A brand-new season, manager and belief system,
But, on the evidence of this result at least, one seemingly intractable problem.
Sheffield United’s vulnerability at set-pieces proved terminal in the race for Championship football last term. It took only 90 minutes to bust the myth that appointing Nigel Adkins, a bona fide promotion specialist, would act as a magic salve.
The sight of a capable but far from incredible Gillingham team gifted three soft goals from dead-ball situations tested both the former Southampton chief’s famously positive demeanour and Chris Basham’s diplomatic skills.
Adkins, taking charge of his first competitive fixture since being unveiled two months ago, refused to divulge any details of what it later transpired was a brutally frank post-match address. Basham, by contrast, chose to be far less discreet, acknowledging United’s performance represented an affront to both their own pride and that of the travelling fans.
“Our preparations have gone so well,” Basham said. “But, as the gaffer told us in there, we can’t be training players. We’ve got to be football players.
“We get paid to perform on a Saturday afternoon and a Tuesday evening. Not during mornings in the week. Now we’ve got to take things by the scruff of the neck and move forward, remind ourselves that we don’t ever again want to ever be feeling like we do right now.”
Of course, a degree of perspective is required and it would be foolish, from either a United or Gillingham perspective, to draw sweeping conclusions from a single game. Adkins, whose side had emerged unbeaten from a challenging series of summer friendlies, will hope it was an aberration similar to the one experienced by Norwich City in 2009 when a campaign which began with a crushing defeat to Colchester ended with the League One title being held aloft at Carrow Road.
Adkins can also take a degree of comfort from the fact United’s demise, as Basham admitted, could be attributed to attitude rather than lack of ability.
Nor can it be argued, with George Long, Callum McFadzean and Neill Collins all recalled after long absences that, personnel wise, it was a case of ‘same old, same old’.
Jay McEveley and Kieron Freeman, two survivors of the rearguard which came under intense scrutiny following May’s ill-fated play-off semi-final at Swindon Town, did not appear culpable for any of Gillingham’s goals.
“We need to start at a higher standard,” Basham said. “We need to defend better, all of us, and have a bit of heart. That means making sure our man doesn’t score or get himself on the end of the ball. The only positive thing we can take from that it that we’ve got quick games coming up to bounce back.
“There are plenty more, thankfully, to come. We’ll be down today and it won’t be a nice trip home either. It can get worse but it won’t, I can assure you of that.”
United entered the contest oozing optimism. But, when Emmanuel Osadebe converted from Ryan Jackson’s long throw - a threat Adkins had highlighted beforehand - they appeared worryingly downbeat. The indecision which allowed Osadebe to turn home beyond Long, preferred between the posts to Mark Howard, spread through the visitors’ ranks like a contagion, with Adedeji Oshilaja converting a corner to double Gillingham’s lead.
“There’s no hiding away, that wasn’t good enough,” Adkins said. “We’ve done great in training but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about points out there on the pitch.”
There were moments of promise, notably when the introduction of Conor Sammon prompted a change of shape. But, for the most part, his fellow new signings, Billy Sharp and Martyn Woolford, were fed a diet of scraps as United failed to impose themselves.
Basham went close from an acute angle and Jamie Murphy drew a save from Stuart Nelson during the closing stages. All too often, though, Sharp, arguably the division’s most clinical finisher, cut an isolated figure in attack.
Despite his best efforts to hustle Gillingham out of their comfort zone, Blades hopes were dashed when John Egan, the former United loanee, met Brennan Dickenson’s corner.
Bradley Dack made it four with a superb shot which Long had no chance of stopping, although Adkins complained the 21-year-old had been afforded too much time and space.
“We’ve got a great morale in that dressing room,” Basham said. “We love each other to bits and so we’ll be sticking together and looking to respond in the right way and the right manner.”
Adkins, who twice guided Scunthorpe out of the third tier before repeating the feat at St Mary’s, challenged his players to produce the desired response during tomorrow’s Capital One Cup tie at Morecambe and also when Chesterfield visit Bramall Lane this weekend.
“That’s what winners do,” he said. “They bounce back and that’s what we are here to be - winners.”
GILLINGHAM: Nelson 6, Jackson 7, Egan 7, Houghton 6, Williamson 6, Morris 6 (Hessenthaler 46, 6), Osadebe 7 (Wright 88), Norris 6, Dack 7, Dickensen 6, Oshilaja 6. Subs not used: Garmston, Ehmer, McGlashan, Morris, Donnelly.
SHEFFIELD UNITED: Long 5, Freeman 5, Basham 6, Murphy 5, Sharp 6, Baxter 6 (Sammon 46, 5), Collins 5, Woolford 5 (Reed 70), McEveley 5, McFadzean 6, Adams 5 (Scougall 70). Subs not used: Howard, J Wallace, Higdon, K Wallace.
REFEREE: Brendan Malone (Wiltshire).