Nigel Clough was in phlegmatic mood at the Redtooth Academy yesterday, writes James Shield.
Yes, the Sheffield United manager acknowledged, he was bitterly disappointed by aspects of his team’s performance against Swindon Town. But no, given the fact they remain only three points off second place having played less games than most of those above them in the League One table, he does not feel a crisis brewing behind the scenes at Bramall Lane.
“We’ve played eight league matches and there are 38 to go,” Clough said. “We’ve lost 11 times in 51 outings since coming here and, to be honest, I think that’s a pretty good record to have.
“Do we feel as if we’re in the middle of a crisis? Is everything terrible? Of course not, even though some people seem to think otherwise.
“We’re not too far of where we want to be and there’s a long, long way to go yet. There’s a lot more to come through the group of players that we have here too.
“So that’s what we’re focusing on. Making sure that happens and making sure we all improve.”
Tonight, when they visit Leyton Orient in the Capital One Cup, United will enjoy an early opportunity to demonstrate they have learned the lessons of Saturday’s 5-2 defeat at the County Ground. A defence which has now conceded seven goals in its previous two outings will come under particular scrutiny against opponents who reached the play-off final last term.
“We’re disappointed with the goals we conceded at Swindon,” Clough said. “We’ve got to get an element of aggression back into our play.
“It was there against West Ham, Peterborough and Preston. But not Colchester or Swindon. I think their two centre-forwards came off the pitch with not a mark on them.
“The focus, for getting that, comes primarily from the back four. That’s who you look to set the tone but everyone else has to play their part too.
“We’ve got the size and the stature in there. What we have to do is set the tone early on.”
Orient’s preparations for this evening’s third round tie have also been far from perfect with Russell Slade, who was threatened with the sack by new owner Francesco Becchetti recently, being linked with the managerial vacancy at Cardiff City.
“To get Leyton Orient into the play-off final, playing they way they did, is an incredible achievement,” Clough said. “And then, six games or so after that to find himself in this situation, well, I do just find it bizarre. There’s no other word.
“But that’s the business these days I suppose. I wouldn’t back against either of us getting into the top six at the end of the season. If Russ gets the chance to manage a club like Cardiff them good luck to him.”
Clough, as his comments before boarding the coach to London testify, has little time for the hysteria and knee-jerk reactions which blight many aspects of the modern game. Nevertheless, the former England international, whose side had been unbeaten in six outings before losing at Swindon, refuses to pull any punches when it comes to post-match critiques either.
At the Matchroom Stadium, Clough hopes his squad goes about its business in exactly the same vein.
“I think we’re the sort of side that needs to put a few tackles in. We don’t want to get drawn into a pure football match because, not yet anyway, I don’t think that’s our biggest strength.
“We need to ‘get about people’ and, when we have done that, it’s usually brought us good results. Somebody out there needs to set the tone.
“As an ex-striker myself, you usually get a feeling within the first few minutes what type of battle you are going to be in. That’s when everyone is looking to leave their mark, as it were, albeit in a sensible way.
“We’ve done it in the past and that’s why I know we can do it again. We’ve shown that we are capable of it but, sometimes, you just need those little reminders and, hopefully, that’s what we’ve just had.”
United, who expect to be without Jose Baxter (hamstring) and Jamal Campbell-Ryce (calf) at Orient, could recall James Wallace after the midfielder was withdrawn from the meeting against Swindon as a precautionary measure. Centre-forward Michael Higdon could also return while Marc McNulty is likely to feature after scoring his first league goal since arriving from Livingston during the close season.
“Hopefully we’ll be better defensively and show a little bit more aggression,” Clough said. “Show a little bit more intent not to concede a goal.
“But listen, the lads can do it because they’ve shown it before and they’ll do that again. So let’s keep things in perspective because, at places like West Ham, Peterborough and Preston they were absolutely excellent.”