IT’S all gone quite over there. At least that is what it seems like as anxious supporters wait for announcements over the tannoy at Bramall Lane of key summer signings.
Manager Chris Wilder, seven weeks into the job, has this week attempted to reassure fans that no news is good news. “We’ve held talks with lots of people and some of them we’ve rejected because they had demands we simply weren’t prepared to meet,” he said. “I’ve always maintained that you should pay the going rate, which we will, but not go above it.”
Given what predecessors Nigel Clough and Nigel Adkins burdened the club with, Wilder’s explanation of why adding to the squad he demolished on arrival with a single blow is such a slow process, sounds perfectly understandable.
Trouble is United fans have heard it all before. Many times. From Bryan Robson back in 2007 and seven managers later, with the exception of Clough and Danny Wilson, recruitment has always presented a major stumbling block.
Quite why that is so, especially for a club which is a big fish in a small pond, remains a mystery to frustrated onlookers. Take last season for example, if anyone can bear being reminded. Transfer windows came and went in August and January with little or nothing to show for the now cliched ‘hard work being the scenes’. How many times down the years have Blades fans heard that?
Remember a breathless Adkins arriving after kick-off for United’s Johnstone's Paint Trophy first round tie at Hartlepool at the beginning of September only to report that all his much publicised efforts had been in vain. Then there was the ongoing saga of unsuccessfully pursuing Fulham’s 6ft 7in defender Dan Burn who has just joined Wigan, newly-promoted to the Championship. It seemed to preoccupy Adkins. So much so four attempts were made to sign him.
Finally, as United’s faltering season showed no sign of recovering, United failed to bolster the squad yet again. The January window closed and with it any remaining hope, laughable though it was, of automatic promotion. As it turned out, any claim to the play-offs, too.
Yet since relegation from the Premier League nine years ago, the revolving door at Bramall Lane has been in danger of coming of its hinges. Players – and managers – have passed through with alarming regularity. It would seem to fly in the face of the perception that United have recruitment problems. Under Clough the club amassed more than 40 players.
Therein may lie the answer to a conundrum that has plagued the Lane. United have been hamstrung by a structural fault at the very top. No manner of boardroom reshuffles and changes of manager have altered that. Until, fingers crossed, now.
LACK OF DIRECTION
First and foremost is a lack of purpose and direction. Co-owner Kevin McCabe will argue otherwise, but a club of United’s size and fanbase about to spend a sixth successive year in League One tells its own story. Of the 15 clubs promoted during United’s prolonged stay, the might of Yeovil Town, Brentford, Rotherham, Barnsley and Burton Albion are among their number.
For all his financial prudence, McCabe and more recently partner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, have in their misguided and error-strewn strategy, wasted vast amounts off money. Most of it their own. In doing so it has cost the club even more in lost financial opportunities which are simply not available while languishing in League One.
I can almost hear McCabe answer the charge ‘do you think we really aim to do that?’ The answer, of course, is no which only emphasises mismanagement at the highest level that would simply not be tolerated in the real world. They’ve taken their eyes well and truly off the ball. Either that or have adopted a conceited 'we know best' attitude when the overwhelming evidence proves otherwise.
Recruitment in more recent years has been desperately poor. There appears to have been little control over what was allowed to happen. Amassing more than 40 players for example, many on over-generous contracts. How did that elephant slip through the gates of the zoo unnoticed?
The answer is that no-one at the top was looking. Result? When imbalances and inadequacies become apparent for all to see, United’s unchecked largesse transforms into a debilitating financial straightjacket during transfer windows. Periods when many on-the-field problems could be righted.
United, thankfully, now appear to be entering a new era. Wilder has been charged with improving attitudes in the squad while working under financial restrictions which none of his predecessors had to accept. “It’s important, vitally important in fact, that we bring the right people in,” said Wilder. “By that, I mean people who want to play for this football club and be proud to represent it rather than simply coming here for the money.”
It has taken five long years but it seems there is a now a realisation that reputation counts for little. Sheffield United is a third division club. Little big-time Charlies with over inflated egos and salaries to match don’t offer a way out. It merely creates a shelter for many has-beens, never-has-beens and nor-do-we-want-tos. The PFA may be pleased but it’s a serious drain on resources.
Now United are playing a new game. It’s called cutting your cloth according to your means and status from the start. With it brings new challenges. Wilder's managerial background suggests he is a perfect fit. Even so It’s not easy. Former United defender Kyle McFadzean, for example, is on the hit list and keen to return but MK Dons don’t wish to sell to a rival League One club. Another former Blade, and defender Matt Kilgallon, a free agent whose contract at Blackburn won't be renewed, is also a target. Wilder was quick off the mark after arriving, signing winger Mark Duffy from Birmingham City and Bury left-back Chris Hussey. Since then an uneasy calm has settled at the Lane.
Wilder says talks with a number of targets are at an advanced stage. There is no reason to doubt it. Even so, if he’s saying something similar in a couple of weeks’ time, you could be forgiven for worrying.