Sheffield United finally got their season up and running and in doing so gave Gary Speed his first win as a football league manager as they edged out Preston North End by a single goal. The game was far from a classic with few chances throughout but the Blades won it thanks to a 30 yard wonder goal from debutant right back Jean Calve. The full back somehow managed to injure himself in the act of scoring and had to leave the field shortly after! Neither side had offered much of note up to that point with a Keith Treacy free kick that thundered back off an upright and a Josh King effort for the visitors their sum of their attempts. Whilst for United they had only had a Mark Yeates shot turned round the post by Andy Lonergan. The main positive from the game for the Blades fans was the determination of their side to get the ball down and pass the ball. The resolution to keep the football rather than lump it forward was clear and although the final third saw little in terms of end product it was positive that there was a definite change of emphasis.
Gary Speed was given a very warm welcome by the home fans as he was introduced just before the game commenced. United began the game with changes to the backline with two new full backs coming into the side in the form of Stephen Jordan and Frenchman Jean Calve. Chris Morgan with a calf strain and Andy Taylor were the men to give way with Nyron Nosworthy coming back into the centre of the defence. United began the game with a 4-3-3 formation with Ched Evans leading the line alongside Richard Cresswell and Jamie Ward. Leon Britton also started the game in a more withdrawn defensive role just in front of the back four, much like the role he had enjoyed at Swansea with Johnny Ertl and Nick Montgomery just in front of him. Preston began with Manchester United loanees Matthew James and Josh King and former Blades loanee Keith Treacy also starting the game.
Preston started the game well and from the kick off attacked immediately. Treacy fired wide after decent interchange in the first minute of play. Not long after he had an even better attempt when Montgomery was adjudged to have brought Hayes down from behind when the stand in skipper clearly got the ball although referee Williamson may have argued it was from behind. From a favourable position for his left foot Treacy took the kick and it arrowed into the left hand upright of Steve Simonsen's goal before rebounding back into play. From the ensuing scramble Bartley blocked James' goalbound shot. Preston had clearly started the game in ascendancy with King causing problems for Nosworthy and Bartley with his direct running and pace. United had not really looked a threat but Britton finally started to get into the game and was able to play a through ball that almost got Evans in but Jones hooked the ball behind via the United man.
Ertl fired well wide before Bartley at least managed to make Lonergan dart across his goal with a further effort off target. Calve's cross shot had the Preston keeper more concerned as the chipped effort just went past the corner of bar and post. United had finally started to get into the game and Britton was far more influential in recent weeks seeing much more of the football. Ertl was key to United retaining possession better with his ball winning and simple retention subsequently. Jordan was also impressing on his home debut with simple, yet assured and strong defending. However, despite the improvements in style and composure in the latter stages of the half United had still not had an effort on goal. Still the home fans recognised the improvements in style of play and they were applauded from the field at half time.
Montgomery went into the book after a foul on Jones and not long after Preston had an excellent chance. It appeared as if Nosworthy had cleared the danger but took too long to clear and King got goalside of the Blades defender before shooting into the legs of Simonsen when well placed. Jones should have done better with the rebound but fired over the bar under pressure. Treacy was replace by Mayor and then on the hour mark, Evans who had not really had a significant impact on the game, was replaced by Yeates with Cresswell moving inside to take the central striker position. Yeates was already prominent and got one dangerous cross in before then attacking his full back. Shortly after the substitute hit a decent effort on goal that Lonergan did well to push away. However, with 15 minutes to play and neither side really convincing they could do enough to make the break through the ball was suddenly in the back of the Preston net thanks to a sublime strike. St Ledger's clearance was not the best and the ball fell into the path of CALVE who had time and space but was still fully 30 yards from goal. The full back hit an unstoppable shot that flew into the left top corner of Lonergan's goal at the Kop end. The scorer was mobbed by his teammates but not long after it seemed clear that Calve has somehow injured himself in scoring the goal and clearly was suffering with cramp the likely cause of his discomfort. The debutant could not go on and was replaced by youngster Lowton but his final contribution was immeasurable in its impact on the game and he was loudly cheered by the crowd as he hugged Gary Speed on his way down the tunnel.
United were buoyed by this goal and Ward went on a strong run before being crowded out as he entered the area. United had a new found confidence and looked more threatening in the final third especially as Preston were now throwing caution to the wind with St Ledger playing further afield and then the muscular Parkin coming on for Hayes. Jordan took a booking for the team when King sprinted away and then Bartley was adjudged to have pulled Parkin right on the edge of the area but the resultant free kick from the edge of the box by Coutts was blocked. Preston were now throwing men forward as the additional 4 minutes of stoppage time were played. King fired well over and then United broke with Ward somehow getting past his man and finding Montgomery but the Blades midfielder shot into the side netting when he ought to have done better. It did not matter though as moments later the referee blew for full time signalling relief all around Bramall Lane.
United - It was vitally important after the bad start to the season (in results as much as performances) that we just got 3 points and we did that. For me it did not matter how nor how we played but we needed to get that win to bring some confidence and settle down the players and the new manager. Now we have that we can build on this I am sure. So how did it compare to the football served up under Kevin Blackwell? Well it was better and that for one is a start. We did try on the whole to get it down and keep the ball. It did not always come off and sometimes we resorted to the longer ball but we did definitely have a greater emphasis on keeping the ball and trying to pass it to feet. Right from Simonsen who always tried to roll or throw the ball out to the defenders who were not lumping it as usual it was a distinctly different style. The players tried to get closer to each other and it often meant we were not always looking to go long even though sometimes players lacked the confidence to always play that extra pass and did go longer than Speed would want. As the game went on you could see players getting the message and finally just trying to keep the ball and realising they would not explode if they just passed it sideways or found the nearest shirt!
The formation was a definite 4-3-3 as opposed to a 4-5-1 and allowed Ward, Evans and Cresswell to move about and alternate. There was some more flexibility with Britton often playing in the quarter back position but sometimes advancing and Ertl or Montgomery sitting. There is lots of work to do in the final third and maybe the personnel needs looking at in this area as there is little pace or real individual creativity, outside of maybe Ward.
The defence looked fairly solid after a hesitant start and despite a few worrying moments from the centre backs we looked decent as a defensive unit. The two full backs were a massive improvement. Clave did ok without being outstanding (obviously his goal was outstanding!) and Jordan had a very good game and was our standout defender for me. I felt Britton looked far more effective in his new role in front of the defence and looked for the ball at all times and tried to make things happen. He was much improved today. Ertl was solid and did the simple things. He reminded me of a Bob Booker type who knows his limitations but just keeps it simple. Ward showed some decent moments but the end product did not always come off but at least he was positive.
The negatives? I felt Montgomery had an air of headless chicken once again and was way too sloppy in possession, once again. Evans and Cresswell were ineffective throughout and it was a toss up who was taken off. I suppose Cresswell works a bit harder but we did look punchless up top and did not really look a threat outside of Ward and then Yeates who provided a lift when he came on and now deserves a start. It is worrying that we had a so called abundance of talent up front but Bogdanovic has not convinced Blackwell nor Speed he deserves a run and Cresswell and Evans have been poor so far. Those Henderson bashers may still be out there but even they probably concede he does a far better job of holding the ball up. I think even with an improved pattern and resolution to pass the ball Hendo can still be effective as a front man in a three. For me I have been incredibly patient but time is running out for Evans. He does not really put a shift in and rarely looks a threat. Cresswell will work hard but is painfully slow, not that great in the air and if he is not scoring offers little. We may have seen the best of him last year. It maybe that we have to sign a striker who is a genuine goal threat as we do not look like really scoring or the strikers we have don't look like threatening defence really.
Hopefully it gives us something to build on and if Speed can get them at least trying to play in a different way and pass the ball after a few weeks then it bodes well for the future. Much of it is a confidence thing and belief they can do it. I honestly do not think a side like Doncaster has better players than us (sure they have a few decent midfielders but so do we - I would take Williamson and Britton ahead of Stock and Oster for instance) but they have been taught to play a specific way and have kept at it, training session after training session. It is the repetition and belief it will work and not to just play percentages (certainly not in the opposition half). For me it is just pleasing tonight regardless of whether we got the win and of course that was very important, that we tried to play football and tried to show a willingness to keep the ball. That for me is a big start and a big improvement on what we have been served up.
Preston - They have not fared well at the Lane in recent times nor in the more distant past. Indeed their record is beyond horrible. They have thrown away 2 goal leads, lost a number of games 1-0 in recent years (4 straight I now make it?) and in general have rarely done anything but lose. Today that trend continued. They actually started the game far better than they have done in any recent games at the Lane and were well on top for the first 20 minutes. They had a couple of decent chances and were very unlucky from the Treacy free kick. However, United began to get into the game and were the better side as the half finished. Preston again had a decent start to the second half and if King had scored it may have been a different outcome. United then once again began to get on top. I suppose you could say they had 2 or 3 decent chances and that was maybe a shade more than we had. However, I never felt they looked like tearing us apart. It seems Darren Ferguson cannot get them playing the style of football he had at Peterborough when they won the league and played fast, entertaining football. He does seem to have his hands tied with budgets and is relying on loans and young players on the whole. They looked an ordinary side with little real quality but a United side struggling for confidence similarly could not break them down so it was a fairly even game. It was certainly a game that looked like being settled by one goal and so it proved.
I thought before the start of the season Preston would be far closer to the bottom than the top and today did nothing to change this opinion. Their best two players were probably James and King the two loan players from Man Utd. The latter looked very lively and always caused us problems. St Ledger is a player that I think needs a move. He always looks a solid and comfortable defender and I know things did not quite work out at Boro but I am surprised he has not moved on by now. They have a few solid veterans in the likes of Davidson and Hayes and a good keeper in Lonergan but the rest of the team seems lacking in quality and experience.
Simonsen 7.5/10 - Could only watch on as the free kick hit his post but saved well from King later in the game and then also from Jones when he was actually ruled offside. His handling from crosses was excellent and he caught at least 3 corners amongst bodies. Also liked the fact he tried to roll the ball out and find a man; clearly an instruction from the management.
Calve 7.5/10 - He was having an alright debut up the goal with a few hesitant defensive moments interspersed with him always looking to get forward. His crossing had been inconsistent actually but the fact he got 5 or 6 crosses in (quite a few sailed over the bar) was an improvement on anything we have seen where we have not seen defenders get over half way. He looked fairly decent on the ball if a little lightweight but did look like he wanted to get forward and make things happen. The goal was an absolute stunner and no goalie would have saved it. As soon as it left his foot you knew it had a real chance of going in. It was a goal fit to win any game and a dream debut.
Jordan 7.5/10 - I was unsure about his signing as someone released by a fellow Championship side is not someone you would salivate about signing. However, with Taylor continuing to look woefully out of his depth at this level it was clear he would come into the team. I was really pleasantly surprised. He is taller than I remember and stronger and was solid all game defensively. He got forward when he could and overall looked a solid and accomplished defender. A very good debut.
Bartley 7/10 - He did seem to embrace the new style of play in that he likes passing the ball out of the back and also got forward on more than one occasion. The bread and butter defending he did was ok and he did not make any real mistakes. My only real criticism is that he still gets shoved about and outmuscled too much for a man of physique. I feared when Parkin came on and so it proved as he really struggled to cope with his size and strength for the brief time he came on.
Nosworthy 6.5/10 - Did ok and for most of the game he defended alright using his experience, pace and strength. However, on a couple of occasions he let King get away from him and then an awful piece of defending where he tried to do too much nearly led to the striker scoring. He needs to cut out the over playing and just stick to clearing it and organising the rest of the backline.
Montgomery 6/10 - Felt he was up and down today. He was better than against Cardiff, QPR and Boro but that was not difficult as he was dire in those games. He won tackles and did try and pass the ball but looked a bit lost at times and still his penchant for the aimless chip to nowhere in particular was evident. Hopefully he will just do the things he can do and stick to the basics of harrying, tackling and breaking play up.
Britton 8/10 - Excellent. From start to finish he did not hide and always looked to get on the ball. Definitely better suited to that quarter back role in front of the defence and he always wanted to be involved. He actually also won a number of tackles and showed despite his size he would get stuck in. He has a really good engine too. I was worried we may see another Howard/Harper after the first few games but today has left me leaving a lot more confident even if it was just one game. He mostly played it short when he had it but always seemed to find a shirt and his passing went in a variety of directions not always backwards or sideways. His quick thinking was shown when he ran down the middle as Simonsen caught a corner and called for a throw out which did come his way and he was unlucky not to break and lead to a chance. Hopefully he will feel a lot more confident now and get even better.
Cresswell 5/10 - He was not at the races today but saying that I feel he has had a poor start to the season and looks very slow and lacklustre. Did not win many headers nor did he look like any kind of goal threat. When he got the ball in a few decent positions he was so slow to bring it down or to react that the chances often came and went as defenders got back. I really hope I am wrong and he comes good and gets us some vital goals as he did last season but at the moment he is not really offering much. He does work hard and always will close down or chase defenders but really we need more than that.
Evans 5/10 - Poor game. He was never really involved from start to finish and it was not a surprise he got the hook on the hour. His touch was poor when he did receive the ball and did not hold the ball up, rarely winning a header or flick on all afternoon. He did not even really work the channels or close defenders down. I still hope he proves me wrong but week after week his performances have been a sea of mediocrity and that is being kind.
Ward 6.5/10 - He looked fairly lively and looked to always try and make things happen but often his touch or final product was lacking. He was unlucky on a few occasions when the ball did not quite break to him or he made the wrong choice on pass but I do like the fact he won't hide and will keep trying to be positive. Felt he was not given much help by his fellow strikers and would like to see him play in the 3 with a couple more effective players (Yeates and Henderson in different ways for example).
Ertl 7.5/10 - I have been pleasantly surprised by Ertl. Other than the QPR game where he was played in the wrong position and had a nightmare as did most of the rest of the team to be fair, I think he was been one of our more consistent players. He keeps it simple when he has the ball, is strong in the tackle and offers a physical presence all over the field. He is unflappable and maybe not one that will draw much attention but he has been better than I thought he would be when we signed him in terms of his play on the ball aswell as off it.
Yeates - Came on and looked like he wanted to make an impact. Was direct and forceful. Got 2 or 3 crosses in, had a shot (out first shot on target) that forced save and generally looked like he wanted to make things happen. I am not totally convinced by him since he signed but he at least does give us something different and a threat in the final third and thus needs a run of games.
Lowton - Came on for the stricken Calve and did well. Defended sensibly and got one or two timely blocks/clearances in.
Officials - Pretty straight forward game to referee. Ian Williamson refereed the game fairly sensibly. I cannot recall many really bad decisions or contentious moments in the game but there were barely any bad tackles or moments in the game. I actually felt the foul by Montgomery that led to the free kick in the first half was a foul as he came from behind and Parkin also was fouled by Bartley who got too tight on Parkin for the free kick at the end of the game. The bookings for Montgomery and Jordan were obvious yellow cards and Jones was cautioned for persistently complaining.
Crowd - The crowd figure was very disappointing especially as Preston brought a larger than normal following (over a 1,000 helped by free travel offered to them) but is a trend that will probably continue. We did not sell as many season tickets of course but the number of people buying tickets on the day is very little due mostly to the apathy that had sit in under Blackwell but also the very high ticket prices for individual games. Where I sit on the Kop there were empty seats aplenty.
Speed got a really good welcome and seemed genuinely taken aback with this. The crowd were definitely far more patient but you would expect that with a new manager. Even as the game seemed to be petering to a stalemate the crowd kept with United and urged them on. I do think we have to be patient with the team and the manager and what he is trying to do. Hopefully the managerial change will mean fans don't automatically groan and boo the first time things go wrong and if they see there is a method the coaching and play I feel they will stick with it.
Hopefully despite the prices for games some will still come back if the trend of a different style of football continues and we can rise up the league. It will probably not happen but it would be great if we could make a 'big' (not Bellamy 'big' but something somewhere approaching that ilk) signing in the next few days that would give Speed and fans a boost and thus increase the crowd sizes. Basically a bums on seat type signing/player that excites people.