James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Five key points to address

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Sheffield United have taken huge strides forward under the management of Nigel Clough.

But, as the former England international recently admitted, they must make further improvements in order to give themselves the best possible chance of challenging for promotion next term. As United prepare to play their final game of the 2013/14 campaign against Coventry City tomorrow, The Star identifies five key points they must address during the close season.

1) Sign a prolific centre-forward: This has been a season of contrasts for United. Battling against relegation at the turn of the year, they spent much of the second-half trying to hunt down sixth-place. Nevertheless, despite their dramatic upturn in fortunes, a common thread has run through the entire campaign. A lack of goals. Despite their impressive results of late, United’s attack is ranked 21st in the division with the likes of Notts County and Tranmere Rovers averaging more goals per game than Clough’s side. And they are in danger of playing League Two football next term.

2) Maintain their reputation for defensive solidity: United’s success under Clough has been built upon the performances of their back four although, as the manager himself likes to emphasise, those in more advanced positions have also contributed to a record which reads ‘Played 23 Conceded 16’ since February. After 45 league matches, only four rearguards have been breached fewer times. The addition of a predatory striker could, arguably, help to improve this already impressive statistic by relieving the pressure on the likes of Neill Collins and Harry Maguire.

3) Do not bloat their squad with luxury additions: Although success equals more games, as United’s exploits in the FA Cup this year prove, visitors to the Redtooth Academy will testify that team spirit behind the scenes has been excellent of late. A win ratio of 52.5 per cent in all competitions under Clough’s stewardship has, of course, helped repair the cracks which had appeared before his arrival. But so has trimming the number of players at the club’s disposal. This process coincided with improved performance levels on the pitch. Because there is greater cameraderie among colleagues. Recruiting flexible players, who can cover a variety of roles, during the summer window should be a priority. Likewise, trying to ensure the core of the squad remains intact.

4) Continue to promote from within: Clough and his staff have demonstrated they are shrewd operators in the loan market by drafting-in the likes of John Brayford, Kieron Freeman and Ben Davies. Bob Harris, initially, too. In the past, some of Clough’s predecessors were too quick to make temporary signings whenever an established player was injured. This was expensive, provided little long-term value and stifled the development of youngsters from United’s academy. Connor Dimaio, Otis Khan, Louis Reed and Dominic Calvert-Lewin can all fill in when required. And, by doing so, their progress will be accelerated.

5) Foster strong bonds between team and supporters: United’s home crowds have been the second biggest in League One this season. Arguably the greatest achievement of the present regime has been giving the fans something to sing about and be proud of. Which, unfortunately, has not always been the case. There will be difficult spells over the coming 12 months but, if Sheffield’s red and white remain United both in name and nature, they are going to be a formidable proposition next term.

*Twitter: @JamesShield1