JOHN BRAYFORD divides opinion among Sheffield United fans almost as much as the man who signed him, Nigel Clough.
News the right-back has rejoined his former boss for the fourth time in what is a second coming at Burton Albion for both of them, came as a surprise to some. In truth it should surprise no-one.
Many regard his season-long loan as further evidence that United’s top brass are more concerned with cost cutting rather than a full commitment to return Championship football next season. Others, dismayed at Brayford’s poor contribution, regard the deal as good business off the pitch and no loss on it.
It is true to say the 28-year-old – nicknamed The Beard – had been living off the back of a three-and-a-half month loan spell at Bramall Lane which began in January 2014. His form was sensational and made him a firm favourite of Unitedites from the word go.
His enthusiasm, driving runs down the right flank and supply into the box were key in United’s rise to seventh-place finish. A remarkable recovery under Clough who succeeded David Weir the previous October when United languished in 18th spot.
The Brayford who returned in January 2015 was a shadow of his former self. The deal that Clough and then managing director Mal Brannigan, both previously together at Derby as was Brayford, brokered was eye-watering. A £1.5million fee paid to Cardiff and the defender received a five-figure salary – believed to be £15,000-a-week – guaranteed for three-and-a-half years. That’s £780,000 per annum. A contract worth £2.7m. Put like that it’s difficult to make a case for the player who in total, including his loan spell, made 68 appearances and scored four goals.
How it was ever allowed to happen for a club languishing in League One remains a mystery. Almost needless to say the main protagonists are no longer at the club and now Brayford himself has left the building. But it does explain major shake-ups in the boardroom.
United yesterday parted company with Martyn Woodford having agreed a financial settlement on the remainder of his two-year contract, also believed to have been a five-figure salary. Woodford has joined Fleetwood Town in a 12-month deal.
He follows another of former boss Nigel Adkins’ favourites, Dean Hammond, who received in the region of £17,000 a week and took up an option of a 12-month contract which was part of his initial loan deal from Leicester City. Who on earth agreed to that? And why didn’t co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud block it? Hammond left with what we must believe was at least a negotiated £500,000 windfall.
New manager Chris Wilder made it clear that neither player would have any part in his set up and both made it clear that they were going nowhere without an appropriate financial settlement. Brayford, unlike Hammond and Woolford, remained a useful asset on the pitch, despite his rapid decline. It is now clear, however, that United regarded his salary another unnecessary burden.
Ironic then that Clough’s Burton who could not even dream of affording Brayford on a permanent basis, are now picking up some of the bill for the next 12 months. The former Blades boss gave the game away when he said: “It’s a good opportunity for him to put himself in the shop window in the Championship again.” So there you have it. Uncle Clough, who has signed Brayford at Burton twice, Derby and United where he helped negotiate a stonking deal for his pal, is now putting him in the shop window to give him yet another leg up with other people’s money.
Brayford has contributed nothing since returning from serious injury in the first leg of the play-off semi-final under Clough which forced him out for six months before returning last November. His original inflated value has plummeted so this latest arrangement at least works in United’s favour. It reduces the wage bill and should the player rediscover his form it will enhance his transfer value.
If a new, rejuvenated Brayford is seen at the Pirelli Stadium, it will inevitably call into question how sincere his commitment was at Bramall Lane. Which would be a shame. Brayford was a popular character around Sheffield, embracing the city and making many friends. Despite in the end being a let-down, Unitedites will, I suspect, give him a warm welcome should he ever visit the Lane.
Blades boss Wilder said: “This is an opportunity for John to return to the Championship and, of course, he has worked with Nigel Clough on a number of occasions previously.
"This loan enables us to reinvest in other areas before the end of the transfer window. I feel we already have cover in that area of the pitch and we'll look to strengthen in the coming days."
It is something of a comedown for Wilder who only a few weeks ago boasted he had at his disposal the best two fullbacks in League One. Brayford clearly didn’t meet his expectation and neither has Chris Hussey, one of the manager’s first additions who has looked vulnerable at left-back.
Many observers have commented on Brayford’s apparent lack of interest in his four appearances this season. It now looks as if he knew the club were anxious to offload him. Clough almost revealed as much, saying: “When we heard John was available it was a no-brainer to sign him.”