GEORGE LONG is free to leave Sheffield United as well as anyone else who wants to. That’s the uncompromising message from manager Chris Wilder as he sets about rebuilding an already decimated squad and reducing the wage bill.
The goalkeeper who has spent 14 of his 22 years at Bramall Lane, is back from holiday and due for talks with Wilder today. The player postponed signing a new contract offer following the dismissal of former boss Nigel Adkins. But if ex-England Under-18 and Under-21 keeper Long is under the impression the offer is up for negotiation, it appears he is sadly mistaken.
“If he signs, great, he'll move forward with us and if he doesn't we’ll look elsewhere,” said Wilder who has already released Mark Howard, No2 to Long. Part of a ruthless cull in which ten players were shown the door and another seven put on the transfer list.
Wilder's hard line was issued hours before agreeing his first two deals of the summer. Winger Mark Duffy released by Birmingham City, and Bury's 27-year-old left-back Chris Hussey who made 50 appearances for the Shakers last term joined for what is described as a nominal sum. Both have agreed two year deals.
United have fought off competition from the Championship and a number of rival clubs in League One to secure the signature of 30-year-old Duffy, who was instrumental in helping Burton Albion win promotion to the Championship whilst on-loan at the Pirelli Stadium during the 2015/16 campaign. He played against United in the 1-0 defeat at home to Burton.
Wilder said: "In our opinion Mark was the best player in this division last season and we are delighted to have captured his services. Importantly he knows what it takes to get out of League One which is crucial."
Wilder defended his approach to Long, saying: “I’m never going to put a gun to any player's head to stay at this football club. They have to be here for the right reasons. It's not a big statement, it's not an arrogant statement, but this is the way I work and this is the way we're going to run this football club.
“We are going to get value for money and we are going to give competitive contracts out to people who deserve it whether it's George or whether it's anybody coming in.
“I’ve had numerous telephone calls from agents and some of the numbers I get chucked at me, what players want to come here is ridiculous. That just won't happen. If players want to go up the road for 500 quid more then I'll give them a lift. I want them to come here for the right reasons and the players [already] here stay for the right reasons.”
Wilder had a tough message for Dean Hammond, too. The 33-year-old midfielder’s loan deal from Leicester entitled him to demand a 12-month contract at the end of it. Although it has been made clear to Hammond he is not part of next season’s plans, he nonetheless activated the clause. Prepared, it seems, to sit out next season and count his considerable wage packet.
Wilder, like the majority of United fans who thought they’d seen the back of poorly performing Hammond, is not impressed and immediately placed him on the transfer list. “As far as I am concerned we will be looking elsewhere to play in central midfield,” said Wilder. “It's common knowledge the reason I have been brought into the football club is to manage the wage bill. I am comfortable in doing that and I will work with what I've got and try and get value for money.”
He added: “Of course you would love the situation where all the players who are on the transfer list decide to move on. That frees up money to get replacements in. But we understand it is the pitfalls of modern day football. It is sometimes quite difficult to move players on.”
While appreciating that financial security plays a big part in players’ decisions, Wilder said pointedly: “I’d be a little bit disappointed if they don't think that playing football is not the biggest part of what they want to do.”
Wilder did little to deny that former United defender Kyle McFadzean, relegated to League One with Mk Dons, is top of his wanted list along with Burnley’s Kevin Long. “We are in the market for centre-halves and both of those are really good players,” admitted the Lane boss.
Sheffield-born McFadzean, 29, whose younger brother Callum fell foul of Wilder’s clear-out, was an Academy find but made only one first team appearance, a substitute in the Carling Cup, before leaving the Lane for non-league Alfreton Town in 2007. He resurrected his career with a move to Crawley Town, then in the Conference, who won subsequent promotions to Leagues Two and One.
Barnsley, newly-promoted to the Championship, remain favourites to sign Long whom Wilder greatly admires. The 25-year-old Irishman, who successfully recovered from a cruciate ligament injury, impressed during a loan spell at Oakwell. He made his promotion contribution with 11 league appearances and scored twice.
Wilder revealed that United are about to bring an additional backroom appointment to help with the manager’s recruitment plan. That includes targeting promising youngsters from the Premier League. As Barnsley did with 20-year-old striker Ashley Fletcher, last weekend’s Wembley play-off final hero loaned from Manchester United, who made such an impact with nine goals in 27 appearances.
“I am going to concentrate on the players I want to build the team around, whether they are players who have been here the last couple of years – the likes of Billy [Sharp] [Chris] Basham, John Brayford and Matty Done. I’ve talked about the Academy. There are two or three of the younger boys who are really kicking on that can play a part in the team.
“We want fit, hungry, energetic players that want to achieve and we also talked about younger players from Premier League clubs who will see this as a great opportunity. There are a lot of diamonds out there that teams from our level have got from Premier league teams. But always the attitude has to be spot-on.”
Striker Marc McNulty, who spent last season on loan to Portsmouth, is very much in Wilder’s plans as is Stefan Scougall, cast out to Fleetwood by Adkins.
“They fit the way we play,” said Wilder. “I don't think you can have enough goalscorers in the club and Marc's certainly one of those players. He offers us competition at the top end of the pitch and I like Scougall.
“I think he's had a quiet 18 months but I've watched him down here as everyone else did under [former boss] Nigel Clough and he ripped it up. If I can get him back to the form he showed, the positive player who takes the ball for a run, gets people off their seats. He fits into the style and the mode of how we want to go and play. But he has to come back fit and he has to come back wanting to get into the team. I certainly would like a big look at them both because I've known a lot about them for the last two or three years.”
Wilder acknowledged the enormity of the rebuilding task that faces him. “There’s still a lots of work to be done on recruitment – It's massive. We're looking to bring somebody in on that department as well. One that’s got experience of this division and can look to go and bring in players that not only can get as out of this division.
“We are in this division for a reason, that's the top and bottom of it. We have to get out as soon as possible but there is also planning for players so if we do get out they can step up to the next level.”