Whisper it quietly but Nigel Adkins has invented a brand new game.
“It’s called silent football. It’s something we’ve been working on a lot over the years.
“People talk on a football pitch but often, when there’s a crowd, you can’t really hear. That’s why it’s vital to have the best possible awareness and playing this, we really feel, does help.”
Adkins, speaking at Sheffield United’s Steelphalt Academy training complex earlier this week, admits the latest addition to his box of managerial tricks sounds slightly bizarre. But, on closer inspection, it is rooted in common sense. Tomorrow, when Adkins’ players resume their bid for promotion against League One rivals Swindon Town, around 20,000 people are expected to file through Bramall Lane’s turnstiles. And, when the volume levels rise, it would take a voice of Pavarotti proportions to make itself heard.
“We’ve got a drill where I’ll suddenly tell the lads that they’re not allowed to talk for a minute,” Adkins explained. “They can’t say a word. It’s all about trying to make people better at knowing what’s going on around them without having to be told. Rather than someone shouting ‘man on’ at you, are you already aware of how the situation is unfolding? Have you already realised that you’re being closed down? If you can scan more than you are going to be more effective in terms of moving the football quickly and calmly. When you receive possession, you already know what your next pass it going to be before it even arrived. Can you picture what you are trying to do? Can you envisage it? It’s all about patterns of movement. Being better on the ball.”
Being better on the ball is something Adkins wants his team to accomplish as he attempts to reach the Championship next season. United, seventh in the table following last weekend’s win over Colchester, have tried and failed on four occasions to claw themselves out of a division likened to quicksand by some commentators. And, as they discovered during May’s ill-fated play-off semi-final against the visitors from Wiltshire, the margins for error are excruciatingly slim. Hence the 50-year-old’s determination to leave no stone, either on the pitch or off it, unturned.
“The picture keeps changing all the time in a game situations,” Adkins continued. “The higher you go, the space for you to operate in is there for a shorter amount of time because the defenders are better. So, if you want to play at a higher level, if you want to beat the better clubs, then you’ve got to be quicker and more aware. The very best strikers are, for example. They always have a little look where the goalkeeper is before they take a shot. The same should go for all the other positions as well. That’s the whole point of silent football. Trying to make sure everyone is much more conscious of what’s going on.”
Adkins, who took charge of United soon after their 7-6 aggregate defeat by Swindon towards the end of last term, is fond of using seemingly eccentric methods to elicit positive results. Five months ago, after goals from Neill Collins and Billy Sharp propelled his team to a 2-0 victory at the County Ground, it was revealed Adkins had screened a film explaining the comradeship of wild geese beforehand. His latest video montage, however, is more conventional but equally impressive fayre.
“There’s a clip, years and years ago, of Frank Lampard when he was at Chelsea,” Adkins explained. “Before he received the ball, he made something like 17 scans of what was happening in the match at that moment in time. He was completely across it all. Then, when he received the ball, he turned and went exactly where it was most effective to go. Where it would cause the opposition to most problems and give his team the best possible chance of doing some damage. He was just so aware of what was going on around him. And it sums-up perfectly what I’m talking about. Those little bits and pieces are just so, so important. It’s often the tiny things that count.”
Small details are not the only thing which fascinate Adkins. Set-pieces do too.
“Thirty per cent of all goals are scored from set-plays. They are so invaluable and that’s why we work so hard on them. I’ve got to give (assistant manager) Andy (Crosby) so much credit for that because he comes-up with so many good ideas and plans. A lot of time is spent in the video analysis room, studying what might work in certain situations and against certain opponents. We look at the opposition in a lot of detail and think ‘maybe, because they set-up like this, we can do this, this or this.’ It can’t happen with every set-play but there are occasions when it works.”
Including at the Weston Homes Community Stadium last weekend when, after Colchester’s Tom Eastman had cancelled-out Sharp’s 13th goal of the season, David Edgar scored the winner from a 91st minute corner. Meanwhile, 117 miles across country, Swindon were busy beating Crewe Alexandra 4-3 courtesy of Nicky Ajose’s own injury time strike. The result saw them climb to 14th with manager Luke Williams, initially appointed on an interim basis following Martin Ling’s departure last month, vowing to persevere with his attacking style.
“Ultimately, you can have all the science you want,” Adkins said. “But football remains a very simple game with a very simple objective. Win. You do that by keeping the ball out at one end and sticking it in at the other. I know I keep on mentioning that but it’s true. We know we can get goals because we’ve proved it time and again. So, what we’ve got to do, is make sure we don’t let as many in. We’ve got a base now which, we believe, gives us the opportunity to do that better. It’s all about getting the right balance and being able to put that to good effect.”