Sheffield United: What baseball can teach the Blades

Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough � copyright : Blades Sports Photography
Sheffield United manager Nigel Clough � copyright : Blades Sports Photography

Football, Roy Keane explained in his autobiography ‘The Second Half,’ is about coping with disappointment, writes James Shield.

“It’s not the highs,” the former Republic of Ireland international opined. “Because there are so few of them.”

Nigel Clough nodded sagely when those words were put to him at the Redtooth Academy earlier this week. His first full season in charge of Sheffield United could yet, if play-off qualification is secured, end on an almighty high. But, providing a rare glimpse into his life away from the technical area, Clough did reveal an unlikely source of motivation during the inevitable lows of what has been a long, gruelling and testing campaign.

“Baseball,” he said. “That is just one long mental struggle.

“Okay, in terms of your body it’s probably not the toughest sport in the world. But in your head, well, it’s a real test.”

America’s game, given its obsession with statistics and forensic analysis, is not an obvious pastime for a manager whose methodology places great importance on keeping instructions short, sharp, simple and always straight to the point. Nevertheless, closer inspection of the demands it places upon its participants reveals why Clough, an avid follower of the Tampa Bay Rays, is fascinated by the MLB.

United’s recruitment, since his appointment 18 months ago, has afforded character the same emphasis as calibre. Stuart Sternberg’s Florida based franchise, might not spend nearly half of the year being tortured physically. Psychologically, though, they are as tough as teak.

“Can you learn anything from it? There are little bits but, in the grand scheme of things, they can be huge important lessons,” Clough said. “When you are playing 162 games in 180 odd days, the mental side becomes huge. If you’re a batter, and you’ve had a nightmare the evening before, you can’t let it get on top of you. You’ve got to go out there and hit the ball now.

“You can’t get too low. Players, coaches or supporters. You can’t let things get you down.”

“When you are out there on the field every single night you can’t dwell on anything,” Clough added. “If you’ve lost then you wake-up in the morning and think ‘s**t, the world is coming to an end.’ Then, you think about things a little bit more and realise it’s still in your own hands and you’ve still got to go out there and do a job. It brings a perspective to what you do.

“You are going to lose and, in our business you are going to draw. You know there are going to be disappointing and difficult moments so it’s how you deal with those and come back from them which really counts.”

United, who have lost back to back matches only three times following Clough’s appointment, must also demonstrate guts and guile to realise their ambition of competing at Championship level next term.

On paper, the fixture appears a relatively routine assignment for the visitors who are 16 places and 22 points higher than Fabio Liverani’s players. In practise, however, it is likely to be anything but given the fact that Orient are fighting to preserve their League One status and the number of niggling injuries being carried by Clough’s first team squad.

United must strike the right balance between preserving their energy for a possible assault on the end of season knockouts and taking care of the here and now.

Speaking before last weekend’s draw with Bradford City - Jason Holt scoring for the fifth time in seven outings before Billy Clarke equalised during the closing stages - Clough revealed he would be keeping abreast of developments between MK Dons and Rochdale who must win their remaining two games and ensure United, in fifth, lose both to deny them a top six finish.

“We’ll probably get to know the scoreline at half-time,” Clough said. “But, unless the situations demands it, we won’t be keeping in constant touch with what’s going on there because we’d rather focus on ourselves.

“It’s in our own hands so we don’t want to be distracted by anything. We need to concentrate on what we do.”

That mantra had not changed when the media descended upon United’s training complex on Wednesday.

“We will look at the (Rochdale) score at half time and see what is happening. But when the final whistle goes, it won’t really matter. “Sometimes you can use it but hopefully we won’t need a kick-up the backside. If we do, we may use that, we did it in the cup last season with the draw (against Sheffield Wednesday).

This will be the 60th match United have contested this season after making significant progress in both the FA and Capital One cups. At least three more will beckon if they beat relegated threatened Orient or, regardless of the outcome, Keith Hill’s team draw or lose.

“It’s a long haul but you have to overcome that,” Clough said. “Just like the baseball players, who fly half way across the country, get in during the early hours of the morning and then report for duty again, do.”

Twitter: @JamesShield1

READ MORE: Click here for all the latest news from Bramall Lane