James Shield's Sheffield United's Column: One good thing has come out of a pretty miserable season
In the end, although there is still a sliver of hope they can avoid relegation, it was results elsewhere which in all probability have condemned Sheffield United to relegation.
Those and a woefully poor start to the season of course which, after losing all but two of their opening 17, left them needing snookers before having a chance to chalk their cue.
But every cloud has a silver lining and, although Brighton Hove Albion, Burnley and even this weekend’s opponents Fulham decided to start winning matches at exactly the same moment United’s own fortunes improved, the past six or so weeks have not been a complete waste of time. Well, obviously not when you consider Chris Wilder’s side are in the FA Cup quarter-finals. Unless they lift the trophy for the first time since 1925, however, the campaign appears destined to end in disappointment.
Despite being born out of an injury crisis of unprecedented proportions, which makes their decision not to strengthen last month even more questionable, United have been able to provide some of their youth team players with matchday experience since the Christmas period. Antwoine Hackford, Kyron Gordon, Iliman Ndiaye and most recently Frankie Magure - an unused substitute in each of their last two outings - have all appeared on the bench in recent weeks. Hackford even made his debut during a defeat at Crystal Palace; making an impression with his energy and attitude towards the end of the match at Selhurst Park.
It is a trend Wilder would probably have preferred not to be setting at such a critical stage of the fixture calendar. But it should be welcomed anyway, and hopefully will help rejuvenate one area of United’s operations which has become a casualty of their surge through the divisions under Wilder.
When they were last in the top-flight, under the 53-year-old’s predecessor Neil Warnock, United regularly drew upon home grown talent. Nick Montgomery, Michael Tonge and Phil Jagielka, now back at Bramall Lane following a long stint with Everton, all featured regularly while Nicky Law was pitched straight into action against Manchester United. Of course, those folk who embarked upon a bizarre and nonsensical mission to discredit Warnock’s record following the second of United’s two promotions under Wilder will point out they spent only one season at the highest level before going down in 2007. Not the two. But while there is some merit in the argument that United contributed to their own downfall back then, it is also impossible to ignore the fact that so did the illegal third party agreement West Ham entered into with Carlos Tevez. As impossible, to be blunt, as some people seem to find it to simply celebrate two supremely talented managers instead of denigrating one.
Once the region’s most fertile breeding ground for homegrown footballers, later producing the likes of Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Matthew Lowton, Stephen Quinn and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, the Steelphalt Academy’s pitches have become pretty arid in recent years. To some extent this is inevitable. The speed of the strides forward United have taken since Wilder’s appointment, and the circumstances he inherited as they prepared for a sixth season in League One, demanded he relied upon more experienced performers. Nevertheless, it is still a shame not to see the likes of Regan Slater, Ben Whiteman and Rhys Norrington-Davies given more opportunities en route. Hopefully the latter will when he completes a spell on loan with Stoke City this summer.
“They’ve got to go out and show they are the best, weekend in weekend out, at the clubs they are with at the moment,” Wilder said recently, outlining what is expected of those hoping to graduate through the ranks. “You have to consistently show those types of high standards.”
Rules governing the transfer of young players between clubs and the areas they are allowed to harvest them from have also tipped the balance in favour of neighbouring powerhouses such as Manchester City and Manchester United, while Leeds could soon become a threat if they continue to retain top-flight status.
If United do go down - which, 14 points adrift of safety with only 14 games remaining, seems pretty likely - a return to the Championship will offer a chance to reset their development system.
I wouldn’t expect the conveyor belt to explode into life. Bouncing back is much harder than many people seem to think, and the pressure will be on to do exactly that. But it should be easier to integrate Norrington-Davies, Hackford, Maguire and others into the senior squad in the Championship where mistakes are not punished with the same ruthless regularity as they are at the highest level.
Making the most of this opportunity, though, will require considerable investment. Category one academies - United are currently category two - demand substantial levels of staffing and extensive facilities; many of which are not presently filled or on offer at Bramall Lane. In reality, to achieve this grading, United’s would probably have to move site. Or, perhaps more sensibly, take complete ownership of the present one in Shirecliffe while a new one for the first team is identified and built.
But the money, which could either be syphoned off from existing revenue streams or sought externally, would be well spent. Because it would ensure, given that there are no guarantees United will be returning to the Premier League anytime soon, that the past 20 months have delivered a lasting legacy. That would confirm United are a truly forward thinking club.