Good ancestors in tough times: an interview with Neill Collins and Michael Doyle
Our editor speaks with Michael Doyle and Neill Collins about their experience of playing for Sheffield United Football Club in the decade just gone. The interview, which was supposed to be published in the 5th issue of DEM Blades quarterly fanzine, will now be split into two parts. The first part published online, and the second part published in the fanzine. To read the second part, and to support a fan-made publication, you can subscribe to receive every copy for the rest of 2020 by clicking this link.
Good ancestors in tough times
Michael Doyle and Neill Collins played for Sheffield United in the era preceding what has become the Chris Wilder premiership. Theirs was a period of relegation and play-off near misses on the pitch, and a managerial see-saw and a takeover off it. Spasmodic highs punctuated continual frustration, and while it was only a matter of years ago, it feels so far away.
When a football club is struggling, it relies upon all its stakeholders to be good ancestors. A manager to think about the future as well as the here and now. The players to give their all apropos of nothing. A boardroom taking cautious and sensible decisions to the benefit of the club. The fans to stick by through thin and thinner. But this is football and only the latter is a relative given.
Sheffield United Football Club was not exactly a blueprint of constructive ancestry during the 2010s. However, in Michael Doyle and Neill Collins, we had people – not simply players - who wanted the best for the club, who hurt when the fans did. Speaking to them would reveal some of what I already assumed, but also that the expectations and demands of fans were mirrored by some of the ancestors inside the club, the same ancestors who would come to pass on both those expectations and the opportunity to play for SUFC, to a new generation.
When the ship’s sinking, it’s hard to stop it
Collins and Doyle joined the club in January 2011. It was a move that would reunite Doyle with his former manager at Coventry City, Micky Adams. Adams, a boyhood Blade, was the third manager to take the helm that season after the board sacked Kevin Blackwell and his replacement, the late Gary Speed, left to become the Wales national team coach.
Almost 50 different squad members were under contract that year. That list included the likes of stalwarts Nick Montgomery and Rob Kozluk, and more ephemeral figures like Jordan Stewart and Elian Parrino. Instinctively, the fans knew the club was on the slide and rumours abound that the dressing room was a mess. When Neill Collins and Michael Doyle arrived at the training ground, the barometer showed that inclement weather was on the horizon.
MD: On my first day, we did a fitness test [a bleep/yo-yo], and one of the players got slightly beyond a jog, and then he pulls up. Micky [Adams] went mental and asked him “what the f*** are you doing?” And the player said something like “that’s my limit” - it was mad. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There were so many players, and the attitude of some of those players... … …there were a lot of big egos on the training pitch, but they soon went missing on a Saturday.
Some of the players at Micky Adams’ disposal would barely run through a training session for him, let alone through a brick wall. The fog hanging over Bramall Lane was so thick that when you walked to the ground on a Saturday you could feel it in the air, on your lungs. The problems of 2011 were not the sole responsibility of individuals, it was that classic football cliché of a perfect storm arriving at an ill-opportune moment.
NC: It wasn’t just those first months; the problems started a couple of years before. Sometimes, when the ship’s sinking, it’s hard to stop it. I didn’t come in and play very well myself, and it was a tough period for everyone at the club because everyone was struggling. The first game [I played] was away to Ipswich and we got beat 3-0 and ended the game with 9 men, and straight away I knew things weren't well.
MD: Me and Neill had just joined this team, and we’re playing in games where, all of a sudden, we’re down to nine men. We went down to Watford later in the season, and within the first half, we were down to nine. It was just ridiculous.
The lack of discipline on the training ground was mirrored on the pitch. Every time the referee waved a red card it was like an SOS in semaphore, a warning direct to us fans. For two professionals, who had in their minds joined a big club fighting for the automatic spots the year before, this was not the journey they were hoping to embark upon.
Shortly after buying the ticket, they were to find out that there was no prize. In a mess, the club finished in 22nd place in the Championship. Relegation to League One was confirmed.
The board sacked Micky Adams shortly after the 2010-11 season ended. The new manager would face the challenge of arresting the slide which started in the Premier League three years ago. They would need to understand the shook-up emotions of the fans – full of dread but also expectation – they would need to refresh the squad, and they would need to get the club out of the division at the first attempt.
MD: Over the summer we hear all sorts about new managers coming in. And you hear rumours that every player is available now that we're in League One. In my head, I’d only just got here, and I’m not thinking about jumping ship or anything like that. I want to prove people wrong, ‘cos I know some people probably thought I was shite. And people like me and Neill wanted to put it right. And we thought we had the makings of a good squad.
Kevin McCabe announced that the former Sheffield Wednesday player and manager, Danny Wilson, would be installed as the club's new manager. Hours later a cluster of fans protested in the car park with banners reading "Love United. Hate Wilson." The task for Wilson, and not an easy one, would be to take the players and the fans on a journey. Credit to him that the early part of that journey was the third-best season for the Blades of the 2010s. The protesting fans belted up, and the players too felt like they had stumbled onto a good thing.
NC: I feel that Danny Wilson was one of the managers I played my best football for. I respected him. The players respected him. At that time, had we been promoted, I think we go from strength to strength.
MD: That year was a great year. I loved it so much. We had Ched banging goals in, and we had Quinny, and Harry and Neill at the back. We just felt so confident.
The football was superlative. (In fact, I’d love to see a game between that Wilson side and Chris Wilder’s League One promotion team.) It had taken Wilson's team 10 games to get going, but after that, they were seemingly unstoppable. If you sit at your computer, open up the 2011-12 season on Wikipedia, and look down the form table from October 2011 onwards, you will see bright green squares with W written in the centre. Those green patches are punctuated by red/yellow streaks representing two periods of the season where we lost our mojo. You’ll certainly be aware of the cause of one of those two bad patches, but you might not remember the other so clearly.
First off, it was March. The Blades were flying having just won 4 games out of 5. And then, out of the blue, the first back-to-back losses since right at the start of the season. At least, if you look at the form table it appears to be out of the blue.
NC: There was a period in the season where my son ended up having a cardiac arrest, and I ended up missing four games. In that period, we decimated our back four. I missed a game where we were two-nil up against Oldham, and we ended up losing 3-2. Harry [Maguire] got sent off, Matt Lowton got sent off, and Lescinel Francois had done his knee, so we lost our whole back four. Then we went to Walsall and got beaten to 3-2. We hadn’t been losing those games at all, and we ended up getting 4 points from 12.
More clearly now than ever, we realise that football is a silly old game when held side-by-side with something deeply human, the health of a loved one. It’s something we can all relate to, but in the midst of the action, we don’t often see the backdrop to a footballer’s life, let alone attempt to empathise with the difficulties they may face.
For three weeks Neill Collins was in intensive care with his son rather than on the pitch with the Blades; three weeks where the Blades' form dipped. It is testament to Neill’s personality and professionalism that when his son’s condition improved, he returned to first team action and the red/yellow streak of ‘Ls’ and ‘Xs’ returned to green ‘Ws’.
The second dip is well known to more than just Blades' fans. Towards the end of the season, striker Ched Evans, who had scored 35 goals and made 15 assists, was found guilty of rape and imprisoned (he was found not guilty during a re-trial more than four years later).
Everything Ched touched that season, as Michael Doyle puts it, was flying in. Evans, who had been a big-money signing for the Blades from Man City, had struggled for game time in the previous season in the Championship. Nine months later, and he was hitting outrageous form in football's third tier. His goals had fired the Blades into second place in the league, and on the brink of an immediate return to the Championship.
MD: I’ll never forget the game against Leyton Orient. I think me and Ched scored. And on the coach back, it was the week of his trial. Then on the Tuesday, we had a game in hand at Rochdale, and we managed to beat them 4-2, and Ched scored. And the next game after that was the MK Dons on Saturday, and we were travelling down the motorway on the Friday [the day of the verdict].That's when we heard the news that it had gone against him. I’ll never forget that day. The player liaison officer was feeding the news by text. He tells us, "Clayton McDonald not guilty, just waiting on Ched’s verdict to come through." Then a few minutes later and he said Ched was guilty, and we just couldn't believe it.
As a fan, that day was bizarre. For the players, I can’t imagine the disorientation. For them, a colleague – a friend – had turned up to work on the Tuesday, and by the Friday they are found guilty of a serious crime and locked up at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Michael Doyle and I never discuss the trial or the verdict or the rights and wrongs of the decision which the jury arrived at. Players are, after all, just people. In any workplace up and down the country, if this type of event took place, then you would expect the whole environment to be knocked out of equilibrium, the natural balance of things to be shaken up.
MD: I remember getting to the Hilton at Milton Keynes, and we were sitting around the reception just in shock. It was naïve of us, naïve of me to assume Ched would just be there on Saturday. No excuses, we lost against MK Dons 1-0. But I think the fans gave us one that day. But after that, we couldn’t get a striker in, and we were down to the bare bones… We’d lost our talisman, we’d lost 30-odd goals.
This episode would be the nail in the coffin of the Blades’ automatic hopes. Despite finishing with 90 points and scoring more than any of their divisional rivals, promotion narrowly eluded Wilson's side. Pipped to the post by Sheffield Wednesday – to the tune of 'Mind the gap' – the Blades, who were ten points clear at one stage, stumbled past Stevenage in the play-off semi-finals. Chris Porter scored the only goal in either leg, which left only Huddersfield to beat at Wembley, in a fixture that would end in triumph or failure.
When the day came around, it was bright and clear. It’s always too sunny at Wembley. The play-off final kicked off, and the Blades' fans shielded their eyes. Few people would've predicted the drama yet to come after witnessing the drab affair of the opening 90 minutes and then extra time, but what was to follow was the tensest denouement to a footballing season since our relegation in 2007, and not for a decade before that.
From about-to-burst-with-elation to savage disappointment – that is the range of emotions for a standard penalty shootout. This shootout was the distilled essence of regretting the phrase: even we can’t f*** it up from here. In the early part of penalties, events were weighted in our favour after Huddersfield contrived to miss their first three penalties, as Michael Doyle remembers:
MD: For them to miss the first three and for us to lose… ... ...you wouldn’t believe it. Collo scores our third pen, and then Huddersfield’s captain Peter Clarke goes and scores their fourth. And I remember, he’s walking back up to the centre circle, and that's where Andy Taylor is waiting. We’d brought on Andy just to take a penalty, and Peter Clarke has gone over and had a few words with Taylor, and he goes and hits the post. And then it goes all the way, all the way to the keepers.”
NC: I was relevantly confident with penalties, we practised them all that week before the game. Although I was very much of the opinion that you should practice one because you only get one opportunity in a shootout. So I practised one penalty, two or three times that week. Some practised a lot more, and we had a few lads who practised, penalty after penalty after penalty. Williamson, Lowton, Taylor [all of them missed]. A couple of days before the game, we actually had a full practice penalty shootout, where everyone in the squad took a penalty, apart from one man…
After every other player had stepped-up and taken a penalty, goalkeeper Steve Simonsen cannot be blamed for missing his spot-kick and condemning the Blades to the second play-off defeat in two years and another season in the third tier. He told Radio Sheffield in the days after the defeat, "It's been horrendous. Obviously, it's the lowest part of my career."
Singing Annie's Song before that Wembley defeat was the crest of a high, red and white wave that wouldn't return with the same dynamic force throughout the rest of Doyle and Collin's association with the club. That was THE chance. Picking ourselves up and dusting ourselves down as fans was difficult enough. For Danny Wilson, he had to contend with a huge blow to morale, a huge reduction in budget, and, still, huge expectations from the fans.
The muddle, and the end
Danny Wilson's second season in charge was notable for the sheer number of draws his side churned out. Having lost creativity (Williamson, Quinn) and striking options (Ched Evans), the team reverted to a more considered approach: if we can't win, we won't lose. The strategy was not such a bad one when you consider that, somehow, Wilson had managed to hang on to a young Harry Maguire who, at the side of Neill Collins, looked every inch the best defender in that league.
Throughout, we were there or thereabouts, without ever mounting a serious challenge to the top two. As the season drew towards its close, it became apparent that automatic promotion was not going to happen. The play-offs, once again, would be our fate. Had we improved on last year? No. Did we have more quality? No. Were we more experienced? Probably not. Was the team suitably galvanised for the play-off run ahead? It came to pass that the board did not think so, and they asked themselves: What should we do to galvanise them?
At that point, Michael Doyle received a telephone call:
MD: It was difficult. Morgs rang me to say the gaffer’s gone, and he explained that he was going to take the job – I was disappointed ‘cos I liked Danny, and Morgs liked Danny too. On reflection, with what we’d gone through the year before, it felt like maybe it was meant to be for us to go through the play-offs this time around, but without Danny…
Without Danny Wilson – let’s face it - the Blades were stuffed. I recall being shocked by Wilson's sacking, and doubly so by Morgan’s appointment (in the sense that it made no sense, not the sense that it was genuinely shocking). Having worked wonders with a team comprising mostly the same individuals who got the club relegated from the Championship in his first season, and then in his second season to work stoically with a distinct lack of options, Wilson had been treated harshly.
In retrospect, I wonder if McCabe and the board looked across the city to Sheffield Wednesday who had, in the season previous, sacked Gary Megson at a similar stage of the season and brought in Dave Jones. In Wednesday’s case, it was the right change and the right time. But if it was a shock to the players to lose Wilson, I don’t think it had the galvanising impact it was supposed to.
I asked Neill Collins if he was aware of any pressure on Danny Wilson going into the final part of that season:
NC: I think you’re always aware of ‘it’[a manager being sacked]. When you’re at Sheffield United, when you’re below where you're expected to be, you always know that the manager is the one that ultimately takes the blame. But I think he did a great job, and if you ask Kevin McCabe, I bet he regretted sacking Danny when he did. I have nothing but good things to say about Danny Wilson and his assistant Frank Barlow. One of the best assistants I ever worked with.
Results in the league were not subject to any sort of ‘new manager effect’. Chris Morgan was already so bound-up in Danny Wilson’s staff anyway that any kind of bounce was unrealistic. The Blades finished fifth and faced Yeovil in the play-off semi-final. The Blades won the first leg courtesy of a Callum MacFadzean strike, but in the second tie, we were defeated 2-0 and consigned to another season in the third tier.
With more of a stoop than our heads held high, the Blades succumbed to another disappointing play-off campaign. Chris Morgan did not keep the reigns at Bramall Lane, and the club was on the lookout for a new manager. But, set against the backdrop of having the biggest wage bill in League One, the summer would be one of clear-out and change strategy.
It was clear that rookie manager Chris Morgan was not going to keep the top job at Sheffield United on a permanent basis. Instead, the board took a divergent approach, one which came to represent a new strategy (not a sensible one) to counter our League One woes. Wilson had clearly been brought in because of his experience and knowledge of being a football manager in Sheffield. David Weir, however, was a former Rangers and Everton defender who was identified as a promising coach. Instead of relying on experience, the club shifted trajectory, toward a) young players to be bought and sold for a profit and b) creating a trendy footballing identity.
MD: When Davie Weir comes in, he comes in with a presentation on how he wanted us to play, 4-2-3-1. And I'm thinking "yeah, I’m enjoying this". Everybody goes into a selfish mode for a new manager, where everybody tries to prove themselves. So we were all ‘at it’ in training. And the first night of the season we played Notts County on the telly, and we started the game and we thought ‘we’re feeling really good’. And we had Kevin Macdonald, and he was right on it. And we felt like we were going to be a force this season. And then all of a sudden Wolves have come in for Kevin. And it felt like every year we were losing our best players. And you know the story, we didn’t win another game for 10 or 12 games.
At the time of appointing David Weir, the Blades' chief executive Julian Winter said: "We are thrilled to appoint David, and the three-year contract emphasises the fact that he will assist in a change in club culture." That change in culture, Michael and Neill both tentatively agreed, was represented by (in my words, not theirs) buying a shedload of young players. It wasn't necessarily a dreadful idea, but a prime example of the paucity of good logic was swapping Kevin MacDonald with Jose Baxter (a talented, but young and inconsistent player).
The problems were plain for all to see. On the pitch, the players had spells of dominance and always looked a threat before they went on to concede silly goals at the wrong time. Off the pitch, there was similar inconsistency. Kevin McCabe, who had been the majority shareholder for over a decade, found new investment in the form of Saudi Prince Abdullah.
MD: Davie [Weir] rang my room and told me to come down from the hotel and he told us players we had to meet the new chairman. That was great for us, cos we’re thinking a Saudi prince is going to pump a lot of money in. And then Davie loses his job after we lose to Hartlepool.
Weir, a rookie manager like Morgan, was deemed unfit for the task at hand and was sacked after only 13 games. The board, slap bang in the middle of another damascene conversion, reverted to experience. It was a swift and embarrassing flip-flop for the board. After sacking Wilson and appointing Morgan, then refusing to put their faith in Morgan only to hire Weir, to then lose faith in Weir and look for another manager, the fans were at a low ebb. The season was already a write-off, and the long-term replacement would have the rest of the season to try and reverse the long slide.
For Collins and Doyle, their Sheffield United careers had already added up to highs frustrated by the tightest of margins, and lows compounded by having to start again, and again, and again. The new start, I’m sure they hoped, would be the one; a ticket to energise a sleeping giant and kick on up the league(s). By now, they had both played more than 100 games for the club, and by the end of their Blades careers, they would both double that tally. They took some flak in that time, flak and abuse which I believe was only elicited by their near ever-presence. And so it was, after Weir was sacked, they dusted themselves off and once again played under Chris Morgan’s caretaker charge against a foe they knew well. But it was the next manager that would shape the fortunes and misfortunes of both Michael Doyle’s and Neill Collins’ Sheffield United career.
MD: We played Port Vale, and Micky Adams was in charge for them, and we beat them 2-1 in a tight game, and then they announced Cloughie….
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