- Are you happy to accept the coming season as a period of consolidation – in other words making up the numbers – with a view to building a serious promotion challenge at a later date?
- Do you think the title-winning squad of last season is good enough to win promotion to the Premier League?
- Do the five additions to date plus the imminent arrival of Oxford United midfielder John Lundstram as reported on this site earlier this week, bring the prospect of promotion significantly nearer?
- Do you think investment being made in a squad about to launch into the Championship is ‘game-changing’ as has been promised?
DIRECTION of travel at Bramall Lane is unquestionable. So too the credentials of the man in the driving seat. Nonetheless with two weeks remaining before Sheffield United make a long-awaited return to the Championship a degree of puzzlement exists.
Rarely in my 47 years of watching the Blades has there been such a feel-good factor. Richly deserved. But after all the triumphalism of promotion and the title-winning party that endured long after the season ended, a new reality is beginning to creep under the radar.
It may well change between now and the summer transfer deadline on August 31, but from where United are to date, why else would they be so close to beginning the new campaign armed with only one player in the entire squad possessing current Championship experience. Recent arrival from Fulham Richard Stearman, a 29-year-old defender who spent last season on loan at Wolves.
A jaw-dropping stat. At face value it demonstrates an incredible amount of faith from manager Chris Wilder in the players who accrued a club-record 100 points and 92 goals on way to claiming the League One title. There is every reason to believe that same group can hold their own at the next level. But, unless you are willing to settle for the likelihood of being an also-ran, which we all know is not in manager Chris Wilder’s psyche, the gulf to be bridged between the top of the third tier and the higher echelon of the Championship is enormous.
If you accept this as an accurate portrayal we have to look elsewhere and ask the question: what is the scale of ambition of the club’s co-owners for the new season?
If any human is capable of walking unaided along the River Don it is Wilder. But are Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud gambling on yet another miracle from the man who won the League Two title at financially challenged Northampton Town. A club which on its way to promotion in 2015-16 for a time couldn’t even pay the wages. He followed that by transforming his beloved Blades on and off the pitch inside 12 incredible months. This is not an attempted criticism of the owners, it’s a legitimate enquiry which deserves an honest answer.
Most newly-promoted club’s from any tier first and foremost seek consolidation. For some in the Championship just staying there is realistically the height of ambition. With all due respect, Brentford, Millwall and Preston North End fit this category. Burton Albion, whose only goal can ever be survival, are punching well above their weight. It’s stating the obvious but Sheffield United Football Club is a very different beast.
Nevertheless if come next May the Blades secure a top half finish but fall short of the play-offs it’s safe to assume that for most fans it will be regarded as a good effort and something to build on having emerged from six years of League One blinking into the sunlight.
If that is also the case for Kevin McCabe and his partner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud it would explain a great deal about the current approach to life in the Championship. A suck-it-and-see policy handed down from the top and reasonably safe from public criticism.
Basically a season of financial prudence, recruiting from the lower leagues in the assured knowledge that boss Wilder will squeeze the maximum out of whatever is available to him. The universal appreciation he has earned among supporters inadvertently makes him great PR for McCabe and Prince Abdullah too, pictured below with the squad during their pre-season camp in Spain, effectively holding any criticism or frustration at bay if all doesn’t go to plan and the team struggles.
Have the owners been swayed by the Huddersfield model into making a calculated gamble? The Terriers are about to start life in the Premier League having got there on a budget less than that of Rotherham United’s who were relegated to League One. Not only that but Huddersfield did it with a minus goal difference and scoring only one goal in open play during any of their three play-off matches.
Is this a season to be sacrificed on the off chance of hitting the jackpot without having raised the stakes? If Wilder can perform another miracle, then great. If not then maybe then will be the time to bite the bullet and release significant funds to acquire proven, quality players to help ensure a serious assault on the top flight.
One of the boys
United co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud with King Billy Sharp and teammates during the pre-season trip to Spain.
Worst case scenario for United’s huge and loyal fanbase is that the owners have decided that the cost of seeking promotion, let alone the magnitude of gaining it, is too financially risk averse, hence the recent revelation that they are searching for new investors. There are noises coming from China where McCabe has major business interests and connections which have helped secure £1billion of planned development projects to Sheffield over the next 60 years. The Hualing Group, a United sponsor, are involved in several development projects in Manchester, Leeds and a digitial campus in Sheffield which also involves McCabe's Scarborough Group.
Football is now very much a business first and a sport second. If that is truly the financial position and neither McCabe nor Prince Abdullah are willing or able to move the club on to a new competitive footing, it won’t be what Unitedites want to hear but it would make undeniably good sense to maintain the line and wait for further funds.
That is, of course, if the input of the Saudi Prince who bought 50 per cent of United for £1 in 2013 and was described at the time by McCabe as a “game-changer” didn’t remain shrouded in mystery.
In an interview with BBC Radio Sheffield in February 2016 McCabe acknowledged that whilst his partner was providing support – he quoted a total of £15m at that time whilst then co-chairman Jim Phipps in a separate interview said it was £13m – the ‘game-changing’ aspect of the Prince’s involvement would not materialise until United reached the Championship.
Well they have now and judging from the club’s acquisitions, Stearman apart, it is hardly game-changing. In fact at first glance it is hugely disappointing.
Of the remaining four summer recruits so far only Ched Evans and Enda Stevens have played in the Championship, last kicking a ball there five and three years ago respectively. A sixth, as reported earlier this week on this site, Oxford United captain and midfielder, John Lundstram is set to join them.
Again the 23-year-old has spent most of his career in the lower two leagues. He has limited Championship experience, but compared to the other arrivals looks a positive veteran. The last of which was his 17th appearance at Blackpool in November 2014, one of six loan deals from Everton before finding a permanent home at the Kassam Stadium, then in League Two. Prior to his spell at Bloomfield Road, he also had 14 Championship outings with Yeovil.
Stevens spent his last couple of seasons with Portsmouth in League Two. His only Championship experience (12 appearances) was on loan to Doncaster from League Two Northampton in 2013-14. Much is made of Stevens’ Premier League background. In truth he made just seven appearances for Aston Villa in the top flight five seasons ago. From Premier League to the basement of the English Football League, it has to be surmised his career path found its natural level.
George Baldock, a 24-year-old winger from League One MK Dons, has 17 Championship appearances to his name after being recalled from his fifth loan spell by MK Dons in their relegation year two seasons ago. He has spent his career in the lower leagues. Nathan Thomas, no Championship experience, a winger, was part of the Hartlepool team which lost League status and are set to start life in the Vanarama National League.
All are promising players from the levels they have came from. Thomas, for example, still managed to score nine goals in a desperately poor team and Stevens is a defender with potential who has attracted admiring glances for some time. They are accomplished lower league triers with much to prove on a bigger stage, the type of players United’s boss likes to develop. But surely not core additions which are going to turn the Blades into a team challenging at the top end of the Championship.
Evans, of course, is an entirely different proposition. He scored 35 goals for the Blades in his last season before being found guilty of rape and jailed, a conviction that has since been quashed by the Court of Appeal. A retrial found Evans innocent. The former Wales International, who was out of the game for four years and is now 28, may well prove to be a key signing if he can overcome injury and fitness issues which hampered the resumption of his stalled career at Chesterfield last term. Then again he may not. In short his return to Bramall Lane is a gamble worth taking but no more than that.
News this week that club captain Billy Sharp, Paul Coutts and Chris Basham have signed two-year contracts and Kieron Freeman has accepted a three-year deal – what a turnaround his career has had under Wilder – was hardly a surprise. But imagine how fragile it would look if they weren’t there. The heart of the team would be missing and survival would more likely be the name of the game.
But business model United operate means they won't break wage structure to bring in better quality additions to the squad.
Then there is the £4.5m windfall United will receive as their share of ex-Blade Kyle Walker’s, pictured, £45m transfer from Tottenham to Manchester City. It could rise to £50m-plus with add-ons, Wilder has already made public that he hopes a portion of the cash will be made available to him. But given the model United currently operate the type of players most likely to make an impact command wages which would upset the Blades’ pay structure. So the current model itself is prohibitive to stepping up the gears.
Keeping the club on a sustainable financial footing is, of course, paramount. If you don’t have a solid foundation the building will crumble. Which puts United at a crossroads. The Championship has changed beyond recognition since they were last there in 2011. What Huddersfield achieved last season was a probably never to be repeated exception to the rule that if you want to play with the big boys you have to be prepared to pay for it.
So what about those four questions.
- Are you happy to accept the coming season as a period of consolidation – in other words making up the numbers – with a view to building a serious promotion challenge at a later date? Speaking personally, no but I’m fairly confident it will be a popular view providing obvious signs of progress are there.
- Do you think the title-winning squad of last season is good enough to win promotion to the Premier League? I would suggest the common sense answer, unless you view United through rose-tinted spectacles, is no.
- Do the five additions (and a sixth, John Lanstrum is imminent) bring the prospect of promotion significantly nearer? Again, I would think not.
- Do you think investment being made in a team about to launch into the Championship is ‘game-changing’ as has been promised? We all surely know the answer to that one.
If United have learnt anything from the last six years it is surely treading water, albeit unintentionally, is not a good strategy. The increased riches on offer in the Premier League only make it significantly more difficult year-on-year to win a ticket to the show in the first place.
Relegated clubs arrive to the Championship with huge overheads but, initially at least, huge advantages as well. As the years pass it is becoming increasingly populated with them. If Huddersfield finish bottom of the pile next season, they will be between £170m-£185m richer for the experience. Should they remain in the Premier League for another term those earnings will rise to a minimum £290m. This is Huddersfield Town we are talking about. The divide between the haves and the relative have-nots is beginning to mirror what happened in the Premier League.
Then, of course, there is the sideshow of being in the same division as the noisy neighbours. Should Sheffield Wednesday be challenging in the top half of the table and the Blades are not, perish the thought, it will be a constant thorn in the club’s side and alter the perception of many supporters who are currently fully onboard.
United, riding the crest of a wave and increased season ticket sales which will guarantee average attendances of up to 25,000, have been building steady momentum. They need to capitalise on that and strike while the iron is hot. This isn’t the moment for faint hearts or eternal optimisim. There are six weeks left in the transfer window. Still time to change tack and try to give the Blades and Chris Wilder the fighting chance they deserve.
It all boils down to ambition and what you want from your football club. A top half Championship side, occasionally enjoying a good cup run – that is for the most part the Sheffield United I have known and loved since the beginning of the 1970s – or something more? If it is the latter then there is no point in waiting if you have the means.
The first option provides the nearest guarantee of fiscal sustainability given United’s large and loyal fanbase; the latter is a great deal more risky.
It is said fortune favours the brave. It can even be a game-changer if you'll pardon the pun. Kevin McCabe has made many mistakes over the years but he has also kept United's head above water during difficult times and built an infrastructure he can be proud of. He must surely be having doubts about the partner who paid him a quid for a 50 per cent share of the club but in the absence of available evidence is not delivering what was expected.
Until the sought-after additional investment arrives, maybe we’ve had all the answers.