James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Strange stories, annoying phrases and a chance for The Blades to begin focusing purely on football rather than politics
‘Control the controllables,’ is a favourite phrase among football managers, coaches and players alike.
It is also one of those horrible, hackneyed expressions that make you wince every time someone utters them. Even though they kind of make perfect sense.
Sheffield United have enough to worry about right now without squabbling over what the ‘The Truth’ behind Chris Wilder’s departure last month was a moment longer. There’s nothing to be gained, as relegation from the Premier League looms large on the horizon, from squabbling over the players who might or might not have joined the club had the former manager listened to owner HRH Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud or vice versa.
And in any case, many of the names which helpfully made their way into the press last week would have been beyond United’s reach even if the pair had agreed.
Are we really supposed to believe that a player who eventually moved to Napoli for around 70m euros was ever a realistic target? Apparently so, even though the likes of Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash proved to be beyond their reach. There’s nothing to stop United expressing an interest in Lionel Messi or Sergio Aguero either, until the discussion turns to the small matter of the transfer fee, wages and image rights.
The same phoney war was being fought on the internet site of one national newspaper earlier this week, with Ismaila Coulibaly, currently on a long term loan with sister club Beerschot, said to be attracting the interest of numerous major European clubs. None were actually named. No actual offers were mentioned. Which leads me to suspect that someone keen to boost the midfielder’s profile and reputation among United supporters, ahead of his eventual return to South Yorkshire, was responsible for engineering the story.
That’s not to say the Mali under-20 international isn’t a handy midfielder, because he almost certainly is. He probably also deserves better, without having actually met the lad, than being used as a pawn in the proxy war being fought between Wilder’s supporters and those on the board’s side of the fence - a fence I’ve tried to sit on for so long that, despite what some of the keyboard warriors who suddenly took up arms following the 53-year-old’s exit would have you believe, its left me needing treatment for an acute case of splinters.
Having prepared for Saturday’s derby against Leeds 14 points adrift of safety with only nine matches remaining, United, as Prince Abdullah conceded during a recent interview with a media rights-holder, are set to kiss goodbye to the Premier League. Paul Heckingbottom, placed into caretaker charge until the end of the season, can’t do anything to prevent that despite refusing to publicly admit defeat.
But what United can do is ensure they leave in an orderly fashion. And give the remaining few fixtures some meaning by awarding some game time to their youngsters.
We all know several of those who would ordinarily be on display at Elland Road are likely to say cheerio this summer. It’s inevitable. Some, most of us are able to name right now. Others might come as a shock but, given there are rarely any secrets in a dressing room, you can bet your bottom dollar Heckingbottom knows who they are.
So United should control the controllables, look after themselves rather than those who are destined for the exit door, and start playing some of those youngsters who have started to make the bench in recent weeks. Probably not for the whole 90 minutes, although the odd start here and there wouldn’t hurt. But some decent cameo appearances would not only help reinvigorate a squad which has lost more games than it probably cares to remember this season, but also provide it with a sense of purpose for the remainder of the campaign.
*Speaking of goodbyes, it was a shame to see Darren Ward, Matt Prestridge and Mikey Allen leave Bramall Lane this week. The trio, two of whom were on United’s payroll long before Wilder was appointed, all played important roles in helping the club climb from the third to the first tier of English football in the space of only three years under Wilder. Ward and Prestridge, who followed the 53-year-old to United from Northampton Town, were both important members of the coaching staff while Allen, a talented analyst, demonstrated his commitment to the club by returning to work earlier than he probably should have done as he struggled with the after effects of Covid-19.
Allen might not appreciate me saying so but I’m going to do it anyway, having watched him struggle to climb the steps towards the back of the main stand earlier this month in order to perform his matchday duties.
Ward was rated by Wilder as one of the best tutors of goalkeepers in the business. His predecessor Nigel Adkins held him in equally high esteem, as did former loanee Dean Henderson - now of Manchester United and England. Prestridge is one of those people whose contribution might not be fully appreciated by those looking in from the outside. But certainly is by those at the coal face.
Personally speaking, and from a neutral perspective if such a thing is possible when commenting on United right now, I thought it was a shame the official statement announcing they had left wasn’t a little more effusive and heartfelt. Hopefully, with former assistant manager Alan Knill expected to follow shortly, it was simply an oversight. Because all three deserved better than the obligatory best wishes for the future and thanks. I’m sure it was. To his credit, Heckingbottom paid a handsome tribute to all three during his pre-match media conference ahead of this weekend’s visit to Leeds.