Sheffield United: Promises are no longer enough - we must have action, not words, and a proper refresh

You know what’s going to happen. Even a 10 year-old with zero interest in football could probably script it now.

Thursday, 11th November 2021, 5:35 pm

Towards the end of next week, when Sheffield United’s players begin preparing for their return to Championship action, the poor so and so who draws the short straw and is put up for interview by the media will apologise for Saturday’s gutless shambles at Blackburn Rovers and promise to set the record straight.

There’ll be an admission that the display wasn’t acceptable. Either in round-about fashion or explicitly. Oh, and the guy asked to cop all the flak for his team mates will insist they’re all in it together and convinced, providing they start stringing some results together following the international break, that play-off qualification remains a realistic possibility.

Forgive me for the pre-emptive yawn but we’ve heard it all before. What United supporters want - and yes, even those of us who follow them in our capacity as journalists - is action. Not tired old pledges that fail to ever get actioned or a stream of supposedly heartfelt but ultimately empty words.

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If those whose reputations were tainted by what was an utterly pitiful surrender really want to say sorry, they should put their hands in their pockets and offer to reimburse the travel expenses of every single fan who had the misfortune to pay to watch that dross.

Not because they lost. Anyone who demands their money back when their team gets beat is either suffering from delusions, an over-inflated sense of grandeur or acute case of entitlement. Rather because there was no fight once the contest began slipping away. Okay, United hit the woodwork during the closing stages, But at 3-1 down with 20 minutes to go, they were going about their business with all the conviction of a side trying to overturn a double digit deficit deep into added time.

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It’s cathartic to have a bit of a blow-out every so often. But ultimately, you also have to be constructive when faced with a problem. So what is to be done?

Sheffield United's players look dejected after their woeful display against Blackburn Rovers at Ewood Park last weekend: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

The evidence of my own eyes tells me there’s two big issues at Bramall Lane right now. And neither of them can be traced back to manager Slavisa Jokanovic, whose CV confirms that when he’s given most things required to do his job very good things tend to happen.

It isn’t the lack of a director of football either, because United have already got one of those. We all know who he is. He just doesn’t carry the official title. Oh, and it also isn’t the system. Calls to revert to 3-5-2 are understandable, because that’s the formation United adopted when they twice won promotion under Chris Wilder. But let’s be honest, once Jack O’Connell succumbed to the fitness issue which shows no sign of abating 14 months on, that wasn’t functioning properly. Most people, myself included, thought caretaker Paul Heckingbottom should have changed it much more quickly after being placed in the hotseat than he actually did.

The first matter is leadership. Proper, genuine leadership. Both off the pitch, where a strategic vision for the future has still yet to be properly outlined. And, as the evidence of my own eyes in Lancashire five days ago told me, on it too. That’s not to say United don’t possess any. Just not enough.

Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic appears to be working with one hand tied behind his back: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

And the high standards Jokanovic is attempting to set, both during their preparatory work and actual competitive fixtures, are set from the very top down. When things are going well, the fact the training complex isn’t up to scratch can be actually be a strength - playing into the narrative, a false but nevertheless effective one, that this is a group which doesn’t demand the best of everything. When they are going wrong, though, it helps create a sense of resentment; a feeling that hard work isn’t rewarded and that others are more serious about their profession. Oh, and also an excuse.

The second, which has probably come about because of the lack of the former, is staleness.

United have good players and, despite my unloading earlier, some really good characters. Many of them, however, just need a change. From each other. If Jokanovic is allowed to perform a proper reprofiling exercise in January, many of those who move on will go on to excel again elsewhere. But they just need the mental filip sometimes only a fresh challenge can bring. Those who remain in situ would also benefit from an influx of new faces, fresh approaches and probably even some different jokes in the dressing room.

Sheffield United have some excellent players, such as on-loan midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White, but too many others are under-performing: Simon Bellis/ Sportimage

Still, United’s players need to take more responsibility for their performances in the meantime. Or at least show it more visibly.

Jokanovic is happy to take his share, and does so frequently. But debates about whether he should stay or go simply help create an environment whereby others never have to accept any themselves. If they don’t like something or aren’t delivering, they can simply point the finger of blame elsewhere and let the manager or head coach carry the can.

Then the very same people who posed the question in the first place will inevitably complain, at some point in the future, that highly paid sportspeople are never held accountable for their own actions without recognising or accepting their role in making sure that - yes - they very often aren’t.

Most members of this squad are already assured of their place in United’s history, after leading them into the top-flight and then keeping them there for two years.

But every squad also has a sell-by date and, as displays even more so than results would indicate, this one’s has now passed.