CONSPIRACY theories moved into overdrive this week when Sheffield United defender John Brayford appeared to have announced on Twitter he had quit Bramall Lane in favour of Championship Wigan.
@brayfordjohn along with his thousands of followers suddenly disappeared from the social media network. More excitable Unitedites went into meltdown. It proved to be a hoax. Brayford’s Twitter account had either been hacked or accessed by someone close to him who has undergone a humour bypass. Maybe it was just done in malice and as it has been suggested to me, Photoshopped.
The incident moved United manager Chris Wilder to publicly deny the defender was about to leave the Lane for Wigan. “John isn’t the first and he won’t be the last to get caught up in stuff,” was Wilder’s response to BBC Radio Sheffield’s Andy Giddings’ enquiry about the incident.
That despite the manager’s media minder, whom in true Stalinist fashion, took it upon himself to interrupt the interview twice with “can we shut up, can we shut up” which Wilder, quite rightly, ignored. United’s PR operation is almost non existent, naive at best, when it comes to dealing with external issues. It appears nothing has changed.
Even so there is inevitably a school of thought remaining that there is no smoke without fire. Could Brayford be heading to Wigan as part of a deal to bring Sam Morsy, the former Chesterfield midfielder who is on Wilder’s wanted list, to Bramall Lane? Adding fuel to the flames was another account which made a sudden departure from Twitter. That of transfer-listed Paul Coutts.
Whether or not events concerning Brayford’s social media troubles have any credence should fans be surprised that the 28-year-old, widely regarded after Billy Sharp as the best player in United’s squad, may be used as a bargaining chip if need be?
When fully fit and in form there is no doubt Brayford is a quality player and a huge asset. But he is also a dinosaur of United’s recent past and under the sweeping new regime it is very much up him to square the circle. Wilder suggested as much in a radio interview shortly after arriving at Bramall Lane, saying: “Whatever type of management I have got to impose on John, whether he needs a rocket, whether he needs an arm around we'll have to assess that.”
A right-back was well down the list of priorities when former manager Nigel Clough signed Brayford in January 2015. Certainly not one costing £1.5million which remains an extraordinary sum for a League One club to pay. Add to that the personal deal he was offered. A three-and-half year contract and a salary to match, making him the highest paid player at the Lane. With the possible exception of Sharp, that remains the case.
Then ask yourself why Brayford, who was a Premier League player when Cardiff City first loaned him to United and a Championship player when he rejoined permanently, was happy to drop down to the third tier of English football? The answer, of course, is a cosy relationship with Clough whom he played under at Burton Albion and Derby County and a belief that United would be returning to the Championship sooner rather than later.
It was Clough’s cosy relationship with United managing director Mal Brannigan, sacked last December, also formed when they were at Derby, that ensured United offered fools gold to ensure a player the club did not need had a comfortable and highly paid future until July 2018. That's what friends are for. Now only Brayford remains from the ménage `a trois. Sharp, of course, also chose to step down the ladder to League One. But that is understandable given the Sheffield-born striker's allegiance and history with the club along with family ties.
Pet projects, thankfully, appear to be very much a thing of the past under current boss Wilder who has an uncompromising approach. Unlike Nigel Adkins who eulogised over Dean Hammond and Clough who sounded more like a proud parent when discussing an under-performing Brayford.
It was Brayford’s energy, his ranging runs from deep on the right flank and delivery into the oppositions box during his three-and-a-half-month loan spell in 2014 that won over the hearts of United fans.
His return has been something different. Even taking into account injury which took six months to recover from, Brayford’s contribution has been average. Very average. He has also been part of a defence now universally accepted as having not been fit for purpose. To date, during his 44 appearances for the club since signing permanently, United shipped 46 goals. He was also part of the team that scraped the barrel in a 1-0 home defeat to Burton Albion last season. Crewe, Fleetwood and at relegated Yeovil the season before.
Brayford starts the new campaign with one of the most enviable contracts in the club and the supporters’ backing. But he also has the most to prove to a manager who hinted shortly after being appointed in May that he is expecting much more.
“I saw that same player in that [loan] period when he was outstanding,” said Blades fan Wilder. “Maybe John has had a little bit of a dip.”
Harsh as it may sound Brayford is an expensive luxury. More so if he fails to match his new manager’s expectations. For a man who has been well within his comfort zone for far too long, it might just be the kick up the backside he needs.
A calculation remains, however, as to just how valuable he is to the squad as opposed to the club, especially as youngster Che Adams looks increasingly likely to command the Blades asking price of £2million from suitors.
Add a similar sum for Brayford – optimistic I know – in a cash and/or player deal and Wilder would have close to £4million at his disposal to improve the squad. Given the ability he has already shown in the transfer market that would be hugely beneficial. The pros would surely outweigh the cons.
For now, though, Brayford remains a Blade and can make a big contribution as United attempt to escape League One at the sixth time of asking. It’s up to him and Wilder, conscious of his financial restraints, will be watching closely.
“In my opinion we will have the best two fullbacks [Chris Hussey, signed from Bury being the other one] in the division,” said Wilder. “Both of them can go forward and create and both of them can defend.
“For us it's a challenge to get John back up to the heights he was. If it happens John is going to be a big player for us this year.”