Nigel Adkins is the first to admit his debut season at Sheffield United has not gone according to plan.
Five points behind the play-off positions with only a single match remaining, a club which began the campaign strongly tipped for promotion instead finds itself preparing to spend yet another 12 months in League One.
Initially hailed as the peoples’ choice and supposed saviour of Bramall Lane, Adkins’ powers of diplomacy and persuasion have been sorely tested as first results and then his own reputation among supporters went south.
Nevertheless, despite accepting “total responsibility” for United’s recent failings, yesterday’s media briefing contained a few subtle hints that, after inheriting a squad bearing the scars of countless managerial appointments, perhaps its latest bid for Championship football was hamstrung from the start.
“We are less than a year in and I’ve learnt a hell of a lot,” Adkins said. “It’s been very revealing and we now understand exactly what is required and that we have to get this right.”
Adkins became the eighth person to take charge of United since May 2007 when he was appointed in June last year. With his predecessor Nigel Clough devising both the first team’s conditioning and summer fixture programmes before being sacked two weeks after reaching the play-off semi-finals, the early part of Adkins’ reign was effectively shaped by a regime with very different principles and ideas.
“We went undefeated through pre-season and, for me, it doesn’t mean diddly squat,” Adkins continued. “I want really tough games so that, when we go again, we are mentally and physically ready to come straight out of the blocks.
“We want a group of players who are in a better, or good I should say, condition to start working,” he added. “We will have some challenging fixtures and then go into the season ready. Be ready for the demands of what is a very long, tough and gruelling English competition.”
Although Adkins stressed that no criticism of Clough was intended or implied - “We all like our own things but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone else is wrong and you are right” - this close season promises to be a very different experience for United’s players and backroom staff. Individual meetings, where the likes of Ryan Flynn and Jay McEveley are expected to discover whether or not they are surplus to requirements, have been scheduled following Sunday’s game against Scunthorpe. Potential targets, following two uneventful transfer windows, will be courted and pursued.
“The facts are out there to see,” Adkins, who has made only two permanent acquisitions during his time in South Yorkshire, said. “The numbers that we started pre-season with and, after trimming things, the numbers here now. But our objective, after this game, is to ensure we are ready for pre-season and, even more importantly, the first proper game.”
“We will work through the summer and make sure everyone is in the right shape to start our preparations,” he added. “We individualise everything so they come back in good condition. We’re not saying ‘off you go, sit on a beach for two months’ because those days have long gone. Or at least they should be. Yes, you need to switch off mentally. But there’s enough time, to do that appropriately, through the summer. If you do everything properly then, when you do come back, you don’t have to spend time putting things right.”
First, though, United must attempt to orchestrate the downfall of Adkins’ former club Scunthorpe. Level with sixth-placed Barnsley on goal difference following a five match winning run, the visitors pose a formidable challenge. But one, Paul Heckingbottom’s side and fellow play-off hopefuls Gillingham will be relieved to learn, United are ready to confront.
“All our energies and focus right now are on this game,” Adkins said. “We actually had a game at Bramall Lane this morning (Thursday) because we are serious and know how important it is. We know the importance of the game from a Barnsley, Gillingham and Scunthorpe perspective. But, more importantly, our own.
“We can talk about it until we are blue in the face. We haven’t achieved our objective this season but I firmly believe we are on the right lines.”