in the club, but has announced that he will be standing down at the AGM later this month. Then there is a team of experienced players who aren't delivering alongside a number of loanees and a sprinkling of youth, possibly accelerated to the first team squad ahead of their time.
Some see the recently announced divestment of property ventures and international football interests as a good opportunity for the club to free itself of non-footballing constraints. The stated aim is to be sustainable without financial support from McCabe or any other benefactor. Meanwhile, the Tévez compensation payments are being used to secure outstanding bank debt in a move that aims to free the club of external debt by 2013. These seem to be positive actions but the pruning of costs is causing short-term pain.
United started last season with a small but expensive squad and then spent a further £2.5 million on bringing in 14 loanees as injuries hit hard. There was a promise over the summer that such a reliance on loans would not be repeated - so far seven players have joined on loan. The timing of Speed's appointment just three games into the season left him little opportunity to change personnel before the transfer window closed. However, what opportunity he will have to do that in January is debatable with McCabe now saying that the manager will have to get players out before he can bring any in.
McCabe also made reference to the fact that "the squad will shortly be boosted by the return from long-term injury of Darius Henderson and Lee Williamson". Henderson and Williamson are good Championship players, but are prone to disciplinary and injury problems respectively. Hardly players you would want to rely on, although Henderson may be a saleable asset to raise a transfer kitty in the absence of investment.
Speaking at a fans' forum just after his appointment, Speed said the objective was promotion to the Premier League, reinforcing an aim stated by McCabe to fans over the summer. But recently a touch of welcome realism appears to have taken over. Last week, as the club announced a retained loss of £18.6m, chief executive Trevor Birch said: "We have to think longer term in our objectives." Given what most fans have witnessed on the pitch this season, we had already adjusted our expectations.
While there has been a noticeable attempt to change the style of play, there has been a distinct lack of end product, both in terms of goals and results. Under Speed the Blades have six wins and 21 points from 17 games. A disappointing return, but still seemingly sufficient for the Welsh FA to state that Speed is their number one choice as national coach. The last thing the Blades need right now is more change and both Speed and the club have been quick to rebuff the advances.
Currently sitting 20th in the Championship, just two points above the relegation places, the Blades are a club in transition. The fear among fans must be that, unless improvements are made, the transition could be towards League One football. Ian Rands