Danny Hall: Back Adkins, Blades boo boys, and he’ll repay you

Sheffield United boss Nigel Adkins
Sheffield United boss Nigel Adkins
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Sometimes, in business and in pleasure, in sport and in life, it isn’t what you say. It’s how you say it.

Other times, the medium doesn’t matter a jot; it’s the words that stand out, almost leaping from the page.

Take this from Jim Phipps, Sheffield United’s affable and genuine co-chairman, on his Facebook page after United’s 2-1 home defeat to Millwall last weekend.

“Our confidence in Nigel Adkins is very high. We have the right man for the job, and the people he has brought with him are quality.”

Elsewhere: “Are there issues still to be addressed? Yes. Do we have confidence that NA is the right person to address them? Absolutely.”

Quite rightly. Adkins, a four-time promotion winner in English football, twice from United’s current league, will have been at Bramall Lane for 150 days by the time you read these words. He’s taken charge of 19 competitive games, of which United have won nine and drawn four; a win ratio of 47.4 per cent.

Nigel Clough, his immediate predecessor, registered 47.1 per cent; only Danny Wilson, with a staggeringly-impressive 51.9 per cent, boosts a better record than Adkins’ current one. In the club’s history.

Think of United’s most impressive bosses over the years; Dave Bassett? Just 38.1 per cent. Neil Warnock, 42.5. Ian Porterfield’s was 43.4.

Football isn’t a specific art, of course; there are shades of grey in the black-and-white. But reading between the lines, Phipps’ post was, in his own words, a response to 40-or-so messages in his inbox “which this message is intended to address”. The fact he used it to reiterate the board’s support for Adkins speaks volumes; a quick glance at the post’s 300-plus comments does, too.

One lambasts Adkins for signing players he’s worked with before, then adds that United need ‘strength, height and speed, and much more passion’. Dean Hammond, United’s latest acquisition, certainly ticks the first two boxes; Martyn Woolford is no slouch. Billy Sharp, who grew up watching United from the Kop, certainly adds passion.

Nigel Adkins shakes hands with co-chairman Jim Phipps

Nigel Adkins shakes hands with co-chairman Jim Phipps

All three have worked with the Blades boss before. Is that a viable criticism? No manager with Adkins’ promotion-laden CV would have got this far, by giving his mates gigs when they didn’t deserve them. Jobs for the boys? Forget it.

Look at United’s team against Millwall; nine players inherited from Clough, four new players in the 16. That side struggled to fifth in the table and finished 20 points off automatic promotion. Missing two first-choice full-backs in John Brayford and Bob Harris, and a Michael Doyle-type enforcer, they’re currently sixth and five points behind second.

Are things that much worse under Adkins? United have their defensive frailties, yes - although it’s interesting to note that a player hailed as the exiled savior under Clough, Neill Collins, seems to be one of the scapegoats under Adkins - and need to find a way through when teams like Bury and Milwall come to Bramall Lane intent on frustrating, rather than creating.

But in Che Adams, Billy Sharp and Matt Done, they have probably the most potent strike force in the division with Jose Baxter, arguably League One’s most competent footballer on his day, supplying the ammunition.

Goalkeeper Mark Howard, written off by many, still holds the record for the most successive clean sheets in the club’s 126-year history. Come January, he may have Brayford, Harris, David Edgar and Dan Burn in front of him; a back five that would take some breaching.

All of this, of course, seems to be too much for some Blades fans. It may be the minority, but they make the most noise; as the recent Fleetwood game at Bramall Lane testified.

United won that game 3-0, and had 61 per cent of the ball. They were booed off by some supporters at full time.

Frustration is understandable; United have spent five unhappy years in English football’s third tier, and two exhilarating cup runs have perhaps prolonged that stay.

Wednesday fans gleefully label League One as a ‘Mickey Mouse League’ but this is more Banksy’s Dismaland than Disneyworld for Blades fans.

Their club may be a Championship, even Premier League one in infrastructure; the £21m investment, from Prince Abdullah over the last three years, would be substantial at most clubs up and down the land.

But United, for the time being, are a League One club. Pure and simple; Period, as they would say in Phipps’ native US. They play Crewe this weekend, not Cardiff City or Chelsea. Next Tuesday, they travel to Fleetwood looking for progress in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy.

Adkins has set a target of top six in January, top two by May. That’s 192 days away, 31 league games away; 93 points away. Booing won’t speed up the process; venting anger in the Facebook inbox of the club’s co-chairman won’t see instant results. Phipps admits everyone at United can do better. Adkins is big on striving for constant improvement.

But sometimes, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that United may just be doing enough. And understanding that there is a difference could prove the key to their hopes of promotion.