In a division where only five points separates first from sixth in the table, small details matter.
So, despite preparing to face Burton Albion for only the fourth time in a competitive fixture, Nigel Adkins has ensured his Sheffield United squad knows last season’s League Two champions inside out.
“We have worked much harder this year,” goalkeeper Mark Howard revealed. “The gaffer and his staff have made a conscious effort that we get to know the opposition and their individual strengths.
“It’s really tiny little things like that which can make a huge, huge difference. And because of what you know, it improves your confidence going into matches too.”
Knowledge, Adkins hopes, will equal power at the Pirelli Stadium this evening where United are attempting to become only the second visiting side to win for seven months. Jimmy Floyd’s Hasselbaink’s team, which finished five points ahead of its nearest rivals last term, have proven equally effective in third tier competition and remained in pole position by beating Chesterfield three days ago.
But, as Howard told The Star, Adkins’ meticulous preparations extend beyond the introduction of sharp new matchday suits. The days of English players, as Hasselbaink’s former Chelsea team mate Gianluca Vialli described in his book ‘The Italian Job’, throwing paper airplanes during video analysis sessions are seemingly long gone.
“The game’s changed totally and it’s stupid not to use it, to see what the opposition are doing,” Howard, speaking at United’s training complex, explained. “That might be what used to happen a while back but, certainly here, we’re really embracing that side of things.
“I don’t want to give away any secrets but what usually happens is that the gaffer and his assistants will give us a few ideas and provide some highlights on screen to actually show them in action. Occasionally, he’ll also throw a motivational film or something like that into the mix too.
“It changes week on week but the principles remain the same. It’s informative and, to be honest, the lads really enjoy it. Which, as far as I’m concerned, only helps to make the information sink-in.”
Adkins and Hasselbaink, polar opposites as players, share a common coaching bond. United’s manager, who represented Tranmere Rovers, Wigan Athletic as Bangor City before taking charge of the Welsh Premier League club, worked as a physio before being offered his big break by Scunthorpe. Hasselbaink, meanwhile, enjoyed a jet-set lifestyle with the likes of Atletico Madrid and Chelsea before swapping his boots for a tactics board. Although, a brief apprenticeship at Royal Antwerp apart, the former Holland international must be commended for deciding to learn his trade from the bottom-up.
United, sixth in the table following Saturday’s victory over Doncaster Rovers, appointed Adkins after parting company with Nigel Clough, one of Hasselbaink’s predecessors, in May. Howard, a veteran of the teams Clough guided into the semi-finals of the FA and Capital One cups, said: “Of course we are doing things differently now. Different peoples have different methods and different ways of going about things.
“The gaffer, like I say, is very big on preparation and detail. But, at the same time, he doesn’t blind you with science. It’s still, as he likes to remind us, a simple game with a simple plan behind it. Score at one end and keep it out at the other.”
“Our sole objective at the back is to keep the ball out,” Howard added. “You can affect the rest of the game, but your sole aim at the start of each match is to keep a clean sheet. All throughout the game, I am just thinking to myself, do my job.”
United’s rearguard has been breached nine times in its last four outings although Howard, who has kept four clean sheets since being recalled seven weeks ago, is adamant individual errors rather than systemic failure is to blame.
“I never want to pick the ball out of the net, if I am honest, and I don’t think you will find any goalkeeper who will tell you different. It’s not normally one mistake which leads to a goal, it’s normally three or four. We have had that in the last few games, and we can all see where we have to improve. It’s never nice conceding goals and I don’t enjoy it.”
Scoring, however, has not been an issue under Adkins’ tutelage with United making the short journey to Staffordshire averaging 1.58 per game. With Michael Higdon recently joining Oldham Athletic on loan, Billy Sharp, Conor Sammon and Marc McNulty are now vying for the two berths which exist in United’s revamped attack.
“We know if we can stop goals going in at one end, we will score goals at the other end,” Howard said. “We definitely have enough quality. That’s a massive positive this year, that we know we have people who can get us back in games if we need to. And also, if we go ahead, we can score more.”