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Bruce brings brighter times but FFP clouds remain - Interview
Friday, 3rd May 2019 11:03 by Clive Whittingham

A strong finish to the season under new manager Steve Bruce has our regular Sheff Wed contributor Jon Hore in optimistic mood for 2019/20, but much will depend on the outcome of historic financial fair play breaches.

How would you assess the season overall?

I predicted mid table at the start of the season because I thought we’d struggle to put together the consistency of team selection and performance to properly challenge the top six, but had enough good players to be comfortably clear of relegation. We can still finish anywhere from eighth to thirteenth so it’s been just about as expected. It actually turned out that we were pretty consistent from Christmas onwards but the damage was done before then. Jos Luhukay never really inspired much faith and after a decent start to the season things went downhill quickly. It was difficult to know what the team and formation would be from one week to the next and we were a shambles defensively. QPR can’t have had many easier games than the 3-0 stroll against us at Loftus Road. By December the atmosphere was toxic and the sacking became inevitable. Since then Lee Bullen (as caretaker manager), and then Steve Bruce, have made us really hard to beat and we’ve only lost three out of 23 in the league. There was a sniff of the playoffs until last week and although it was a really long shot it kept things interesting. It’s just nice to be playing well and winning games again, the atmosphere amongst the fans is as positive as it’s been for two seasons and there’s definitely a real optimism for next season.

Why didn’t it work out for Jos the Child Catcher?

First and foremost some of his selection decisions were a joke. Kieran Westwood is clearly one of the best keepers in the league but Jos decided he even wasn’t good enough for a place on the bench while we went the first 18 games without keeping a clean sheet. Likewise, Sam Hutchinson was frozen out completely while he picked teacher’s pet Joey Pelupessy (tries hard but a bit out of his depth) and Josh Onomah (phoned it in on the odd occasion he was fit enough to play). Alienating good players and fan favourites was not a smart move. His constant changes of shape and personnel didn’t help, especially defensively, with the back 4/5 looking a disorganised rabble for most of the first half of the season. He asked defenders who can’t really play football to arse about playing it out from the back. Great if you’ve got Van Dijk and Andy Robertson, not so much with Tom Lees and Morgan Fox. Aside from the dross on the pitch he had the charisma of a corpse, very limited English and no connection at all with the fans. Weird appointment that was always destined to fail.

Bruce seems to have turned it round well, what did you make of that appointment and what’s he done so far?

It felt like a safe appointment at a time when that’s exactly what the club needed, but I wasn’t overly excited about it at the time. You can’t argue with his promotion record from this division but I thought it might be a case that football was moving on and he was getting left behind. I’m happy to say I was wrong and it’s hard to underestimate the difference he’s made and the massive change in mood around the club since his appointment. He recognised in a week the flaws we’ve had for three seasons and brought in Dominic Iorfa, Ashraf Lazaar and Rolando Aarons on deadline day to strengthen the full back positions and bring some desperately needed pace and athleticism to the side. Westwood and Hutchinson coming back into the team made a big difference as well and we quickly became very hard to beat. We’ve mainly played a 4-4-2 with a high press and looked to get the ball forward quickly, which has made a refreshing change from the passive football seen under Luhukay and towards the end of Carlos Carvalhal’s reign. I’m looking forward to seeing what Bruce does with the squad to set us up for another crack at the top six next season. It doesn’t feel like we’re far off but recruitment will be key because with FFP biting he’ll have to be savvy in the market.

Your chairman admitted at a fans forum that you’ve breached FFP by “a lot” and yet nothing seems to be happening about it. What’s the latest?

It’s all very quiet. At the moment there’s been no indication if we’ll be under an embargo again like last summer, although I think it’s unlikely as I’m not sure Bruce would’ve taken the job if he knew there was a good chance of that. Maybe we’ve done a Derby and got creative with the accounts. There’s nine senior players out of contract this summer, a lot of them big earners. I reckon we’ll be getting rid of about 150k a week from the wage bill which will obviously help massively from an FFP perspective. Can’t wait to see the back of Almen fucking Abdi.

Player of the season candidates?

For me, Michael Hector is the clear stand out candidate for player of the season, he’s been consistently excellent since signing on a loan and we need to do everything we can to bring him back next year. Him and Tom Lees have formed a solid partnership and the 13 clean sheets since Christmas speaks for itself. Honourable mention to Barry Bannan who’s been the heartbeat of the team again, often with very little creative help.

Weak links in the side?

The main problem hanging over this squad is the insane amount of injuries we pick up. Our best midfielder (Kieran Lee) and striker (Gary Hooper) have been out for 18 months and only come back in the last month or so. Successful teams are able to put out consistent XIs week in week out but we just don’t seem to be able to do that. The squad is ageing and we really need to inject some youth into it and players that can play 40 games a season without breaking down. On the pitch there are no individuals that stand out as being particularly weak, although when Bannan doesn’t play we’re desperately short of creativity in the middle of the park. I don’t think he’ll play against you either because he’s one booking away from a three game ban. Our glaring weakness is the lack of pace, but I’m sure that Bruce knows this and will look to address it in the summer. Rolando Aarons came in on loan from Newcastle and looked good for few games, a quick winger who was able to stretch teams, exactly what we needed, but he’s another one who’s ended up injured.

What does the summer look like? Presumably Bruce has had assurances on being able to add players but you’ve spent loads, breached FFP and have big earners on books...

Huge summer ahead for the club. The first job is to decide which out of contract players to offer deals to. We have to make Westwood an offer and I also think Liam Palmer deserves a new deal after his performances during our good run. I can see all the others being allowed to leave, although I’d like to see us offer Kieran Lee a one year deal. This goes against everything I’ve said about injuries but it’s a position we’re short in and he was one of the best midfielders in the league a couple of years ago. I’d take a chance on him being able to stay fit and regain that sort of form. We’ll definitely be looking to ship a few out – there’s seven strikers on the books at the moment so a couple of them will be off if we get half decent offers. I’m sure Bruce knows he’s going to be working under financial restrictions, and it’s going to be a case of using free transfers and the loan market. I expect there to be a focus on freshening up the squad with younger, more athletic types and he’s already spoken about looking at youngsters from the top six from the Prem. Players like Reece James, Harry Wilson and Mason Mount have been good at this level this season, and although they’ll probably all be on loan in the Premier League next year I think it’s that sort of profile we’ll be looking at. Whether he’ll be able to compete financially for the high-end loans is another matter but as long as there’s room for him to manoeuvre in the market I’ve got faith that he’ll improve us.

The Twitter @loftforwords, @j_ho9

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