THERE IS an enormous elephant sitting in the boardroom at Bramall Lane. One that could change football as we know it in the city for many years to come and inflict irreparable damage to Sheffield United.
One that is so big it will intensify scrutiny of the club’s leadership. Blades fans have known for a long time the team is not fit for purpose. That may be the ultimate conclusion about the people who run the club, too. Hence the decision to reduce season ticket prices and launch an unprecedented charm offensive under the banner 'United Reunited'.
Such has been the destructive nature of the current campaign, co-owner Kevin McCabe, directors and senior coaching staff will make themselves available to supporters in an attempt to re-engage with a desperately disillusioned fanbase. If United were as good at football as they are at talking they would be in the Champions League.
The beast that lurks in the boardroom is well beyond anyone’s control in S2. By the end of May the result of well meaning but small-time ambition littered with self-inflicted errors of judgment, versus a sound plan backed by measured risk taking in pursuit of game-changing reward could become an unpalatable reality.
United’s shambolic season has almost certainly cost them promotion at the fifth time of asking. But the price of failure in this campaign is much greater and will have far reaching implications.
I’m talking of events which may return Sheffield Wednesday to the Premier League at a time when the cash benefit will be at a record high. Winning promotion via the Championship play-offs remains a big if, but is well within reach and will boost the winner’s bank balance by a guaranteed minimum of £186million. That's right — £186m.
Not only would there be two divisions between Wednesday and United whose League One promotion hopes are all but over, the financial gap would be insurmountable. In a nutshell and as hard as it is to accept, if the stars continue to align over Hillsborough, United fans could become second class citizens in their own city for a generation.
Just as Manchester United regarded neighbours City an inconsequence for many decades until a recent financial transformation of previously unimaginable proportions, the Blades, already of little significance from a national perspective, are now in danger of being left behind on their own patch.
Should Wednesday win promotion and finish 2016-17 fourth from bottom of the Premier League, they will receive £103million in prize money thanks to the new three-year television deal which kicks-off next season. Survival in the top tier would enable them to at the very least double their money and move on to the next level of top flight development.
A mid-table finish would earn £115m. Even an immediate return to the Championship is worth about £100m plus parachute payments over the next three years totalling £86m. An eye-watering package which will only further enhance a closed shop of club’s jockeying for a quick return to the Premier League.
Winning top tier status is difficult enough as it is. Those forced to compete in the Championship without benefitting from new riches on offer are destined to become also-rans. There to survive and make up the numbers. Such is the Blades decline they aren’t even at that particular table.
Either way it’s a bleak prospect for United. Should Wednesday miss their chance this season, they will still have a second bite of the cherry while the Blades languish in the wilderness of League One for a sixth campaign.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow to be even measuring United’s progress, or lack of it, against that of the noisy neighbours. But whether Wednesday win promotion or not, comparisons are inevitable and not without good reason.
Until the Owls bucked the trend this season both Sheffield clubs have been by and large serial under-performers for far too long.
Both are backed by huge fanbases whose loyalties are historically undeserving of the clubs they support. Unlikely as it seemed last summer, however, Wednesday's new owner, Thai businessman Dejphon Chansiri, a man who freely admitted football was not his strong point, decided to do something about it.
Chansiri, who bought Wednesday for £37.5m in January 2015 and runs the world’s biggest supplier of tinned tuna, took advice, appointed a little known manager and sanctioned the arrival of 12 new players – another 13 were shown the door – in his quest to bring top flight football back to Hillsborough by 2017.
The melting pot appeared to be a recipe for disaster but only goes to show that if you know what you're doing – or know people who do – it doesn't have to be that way.
United, meanwhile, appointed Nigel Adkins, a man who has won three promotions from League One and led Southampton from the third tier to the Premier League in successive seasons. What could possibly go wrong?
But it has and spectacularly so. Why? Quite simply United appointed someone ably equipped for the job but didn't give him the tools do it.
Adkins must shoulder some of the blame for believing the hype and not insisting on a root and branch overhaul of an unbalanced and inadequate squad inherited from predecessor Nigel Clough. It wasn’t rocket science.
The consequence of kowtowing to his paymasters, presumably in order to get the job, now makes Adkins appear, unfairly, an over-enthusiastic fool. Caught between employers he failed to stand-up to at the interview and players whose only achievement has been to collectively let him down.
Adkins can’t complain about the position he now finds himself. Indeed, if he really did think this squad was good enough to win automatic promotion, the stated goal, it calls into serious question whether he is the man to entrust with a major rebuilding programme.
He still has a narrow majority of fans on his side but he’ll lose that support should he fail to confront the club’s owners at the end of the season. And there lies the problem. McCabe clearly wants to make a dignified exit. He is battle weary and has run out of ideas. Why else would he be willing to sell 50 per cent of the club for £1 in return for what amounts so far to a meagre investment of £15m? Why else would he have recently publicly invited interested parties to step forward if they think they can do any better?
As for McCabe’s silent partner, Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, well quite frankly his input has been negligible. The ‘game-changing’ prince is clearly nowhere near as committed as United supporters were led to believe.
Sheffield Wednesday have shown what strong leadership and fresh ideas can do. Its pains me to say it but United have neither. The damage has been done and the latest 'United Reunited' initiative will mean little unless it heralds a major culture change.
Neither the Poundland Prince nor McCabe, who is understandably reluctant to plough much more of his personal fortune into the club, £85m at the last count, appear able to take the club forward.
The disconnect between fans whose loyalty is beyond question, and the club they are devoted to, has never been greater. This in a season when the manager's buzz phrase is ‘United Together’. After relegation from the Premier League it was 'The Blades are Bouncing Back'. Now we have 'United Reunited'.
Enough. It’s time to stop the rot. It’s time for a change at the very top. The prospect of top flight football in one half of Sheffield might just force the issue.