James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Baxter facing tough choices

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Is Jose Baxter’s most endearing quality, following news that the Sheffield United midfielder has once again tested positive for a banned recreational substance, his greatest weakness too?

Certainly, although the circumstances surrounding this latest breach of discipline remain unclear, the 24-year-old will have plenty of time for soul-searching after being suspended by club officials before last weekend’s victory over Port Vale.

Jose Baxter might have to make some tough choices

Jose Baxter might have to make some tough choices

Of course, until the facts become known or Baxter breaks his silence, both legal and moral judgements must be reserved. But, having found himself at the centre of controversy on several occasions throughout his career, it’s fair to say that the former Everton protégé is in desperate need of some sound advice.

First, though, a declaration of interest on my part. I’ve got a lot of time for the lad on and off the pitch too.

We aren’t great mates or mates at all for that matter. But what I like about Baxter is that he is a bloke who just happens to play football rather than a footballer with an inflated sense of his own importance who tries to be a bloke. Unfortunately, and paradoxically, this appears to be the crux of the problem.

Seven months ago, Baxter recounted the awkward conversations held with friends after traces of ecstasy were discovered in his system. The result, he argued, of his drink being spiked during a routine night out.

Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas (right) at Wembley

Hungary captain Ferenc Puskas (right) at Wembley

“They were offended and hurt, I’ve been mates with some of them since we were 12,” Baxter said. “But I had to try and find out because I couldn’t put my finger on what happened, and maybe I’ll never know.”

Even so, despite his investigations leading nowhere, the episode should have set alarm bells ringing in Baxter’s camp. Particularly because, six years earlier, he was arrested on suspicion of possessing cannabis and counterfeit money before being released without charge. Two other men, then aged 29 and 34, were travelling in a car with Baxter at the time.

He is clearly loyal to his old mates back home in Liverpool but there must be serious doubts, given this type of exposure, about whether that loyalty is reciprocated. Do they care as much about him?

Baxter’s lousy habit of generating infelicitous headlines is bad news for United, the player and also the sport itself. Like a Football League version of Ferenc Puskás, Baxter’s game is based on vision and skill, not athleticism. Qualities which are likely to be in much demand if Nigel Adkins’ side reaches the Championship while, as regular visitors to its training complex will testify, it is difficult not to admire a footballer more likely to be seen wearing Karrimor than Calvin Klein.

If his ‘B’ sample returns positive, Baxter must accept ultimate responsibility for his actions. But, hopefully, someone he trusts can then point him in the right direction too. Plenty of his fellow professionals have, should Baxter’s guilt be proven, been allowed to resurrect their careers after committing far more serious and heinous offences than the one with which he is charged. Strangely, they have sometimes been afforded greater sympathy and understanding too.

Nobody, regardless of the job involved, wants to see talent go to waste. But, regardless of how the situation eventually unfolds, Baxter has some very tough choices to make.