Immediately before we beat Swansea last year in the Cup, we were swimming in media coverage. It provided an opportunity to gain an insight into Michael Appleton’s revolution at the club. One thing that stuck out was that he said he had a small group of players who took responsibility for getting the players organised and solving the team’s problems. Appleton didn’t tell the players what to do, he provided a framework for them to figure it out for themselves.
Who were those players? Jake Wright seems an obvious choice, Johnny Mullins? George Baldock? For me those three strike me as leaders in that squad. Where are they now? Sheffield United, Luton Town and MK Dons.
The Guardian had an interview with Sheffield United striker Billy Sharp about their revitalisation under Chris Wilder. Sharp cited Wright as a key influence in The Blades change of attitude; one that was described as ‘old school’ and ‘back to basics’.
Chris Wilder’s football may have lacked sophistication, but he could pick a leader. One of my abiding memories of our 2010 promotion from the Conference was of the dual dome heads of James Constable and Adam Murray haranguing a referee over something very minor. Key to Wilder’s success that year was his ability to turn our relative size into a virtue; with Mark Creighton, Wright, Constable, Murray and Dannie Bulman we became an almost unstoppable force.
Fast forward to 2016 and we sit a point above the relegation zone. No need to panic just yet, I don’t think anyone is expecting us to get promoted this season, a good solid mid-table finish will do if it provides a platform to work from next season. But, it’s not really a secret that we struggle against team who are more direct and physical.
In short, we’re being bullied out of points, another three on Saturday against Shrewsbury. If we get to play football, we’re fine, but a bit of muscle and we’re floundering. What is lacking is a hard centre and Michael Appleton’s got to find ours pretty quickly.
All is not lost; Chey Dunkley has it, Curtis Nelson has it, even Chris Maguire has it. But do they know they have it and are they ready to fill the gap left by Jake Wright et al. In that interview with Appleton last year he said how long it took to encourage players to take ownership of their affairs. I don’t think we’re there yet, we still need a one or two more with ‘it’ to shore things up.