Nigel Adkins hails from Birkenhead rather than the suburbs of east Belfast, but his approach to the game could have been torn straight from Danny Blanchflower’s coaching manual.
Not content with simply masterminding wins, the Sheffield United manager believes football is also about glory. Bludgeoning and overwhelming opponents into submission instead of waiting for them to die of boredom.
It is an inherently risky strategy which can, at times, leave his team susceptible to the type of upset which saw them enter this match hoping to avoid a third straight home defeat. But, as Paul Coutts acknowledged, more often than not it delivers positive results.
“We play with two up top,” Coutts said. “There are lots of teams coming here with five across the middle and looking to make it difficult for us that way. But we want to score goals. We’ve got a fantastic following and we want to entertain them. We’ve got licence to go out there and play, express ourselves and enjoy it. With the two great lads we’ve got up top, you know they are going to score.”
As Coutts acknowledged, Adkins’ modus operandi is also a calculated gamble given the wealth of attacking talent which exists within United’s ranks following the changes he implemented after taking charge in June.
Doncaster Rovers, reduced to 10 men when Gary MacKenzie was dismissed for a reckless challenge on Craig Alcock just before half-time, produced an industrious shift to keep the contest alive until Billy Sharp scored his sixth goal in seven outings during the closing stages.
But while Rob Jones’ assessment of the visitors’ performance seemed unduly harsh - “We got back on level terms and then there was mistake after mistake after mistake” - there could be no disputing the legitimacy of the final outcome with Conor Sammon restoring United’s advantage after Cameron Stewart had cancelled-out Chris Basham’s opener.
“With Conor and Billy, you’ve got to play to their strengths,” Coutts, who delivered the pass which allowed his former Derby team mate to score, continued. “You always back them to get on the scoresheet so long as we can give them the service.
“I know Conor well but he didn’t even come over to thank me. His little girl was in the stand and he went running over to her. But I wasn’t shouting him back, I was just delighted to get a drink. Craig did ever so well to intercept the ball in the first place. He passed it to me and I saw Conor at the back stick. Conor is a great lad and he always works his socks off for the team. Billy will always do the same too.”
Coutts marked his first appearance since last season’s play-off semi-finals with an accomplished performance which illustrated why, despite much of the criticism directed towards him earlier this year, Adkins’ predecessor Nigel Clough was so keen to bring him to Bramall Lane. Strong in the tackle and creative on the ball, he not only vindicated United’s’ selection policy for Saturday’s fixture but confirmed his place among a clutch of players coaching staff believe are set to strengthen the club’s promotion credentials when they return from injury. Another, Matt Done, completed a vigorous warm-down following the final whistle.
“It’s encouraging because the treatment room is almost empty now,” Coutts, who was diagnosed with a knee problem in the close-season, said. “We’ve got a good squad and with people like Bray (John Brayford), Matty and James Wallace coming back, the gaffer is going to have some decisions to make.”
“You always want to impress, especially when a new manager comes in,” Coutts added. “I’ve got to keep working hard and show him what I can do. The new gaffer has been very positive. He’s told me to make sure I’m okay and not to break down again. It’s a long season and there’s a lot of games. It was nice to get that show of faith from him.”
The afternoon’s first three goals reminded that football, for all its obsession with complex tactics and science, is most effective when things are kept simple. Basham, captaining United in Jay McEveley’s absence, emphatically converted Alcock’s centre while Stewart swept home a well-taken free-kick. Sammon, who later hit the post from long-range and saw an angled drive squirm across the line, combined with Coutts before MacKenzie, and subsequently the injured Alcock, departed.
With Kieran Wallace also impressing, United gathered momentum after the interval and made sure of sixth place ahead of tomorrow’s trip to leaders Burton when Sharp rounded Thorsten Stuckmann after James Coppinger’s back pass fell short. Rovers, meanwhile, remain 22nd.
“It felt great to be back out there again and, most of all, I was delighted that we got the three points,” Coutts said. “Now we’ll look to kick on.”