It is probably against all the rules of a blog to direct the reader away in the first paragraph, but I think it’s worth it. Before you read this little ramble, have a listen to the BBC interview with Kevin Blackwell, conducted after Sheffield United’s 3-0 defeat at Blackpool a week ago last Saturday.
Fun, isn’t it? To my mind, that is an interview every bit as shocking and, let’s be honest, amusing as Kevin Keegan’s famous ‘I’d love it’ moment or Rafa Benitez’s accusations aimed at Manchester United last season. As it’s in the Championship, though, the media seemed to have largely ignored it.
To me, that sounds like a manager in meltdown. Poor Seth, the journalist, asks a pretty valid question: “Do you still feel the spirit is strong?” United, who came third last season and possessed an incredibly mean defence, had just lost 3-0 at Blackpool. Moreover, it followed a defeat at Scunthorpe, a last-gasp draw at home to winless Ipswich, a failure to defeat Doncaster and a loss at Swansea. After Saturday’s 4-3 home defeat to Cardiff, the Blades have failed to keep a clean sheet since September 12th and have conceded a rotten 21 goals in their last eight games. If anything, Seth was being kind in his phraseology.
Blackwell, however, did not see it that way at all. Seth’s question provoked a response so defensive and so visceral that you cannot help but assume the journalist had touched a very raw nerve indeed. Blackwell proceeds to spend three minutes desperately reaching for excuses. Injuries come high up the list, but excuses about injuries rarely wash – all clubs face the same problem.
Apart from injuries, though, Blackwell insists: “That’s life… It just happens… It’s just not happening for us… Things aren’t dropping for us at the moment.” Essentially, he seems to be suggesting that it’s just bad luck. But when even that doesn’t seem to convince anyone, he resorts to insulting the journalist who is calmly trying to do his job: “That’s a stupid question,” he retorts. “Come on, don’t be stupid,” he argues. “That’s rubbish, Seth,” he falters. But what has Seth said? Seth’s question is perfectly valid. It is Blackwell’s retorts that stink of refuse and panic.
Perhaps this is all a result of a bit of deja vu for the United manager. Back in 2006, he took Leeds all the way to a play-off final, one win away from the Premier League. That season he never spurned an opportunity to bemoan how little he had to spend on his team (usually just before spending over a million on Rob Hulse or Richard Cresswell) but clearly Leeds had better resources than most at that time. Following a transparent attempt to position Leeds as the underdogs against Watford in the final, Blackwell was tactically destroyed by Aidy Boothroyd as the Hornets won 3-0. Leeds’ descent the following season was rapid and they finished bottom.
I wonder if that season is now rattling around his brain once more. Only that injury time equaliser against Ipswich stops it from looking like a fully-fledged crisis.
Blackwell is keen to blame injuries, new players and a lack of fit midfielders. Yet this is a side that on Saturday included Matt Kilgallon, Chris Morgan, James Harper, Glen Little, Stephen Quinn, Kyle Walker and £3m-worth of Ched Evans. Henri Camara was only on the bench. Can a manager who can field those players in this league really be moaning about injuries?
Whichever way you look at it this is a dire run and the Blades’ defence, the rock on which their season was built last season, appears to be crumbling. Blackwell’s outburst against an honest, local journalist after a poor result only serves to highlight the pressure the manager is feeling. Perhaps the Blades’ next game, at home to Newcastle on Monday, will galvanise the crowd and shake the team up. Blackwell will hope so, because many more defeats and goals conceded and he might find himself on nodding terms with Gareth Southgate in the dole queue.