Blades planning to be fit for purpose

Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough.
Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough.
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JUST as modern-day music offers little that is new, this summer’s World Cup was also bereft of anything truly ground-breaking.

Entertaining? Definitely. Thrilling? Most of the time. But radical? Hardly, with there being nothing tactically in Brazil that made the world sit up and take note.

Nor was there any individual new piece of skill to spawn a thousand imitations, as the ‘Cruyff turn’ had done 40 years earlier or the France ’98 bunny-hop of Mexico’s Cuauhtemoc Blanco.

Instead, the only true innovation to remember the 2014 tournament by was referees being armed with a can of spray foam to prevent any encroachment at free-kicks.

Sitting athome in the Midlands, Nigel Clough, a former international with 15 England caps tohis name, was an interested spectator as Germany lifted the famous trophy for a fourth time and the Sheffield United manager insists the manner of that triumph offers pointers for his own side in the months to come.

“I didn’t watch an awful lot of the group stages because I was away on holiday,” said the Blades chief when speaking to The Yorkshire Post in the Sheffield sunshine at ahot andhumid training ground.

“But I am told a lot of the group games were very good. I also read Jose Mourinho say it just wasn’t England’s day out there, while I was fascinated by the Spanish manager’s comments. He said it was their time to lose. You can’t just keep winning, that ishow football is.

“Once home, I did watch a lot more and what I will remember this World Cup for is proof that there is nothing new out there. I don’t think anyone did anything radical or came up with a new formation or anything like that.

“A few managers tried three at the back, which I saw some commentators suggest was new. But lots of managers, once they have the right players in place, try to play that way. We have done it here occasionally when chasing games or been down to 10 men.

“That is what I mean by saying there was nothing new. And I think that was shown by Germany – in being good, hard-working andhonest players – winning the World Cup.

“Football is going the way that you have to be incredibly fit to achieve anything.

“The World Cup was further proof of that because, in my mind, the fittest team won the World Cup. Don’t get me wrong, Germany had a lot of ability as well. But their fitness played a massive part and that is something all of us can take into the new season.”

United’s fitness levels were certainly put to the test last term when a thrilling run to the FA Cup semi-finals meant the South Yorkshire club played 56 games.

Had they managed to finish just one place higher in the table, that tally would have risen further to 58 or even – if Clough’s men had reached the League One play-off final – 59.

Only a Premier League squad equipped to challenge in Europe – say, a Chelsea or Arsenal – would usually be able to cope with such a heavy workload but the Blades thrived, as a run-in that yielded 13 points from the final five games illustrated.

Clough was full of admiration for the manner in which his players stepped up to the challenge of playing Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday most weeks.

But now, with the United manager having been afforded the benefit of a full pre-season,he is hoping for even more fromhis squad.

“Pre-season is for the entire nine to 10 months and not just the first day,” said the 48-year-old, who took charge at Bramall Lane in October last year following the dismissal of David Weir.

“People tend to focus on the first day only and obsess about it. That can be a mistake. Of course I want us to hit the ground running but I want us to be strong all season.

“We didn’t have a pre-season with this group (a year ago) and that makes life difficult. We upped the tempo in training a little bit but there isn’t a lot else you can do.

“I do think we benefited from that as the season went on but in terms of getting energy in the legs, it can be difficult – especially when, like last year, we were so busy with games.

“Maybe some of the team got tired towards the end of the season. That was maybe inevitable with everything they put into the season. But, hopefully, we will be a little bit better for the work we have put in since returning.

“As a player, I dreaded pre-season. Absolutely dreaded it. Certainly in the early years, at least. I found it very tough back then.

“When you have got to your mid-20s andhave a few under your belt, you do get used to it and you know whathas to be done during the summer.

“It is the same here. I look at Neill Collins, Doyley (Michael Doyle) and a few of the others. They had done enough in the summer to get through. The younger ones are the ones that struggle.

“In terms of pre-season, we have used the same sort of format here as we had at Burton and Derby. I always bring them back on a Thursday and do a couple of days before giving the players the weekend off.

“That is because we place as much emphasis on rest as we do fitness work in pre-season. Rest days are vital. When you start doing five or six days on the spin, there is a high risk of injury.

“We have always done the same and Burton were known as one of the fittest in the Conference. And at Derby, I think their fitness showed at times last season.”

Considering United were second-bottom on February 1 and still in the relegation zone more than a fortnight later, a seventh-place finish was admirable. As was coming within a whisker of becoming the first team from the third tier to reach an FA Cup final.

“Last season was tough at the start,” said Clough, who inherited a team sitting 21st in the table. “There is no doubt about that.

“But once we got going in the FA Cup and the league – we only lost three times in the last three months – we just kept going.

“An extra couple of weeks on the end of the season might have made the difference. Having said that, though, so might a couple of results earlier in our time here.

“But to get from second-bottom to seventh was still a big achievement. And let’s not forget Peterborough, they had a great final few weeks to hold on to sixth place. I think Darren (Ferguson) won Manager of the Month for April.

“That shows what sort of run they had to stay ahead of us.

“Ours was a hectic schedule but no-one seemed unduly bothered and it was good to see the progress that we made. It was a tremendous run and that is why there is such hope and optimism ahead of the new season.

“Whether there is a bit too much at this stage, I don’t know. But we are not going to douse any of it.”