Monday, 13 October 2014

Something we will never be united on

It has been discussed on television - from the news channels to The Wright Stuff and Loose Women. The radio phone-ins, both local and national, have debated the issue. There have been opinion pieces and interviews in the written press. Social media has allowed people to express their views, some more eloquently and less abusively than others. Since Ched Evans was sentenced to 5 years in prison for rape in April 2012 his case and potential return to football have been frequently covered by the media.

One place you will not have read much about the Ched Evans case is here on this blog. Following the guilty verdict and United's defeat at MK the next day I wrote this piece, the only reference you might have seen since is in response to self-appointed fans' representatives speaking to the media. I took the view that this was a discussion only worth having nearer when he was released and there is something to discuss.

While the club have remained largely silent on the subject recognising that this is something to be discussed in the as and when and not before, the opinions of those who support Evans case for innocence and would support his return get louder. With United losing 1-0 to Leyton Orient and struggling to put away chances that could get us back into the game last Saturday, the chants started and were probably louder than at any point so far. "Super Ched" and "He's coming home" were sung with gusto by a number of fans at the back of the Kop and the chants were picked up by others joining in elsewhere in the stadium.

This was no way a majority of fans, despite the vociferous volume. A look around saw many people around me on the Kop shift uncomfortably. Several female supporters shook their heads. The desperation and belief we are lacking a regular goal scorer increases the belief for some that Evans might be that man.

I sat there wishing we could use that passion to back the eleven on the pitch, wishing we had signed a 20/30 goals a season striker, firing United towards a much needed promotion, yet that just hasn't been the case. Or maybe we have  and Marc McNulty needs to be given a decent run in the team? Three managers have failed to solve the striking conundrum which, if answered, would have meant the calls for Evans to return would not be as numerous and loud. The dilemma facing the club now may not have been a dilemma at all.

So what are the issues as I see them?

Is there any need for debate?

My first question is does the manager want to sign him and does he want him part of his squad? If the answer is "No", then the debate should end there. I don't think a club should impose players on a manager, regardless of the history with that player, or the possibility of regaining some of the "lost value" of that player somewhere down the line. Sadly I feel that the latter is playing a part in the minds of some of our decision makers. That alongside maintaining a competitive advantage i.e. better to sign Evans and take the flak, rather than him signing for, and potentially being successful at, a rival club.

If the answer to the question is Yes, Nigel does want to sign him, then my personal opinion is we shouldn't, although I suspect I am increasingly in the minority here. As I said before, the longer we go with unconvincing performances and a lack of goal threat from our front players the more likely those undecided fall into the "Sign him" category and the sway of opinion moves. 

I would have liked to see the manager and club show interest in signing other talented League 1 strikers who have been available, been signed by rivals and would have had an impact from Day 1 at the club. The fact that Kieron Agard, Will Grigg and Simeon Jackson (three examples) have gone elsewhere represent missed opportunities for me.

Only the manager and board can say whether we had any interest or not. But if we (club or manager) are placing their hopes in a striker who hasn't played for over two years and is nowhere near match fit, at the expense of ready-made candidates, I would be hugely disappointed.

The Brand (or as fans would see it, the club's name and standing)

Much of the club's limited comment has been focused on damage to the club and brand. A brand is a difficult concept for fans to accept. It's our club, not a brand, but we need to accept it is a business and tarnished business names do suffer financially and operationally. From the owners' perspective they need to sell the club to sponsors, business associates and potentially new investors. I can see why brand and standing will be one of their key considerations.

Adidas have reportedly said they would be fine with Evans returning to United and they may well feel they can make that statement in the here and now, but do they really know what the negative publicity may be like?  Do any sponsors, business associates or club officials really know?

This isn't a local issue; it is national and one where the focus isn't going to move away for a while yet. Certainly whilst Evans - as is his right - is fighting to prove his innocence and seek grounds for an appeal.

We are potentially entering new ground here, the first professional footballer to return after serving his punishment for a rape charge. As I mentioned in the introduction, the debate on television, radio and in the newspapers and social media has been frequent since his jailing, it will only multiply in number and the intensity of scrutiny increase post-release.

In terms of the club's name and standing, we hardly did ourselves any favours signing repeat and violent offender Marlon King. The Tevez affair seemed to harm our club more than it really should have done. Fans seem keen to adopt a Millwall-esque mentality of if the wider public don't like us, who cares. Yet I suspect the guardians of the club care. We are no longer "The Family Club", the moniker adopted by the club in the 1980's, but very few clubs could claim to be.

United under scrutiny

My position on Evans is based on two strands of thought. I'm struggling with moral issues, which I will come back to, but more importantly I can only see his return having a disruptive impact on the club and there is no certainty regarding the impact he will have on the pitch. The ensuing media focus, the division of opinion amongst fans and the unavoidable criticism from many quarters can only be a bad thing for the club and players.

Never is it more important for a club to be United and there has been great work done in the last few months by the club and board to build this. Obviously relative success on the field also helps.
Recent comments by the manager regarding the club's transfer activity and digs about money did no-one (board, fans, the manager himself) any favours and showed cracks that need healing quickly.

I fear the return of Ched would leave gaping chasms to try and fill. We could ostensibly lose fans through the gate on this issue. I know some would say "Stuff them" - I have seen that on forums and social media, but can the club afford to alienate long-standing fans on this issue? Clubs increasingly find that once fans are "lost" it is increasingly difficult to get them back.

On Pitch Impact & Fitness

Any player returning after a two and a half year absence will not be match fit, will not be match sharp and will be prone to injuries as a result of their lack of preparation. Even if we signed Evans it could be months before he is in a position to play. Surely there is better use of club finance and resources?

Lee Hughes took his place in the Oldham Athletic team less than two weeks after leaving prison. He failed to score for 7 games and then required an operation, eventually scoring his first goal three months into his return. The following March he was injured again and out for the rest of the season.

Anyone can keep fit, but getting yourself conditioned to avoid niggly injuries, to have the alertness to anticipate the cross trajectory, the movement of your marker, that's completely different. There is also a mental fitness required. More so when returning to football in the manner he potentially will be.

Evans has proved to be a confidence player, when he was good he was brilliant, but for two years he was awful. It is easy to forget that his one good season saw him supported by team mates, several of whom are playing at a higher level. Many of the other goals and assists that season came from Lee Williamson and Kevin MacDonald (now playing in the Championship), and Stephen Quinn and Matt Lowton (both with Premier League clubs). All hugely influential in the way we played and key to the success of the club and Evans' incomplete season.

A return will be in a different role in a different formation and whilst playesr like Jose Baxter and James Wallace have undoubted quality for League One, Evans would miss the hard running and hold off play of a strike partner like Richard Cresswell. At times derided by United supporters, he slogged away for his fellow strike partner's benefit that season.

The moral argument

Views on morality are personal, any judgement that determines whether actions accord with right or good conduct, are bound in an individual's personal beliefs and personal code. Morally, I wouldn’t want my son and daughter cheering on and idolising a convicted rapist and that is what he is. I accept that others don't share this view, although I wince when I see supporters speaking and writing in terms of "shades of rape" rather than acknowledging that, by the law, that rape is what it was.

Yes, his conviction is subject to a further appeal to the Criminal Cases Review Board, but from what I understand it could be two years before that is heard and the likelihood of a case being referred back to the courts is limited. With no contrition or apology it makes the position of any employer even harder in the ensuing period. For a parent who had to explain what had happened (as best you can) to Evans, his return and potential glorification cannot sit well. 

I accept that once someone has served their punishment they have a right to return to society and seek employment. However I have a real issue with the privileged position footballers seem to have on that score thanks to their potentially high value in their particular employment market. I know that neither I, nor anyone else in a professional position would struggle to find employment so easily (not that I would consider doing what he did) and would also lose our professional qualifications.

He will be on the sex offenders register. Only a player of perceived value  would find themselves employed at a football club with that marked on their record. We know that players have it much better than anyone else, this just heightens that uncomfortable awareness.

I have questioned whether I am being over-sensitive on the moral issues; I know some think I am. Football fills your senses with extremes of behaviour, both on the pitch and in the stands, which you wouldn't ordinarily expose yourself or your children to.

Then again, hearing offensive songs and witnessing violence on the terraces in my young years following United hasn't had an effect on me. I guess it is more down to parenting and life experiences as much as the words and actions of others. Yet, having said all this, my Dad is fine with Ched returning, which may seem at odds with what I have written, but perhaps shows how opinion can be split amongst members of the same family.

Petitions and Protests

One aspect of the current debate I cannot agree with is the petitions and claims that he should not return to United (and to United specifically). 140,000 have signed a petition to this effect and if someone has this view, surely it should be widened to all clubs? He could just as easily go elsewhere - say Championship or another League 1 club - and earn more than we might be prepared to offer. Surely that is as big an issue for the petitioners and protesters? A man earning significant rewards after such a crime. If you accept that, whether you like it or not, Evans will return to football, I see no difference between that being United or anywhere else.

If he does return

If his return was to happen it must be ensured that any deal must be on the club's terms, however much some might fear him going elsewhere and strengthening a competitor. Some fans seem to think we owe him, although I am not sure what we owe him. I also think a club statement that described us as remaining in contact as we were "offering a duty of care to a former employee" was ill thought out and is something that would be rarely seen in normal employment, if at all. Other supporters think he owes us.

The latter is perhaps more relevant, however we know that in football there is little place for feelings and a sense of duty; money rules. Without the case hanging over him back in 2012 he would have probably been sold in the January transfer window anyway. United would have then been just a club in his playing history.

Some fans chant "He's coming home", somehow forgetting the transient nature of football careers, very few players these days have a club they call home and statements from Evans' friends and family stating he want a return to United are as much about keeping his story alive and perhaps a realisation that re-starting a career may not be as easy as some might suggest. Why not make eyes at a former club, where you know you have support amongst the fans, at the same time stirring interest in others.

It is my view that we should not break any existing structures, nor should we upset existing squad members with any financial package offered. Unrealistic figures, based on his previous contract, have been mentioned in newspaper reports and whilst they are way wide of the mark, any package that is seen to be above average or rewarding could well provide further negative publicity for the club. A deal should be earned and not a given.

Mitigating the impact

There are ways in which United could sign Evans and look to deflect some of the attention in the immediate aftermath of release. An example would be to sign him and immediately loan the player out to a League 2 club to gain fitness and take the attention away from United. Whilst I see this as a smart move in principle I wonder if it might become a stick to beat the club with.  Given the moral arguments being posed, layering on top a view that United are protecting their "investment" in Evans may not be viewed positively.

Another issue regarding this approach would revolve around the acceptability to the player. Would he want to do this if he had offers of Championship or League 1 football? Would there be a club willing to take on the potential of goals, at a cost of the media attention and disruption? I guess there probably would, but again would the club/location be acceptable to the player and also the legal authorities? Would there be limits on his movement post release?

Other ways in which a deal could be structured could involve some form of community work, advising young people to learn from his mistakes. As many people have pointed out the situation Evans put himself into is probably replicated by many young people across the country every week on a night out. However his lack of contrition makes the rehabilitation by education difficult.

I respect the fact that he believes he is innocent, however the actions he undertook that night ought to be a lesson to young people more widely. There is also the possibility that his appearances anywhere (both on a pitch and undertaking any wider community/educational service) could be hit by protests and abuse, whether he is trying to do good by them or not. That would be unhelpful for any party involved, be it community, charity or club.

Another option might be to keep him and play him in U21/Development games, but I think this could be disruptive to the young players and their development. The negative focus on his appearances cannot help his team-mates.

So what happens next?

Will he return? Who knows? When the club said that a decision has not been made, I have a tendency to believe them. If an issue is this divisive and emotive for our support, I can only imagine similar, but maybe less vociferous, debates and divides exist elsewhere within the club. We are all individuals; no-one can claim to have a collective view representing all, be it in the street, the stands, the offices and boardroom.

No matter how much the media demand the club makes a statement and shows their intent, they are right to wait until they have clarity and confidence in their chosen plan of action. They will also need to have a plan in place to deal with the fall out of their decision and that is better made as they assess the feelings and focus nearer release day. The national focus will be one aspect, but whatever the decision there will be unhappy United fans.

This is a big decision for the club, that I think could make or break our season. I am sure most of our fans would agree with that thought, but there are many who would view it that way for different reasons. And on this we will never all be united. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Time For Action at the Lane

As I write United sit tenth in League 1 yet, at such an early stage of the season, we are just three points off second place with a game in hand on some of those above us. After last season's end this is perhaps below expectations and performances to date have done more to dampen them than raise. Those of a positive bent point to the small points gap and the fact we are yet to gel and find form, yet it is that lack of clear purpose and direction that worries me more.

Three home league games have seen an unjust defeat to early pacesetters Bristol City and scrappy single goal wins over Crawley and Rochdale. In both of the latter two games we have been pedestrian and plodding, whilst creating limited chances. In fact our best performance came at Preston where we soaked up pressure and counter attacked very well.

The manager is focused on not conceding, rather than winning, but with few clear cut chances created we are always at risk of defeat, or at best a draw, if the opposition score. To criticise such tactics may seem churlish given this was the basis of the strong unbeaten run from February onwards. It also delivered results for six games this season, but we are playing to tight margins and the risk of failure is high. 

The defence, shorn of it's best two players looks susceptible and errors are commonplace. Players who ended last season brimming with confidence, such as Murphy and Flynn, look lacklustre and limp with little energy or will to drive us forward.  

Post game, after the 5-2 defeat at Swindon, Clough explained that he set out to nullify the home side's attacking threat, but in doing so invited them on, we couldn't handle them and all impetus was lost. Chasing the game we give ourselves the glimmer of another three goal comeback but their players knew they had the beating of us. 

The comeback at Colchester aside we look mentally weak and there is a fear inherent in our play - such as taking it to the corner with ten minutes to go at home to Crawley. The manager has them worried about the opposition, not focused on what we might do to them.

There have been rumours of player fall outs and the manager has struggled to incorporate his new signings into the squad. One player,brought in as an experienced centre back and leader was written off in pre season, others have struggled to fit in the team and perform the role expected.

His team selection for the opening game against Bristol City could be equally judged brave or bizarre. His substitution of Neill Collins at Swindon could have long term ramifications for the player, not least for the fact he was viewed as culpable in pre-season defeats. My impression was that he intended replace Collins with Butler and Doyle with Basham, yet form and injuries seem to have scuppered the plan.

Whilst United fans have wanted the transfer market equivalent of Fabergé eggs, the resulting buys have been more like Kinder eggs. Largely underwhelming, lacking sparkle, meet the basic requirements of being an egg, but you are left with a feeling that what you are left with is an inadequate product, poor value for money and not something you would want to have again.

Pre-season results were poor and as much as you say it wasn't about results but fitness and understanding, it rapidly became apparent that bulking up the squad left the manager uncertain as to his best XI. Matches were thrown into the schedule late on, such as Dundee at home and the much demanded Fenerbahce tie and I am not sure this helped.

What increasingly worries me are the cracks in man management, something Nigel Clough is renowned for. After the Colchester victory, secured on the back of three late goals, the manager criticised the efforts in the previous day's training session. Yet whatever he said in response to the lacklustre session had little effect for 80 minutes of that match and much of the game at Swindon that followed.

For the last few months United felt unified. Business done early, with the best of League 1 purchased and players with Championship and top level records overseas. These were players that we were told were attracting Championship interest and we had fought off their interest to sign them. At no point did the manager suggest these were not his targets or that he had a lack of funds to buy the players he really wanted to. Yet post match versus Swindon he criticised the Summer recruitment plan and the panic bidding on Deadline Day.

The words of a manager refusing to toe the party line or of one not willing to acknowledge he has potentially made some bad signings? Let's be honest a majority are proving to be more of a Billy Paynter than a John Brayford. If it's a lack of funds he could have made a stand in the summer, but we were told that he and Mal Brannigan had approached the board for a sum of money to get a promotion winning squad.  This had reportedly been received and they were left to recruit he players they wanted without board sanction. The only exception being when salary bands were breached, or if additional funds were required.

So what is the case? For a board who are, somewhat understandably, reluctant to show their financial hand publicly, a gauntlet has been thrown down by the manager. They are in a difficult situation with a seemingly compliant manager now displaying such a recalcitrant attitude. It would be difficult to publicly deny his claims without undermining the manager, placing him in an increasingly awkward position. To say nothing would leave it open to imply the manager was correct and club statements of action and intent were false.

Clough's standing in the game and portrayal by club and media as a straight talking and honest individual places him in a stronger position in the fans' hearts and minds, than a board yet to fully win over many fans who cannot see where the money is spent. 

For what it's worth, a look at last year's accounts show a loss making operating model, this summer has seen a significant incoming players, not all for fees, but at a cost in signing on fees and salaries. I think a decent amount of money has been spent and there is more available. But fans are naturally suspicious having been hurt by failed promises in the past. 

It is now time for Nigel Clough to stand up and show whether he is up to the job. To show he can be positive and for his team to impose themsleves on the opposition. It is now the time for action in the transfer market. It is now time for the board to show that they mean business. Without this I see a jittery season, belief waning, crowds falling and the unity felt in May disintegrating. 

There have been noticeable improvements in the way the club is run off field, however they lose their importance if success on the pitch doesn't follow. The key to unity is trust in one another. Comments like those post-match on Saturday do little to maintain trust.