Sheffield United is the club that knows where it wants to be but seemingly no idea how to get there, writes James Shield.
The club thrashing around in the dark hoping to find an escape route into the Championship.
The club, following Nigel Clough’s departure, now searching for its eighth manager since being relegated from the top-flight in 2007 and third after a new ownership structure was unveiled less than two full seasons ago.
A woeful, thoroughly lamentable track record of capriciousness and incongruity which, more than anything else, explains why United are still in League One.
The 127 word statement confirming Clough had been sacked, published on their official website at 11.20am yesterday, was surprisngly low on detail for an institution that prides itself on trying to be open and transparent.
Nevertheless, amid the talk of “a change in direction” being “necessary for the forthcoming season” and platitudes to redundant staff, a few clues about the motivations behind Clough’s sacking were possible to unearth. The most obvious being the decision to name almost every single member of the support network he had assembled during an eventful 104 matches at the helm.
Sections of Bramall Lane’s hierarchy, many of whom clearly harboured reservations about aspects of the former England international’s regime before the play-off semi-final defeat by Swindon Town earlier this month, felt they were not receiving value for money on their pretty significant investment.
However Clough, who would argue the funds generated by reaching the last four of both the FA and Capital One cups suggested otherwise, clearly had no little or no inkling the axe was about to fall. Just like his immediate predecessor David Weir who, hours before being shown the door, was addressing the region’s media before overseeing a session at the Redtooth Academy training complex.
Clough’s tenure was short, by his own admission imperfect, but definitely noteworthy.
The defensive problems which undermined United’s latest promotion bid should, on reflection, have been addressed earlier. Failing to reach Sunday’s showpiece event at Wembley was a bitter disappointment.
Likewise the 21 point gap between themselves and second-placed MK Dons.
But, having staved-off the threat of relegation soon after taking charge, a seventh followed by fifth placed finish, coupled with those memorable skirmishes against Hull City and Tottenham Hotspur, illustrates progress was being made. Clearly, though, too slow for some.
The message to Clough’s successor is abundantly clear.
Doubtless, when they are unveiled, there will be the usual talk about ‘projects’, ‘new eras’ and ‘stability’. Unfortunately, with the average life-span of a United manager following their slide into the third tier of English football, caretakers included, now just 9.6 months, it will mean nothing. Danny Wilson, Weir and to a lesser degree Chris Morgan, have heard it all before.
Whoever takes charge probably has only one shot at getting United up. Fail and, assuming the board of directors plan to provide the necessary financial support to perform yet another reshuffle of the senior squad, expect a P45 to arrive by first class post.
United desperately want to be Swansea City or Southampton. Sides who also spent periods in the lower leagues before surging through the divisions and gaining membership of the sport’s most exclusive club.
They have the crowds, profile and, to some extent, the infrastructure to emulate their achievements. Also plenty of well-meaning, enthusiastic people behind the scenes.
What they don’t have is the strategy.
Key decision makers at the Liberty Stadium and St Mary’s drafted nonnegotiable blueprints written in indelible ink. Every appointment was designed to build and improve upon what had gone before.
Paulo Sousa had a broadly similar philosophy to Roberto Martinez, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup. The same goes for Mauricio Pochettino and Ronald Koeman.
At Bramall Lane, United have lurched from one school of thought to the next and then back before repeating the whole process over and over and over again. It is expensive, disruptive and suggests, rightly or wrongly, they are being governed by panic and populism rather than principle.
A stark contrast to the days when Neil Warnock, who ultimately rewarded his employer’s faith with Premier League football, saw them resist numerous calls for him to be dismissed.
That has got to change. Also, the selection process. Because the only conclusion is it possible to draw, given the constant churn of staff in recent years, is that whoever is responsible for rubber-stamping managerial appointments keeps making, by their own tacit admission, duff calls.
They must, for the sake of United and those who pay their hard earned money to watch them, get this one right. By design rather than accident.
Or else even more searching questions will inevitably start to be asked.