HOW does one prepare for a trip to Doncaster these days? If you’re Sheffield United manager Kevin Blackwell, you watch 20 minutes of Kes. Which scene? Oh, come on.
“When Brian Glover is giving the team talk out of the showers,” Blackwell said. “Do you remember? Then playing the game.”
Of course you remember. Glover as an overbearing teacher, refereeing a football match during a PE lesson, playing in his Manchester United shirt, telling himself he’s Bobby Charlton, awarding himself a penalty. Sending off a member of the opposing team. And still losing because bloody Casper threw the game.
It’s a little nugget of South Yorkshire cinematic gold. And that was how Blackwell geed up his team for a South Yorkshire derby. (Well it was either that, or The Full Monty, or Brassed Off, or The Battle For Orgreave.)
“Henri Camara’s Senegalese,” Blackwell added. “He’s never seen it before. And he was in stitches. And it’s about that – just trying to take the pressure off the players, accepting that they don’t know each other.
“It was brilliant to watch Kes for 20 minutes. Casper’s still on that fucking crossbar, by the way.”
Blackwell has looked to take the light-hearted approach with his players as a way of bonding them together. And they need bonding together, because it’s as good as a completely new team at Sheffield United these days.
When goalkeeper Steve Simonsen stepped on to the pitch at the Keepmoat Stadium this afternoon, he became the 22nd player this season to make his Sheffield United debut.
Of the 11 players in Blackwell’s starting line-up today, only midfielders Nick Montgomery and Stephen Quinn played in their first game of the season at Middlesbrough. It is a much-changed squad, and one heavily reliant on loan players.
“You have to be light-hearted, because there are so many changes in the team,” Blackwell said. “Montgomery and Quinn are the only two players with any kind of numbers when it comes to games for us.
“You look at all different ways of using psychology in football. Sometimes, you can’t beat a good bollocking. But sometimes, you have to make sure the pressure on the players is taken away.
“It was a 20-minute spell to watch how Brian Glover got penalties, free kicks, set plays, how he disciplined people. I couldn’t clip anybody round the ear, but it was just a light-hearted way of doing it. It worked fairly well.”
Well, it did in the end. For the first 25 minutes, it looked as if Doncaster were going to run up a rugby league score. And that was despite Billy Sharp’s absence.
Sharp is Doncaster’s leading scorer this season, with 15 goals. He’s on loan from Sheffield United. Football League rules do not prevent a player from appearing against his parent club, and there was no clause in Sharp’s loan deal to prevent him from facing the Blades. Even so, manager Sean O’Driscoll decided, very sportingly, not to field him.
O’Driscoll’s reasoning was that this was the honourable thing to do. Sheffield United had been kind enough to loan out Sharp, and therefore it would be wrong to throw that back in their faces.
Without Sharp, Doncaster scored after five minutes. James Hayter, who may not have started had Sharp played, drove in the rebound after James Coppinger’s shot had been blocked, as Sheffield United failed to deal with a short corner.
At that stage, Doncaster’s fans were chanting about promotion. Remarkably, they’ve got half-a-chance of reaching the play-offs this season. I say remarkably, because they were in the Conference seven years ago.
O’Driscoll has stoically refused to get excited about that kind of thing. Chairman John Ryan, on the other hand, is full of what ifs – or at least, he is if his programme notes are anything to go by.
“What a great end to the season it would be if we could end up in the coveted sixth place and then take our chance in the play-offs with confidence high in the squad,” Ryan wrote.
O’Driscoll’s programme notes, by contrast, described last week’s win over Derby as “three points to bring us ever closer to retaining our Championship status”.
It’s a wonder, really, that this relationship between an extrovert chairman and an understated manager has worked so well over the last three-and-a-half years. Ryan uses his column to plug his new book, O’Driscoll uses his to grumble about the state of the pitch. Perhaps it’s true that opposites attract.
About Ryan’s book: it’s called Dare To Dream: On Life, Football and Cosmetic Surgery (the industry in which the Doncaster chairman made his fortune). It has a foreword from Kevin Keegan and a cover quote from Sir Alex Ferguson, and it charts Doncaster’s progress since Ryan became chairman in 1998.
“They say everybody has a book in them and I was just dying to put it down on paper,” wrote the chairman, adding that money raised from sales would go back into the club. It’s hard not to feel that Ryan can see Doncaster progressing further than the Championship.
Despite the benefit of an early lead, things didn’t pan out as he might have hoped today. Hayter was denied by an excellent first-half save from Simonsen (a far better keeper than Billy Casper), then missed a sitter.
A couple of further chances came and went in the second half, by which time Sheffield United had improved considerably. They should have had a penalty – Richard Cresswell was shoved over inside the area by Shelton Martis – and James Harper’s late equaliser was deserved.
Not that I was particularly thrilled. At that moment, my laptop decided to switch itself off. Given that I had a match report to e-mail to a newspaper at full-time, I could have done without having to spend five minutes rebooting the thing again. I’d like to say that I was calm. Anyone sitting near me in the press box will tell you otherwise.
O’Driscoll was in a curious mood at the press conference after the 1-1 draw. Having taken his seat, he then made as if to get up and leave again when the first question didn’t come immediately – and I’m genuinely not sure whether he did this as a joke or not.
He gave a one-word answer to the first question, then opened up a little more – only to turn his belligerence dial up again when the contributions from the floor dried up.
Turning to his press officer, O’Driscoll said: “How can we have 25 journalists here and no one asking questions? It’s ridiculous. I don’t understand it.”
Whatever he was annoyed about, it wasn’t his team’s performance, which he described as excellent. He seemed more perturbed about the levels of expectation at Doncaster these days.
“Everybody’s disappointed, and it’s a sign of people getting carried away,” he said. “It’s only our second season in this division and I thought we were excellent. I thought we were first class.
“For us to get in the play-offs, we’d probably have to win nine out of nine. And because we haven’t got the three points, everybody’s disappointed.” I’ve played this part of my tape back half-a-dozen times, and I’m about 90 per cent certain that the next sentence O’Driscoll uttered was: “Get real.”
That would suggest O’Driscoll sees the Premier League as being a long way off for Doncaster. I wonder if his chairman feels the same?
Blackwell, in the meantime, might well be tempted to dig out a few more films if it helps his team end their dreadful away record – today brought their first point on their travels since Christmas.
“Three or of the lads have asked now if they can get the film,” he said of Kes. “So we’ll get them the DVD.”