APRIL, TS Eliot wrote, is the cruelest month.
Sheffield United supporters are inclined to agree.
Having given their followers a brief, tantalising glimpse of what might have been with back to back wins over Bristol City and Reading, Micky Adams’ side finally succumbed to the laws of gravity after drawing with Barnsley last weekend.
Relegation was confirmed. League One beckons. This afternoon’s trip to Swansea City rendered an excruciating dead-rubber rather than one last chance to try and clinch survival.
“Personally, this has been the most disappointing season of my career,” striker Darius Henderson, who recently returned from long-term injury, said yesterday. “
Although, publicly at least, Adams had talked-up United’s prospects since taking charge in December, privately one suspects he realised they were in trouble soon after arriving from Port Vale. Having defied the odds to finish eighth last season, the South Yorkshire club have spent almost all of the present campaign in the lower reaches of the table.
In 20th place when caretaker John Carver relinquished the reins following a controversial defeat at Norwich City, Adams has accepted his share of responsibility for their predicament.
But the seeds of United’s demise were sown long before the 49-year-old’s appointment. Four managers and 42 players used in the past eight months is not a platform for success in any footballing manual.
“Obviously it’s not helped having so many people being in charge and so many people going through the doors,” Henderson, whose participation against Swansea has been placed in jeopardy by a hamstring strain, said. “I’m disappointed because I feel my goals could have helped improve the team but if I’m here then that gives me even more incentive to do well next season doesn’t it?
“The only way we’re going to move forward though is to look forward. Not back.”
Nevertheless, the lessons of history must not be ignored.
United’s board of directors have been criticised for not lavishing enough money on the first-team squad in recent years. It is a predictable accusation but one which, sober analysis confirms, masks one of the most important reasons behind their demise as a npower Championship power.
They have, in fact, spent too much. And on, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, ill-advised signings.
A wage bill which dwarfs most of their divisional rivals will be unsustainable next season. Deep and painful cuts are on the way.
But United must still re-invest some of the monies they receive for the likes of Henderson, Ched Evans and Nick Montgomery on assembling a group of experienced players to coax youngsters such as Jordan Slew, Harry Maguire and Matthew Harriott through the next phase of their development.
The loan market, upon which they have relied far too heavily in recent years, is arguably the most expensive way to assemble a squad. It must be used to embellish rather than construct a squad capable of challenging for promotion.
“If you look at all the successful teams, they have that blend,” Henderson said.
With United’s under-18s reaching this month’s FA Youth Cup final, Maguire, Slew and possibly even Terry Kennedy and Matt Harriott could be the subject of bids over the coming weeks. But these must be resisted at all costs.
Together with Matthew Lowton, their emergence has gone some way towards restoring United’s reputation. Not to mention providing the club with an identity they have sorely lacked as a flurry of hired guns have passed through Bramall Lane since losing the 2009 play-off final.
“Everytime I go out onto the field I feel a responsibility not only to help the team but also to try and play to the very best level that I can,” said Henderson. “If that’s infectious throughout the rest of the boys, especially the youngsters, then great.
“It’s important that I try and pass on my experience to them.”
SWANSEA CITY (Possible): De Vries, Williams, Monk, Rangel, Taylor, Britton, Dyer, Allen, Moore, Dobbie, Borini.
SHEFFIELD UNITED (Possible): Simonsen, Mattock, Lowry, Maguire, Lowton, Montgomery, Quinn, Williamson, Philliskirk, Henderson, Slew.
EDIE ILDERTON: The Tyne and Wear official, who will be assisted by Sian Massey, last took charge of Sheffield United in October when they drew 3-3 with Burnley at Bramall Lane. Leon Britton – who has since returned to Swansea – and Matthew Lowton were both booked. Ilderton has issued 72 yellow and five red cards in 35 outings this term. This will be his first appointment involving the Swans since January 2007 when they drew 2-2 at Bradford City.
Tale Of The Tape
United, playing their first match under caretaker John Carver, beat Swansea 1-0 at Bramall Lane in December. However, they were beaten 2-1 on their last visit to the Liberty Stadium despite the hosts having Jordi Lopez and Nathan Dyer sent-off. Indeed, they have never won at this ground. Swansea are unbeaten in three and have scored six goals in their previous two outings. United are also unbeaten in three but were relegated when they drew with Barnsley last weekend.