WHAT COULD be a more fitting accolade for all that Chris Wilder has achieved in a remarkably short space of time if Sheffield United prepared for next weekend's Steel City showdown at Hillsborough as Championship leaders. Until Saturday, a day prior to the match, at least.
That is a real possibility if the Blades beat Norwich City at Bramall Lane and results at Millwall and Cardiff City are favourable. Add to that Kevin McCabe’s victory, fought completely under the radar, in forcing co-owning partner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to finally show an intention of fulfilling his promise of major investment, this after buying 50 per cent of United for just £1 four years ago, and the future looks promising.
United boss Wilder probably won't admit it, but you can be sure he quickly did the maths following a midweek victory at Bolton Wanderers which embodied everything about the manager’s philosophy and moved United up to third in the table.
Only a few weeks ago most supporters including life-long Blade Wilder on his own admission, were not sure quite what to expect as the United became reacquainted with football's second tier following a six-year absence.
Now if they extend their winning league run to five matches and pace-setters Leeds lose at Millwall, neighbours Sheffield Wednesday will put the Blades in poll position if they avoid defeat at Neil Warnock's second-placed Cardiff eight days before the showdown at Hillsborough. A script straight from Roy of the Rovers. If Leeds were to draw, United would go joint top on points, second on goal difference.
These are early days, of course. Whatever happens at the Lane, The Den or Cardiff City Stadium is not an accurate indicator of how the picture might look at the turn of the year when men are traditionally separated from the boys.
Should United be looking down from the top of the mountain, however, after just eight matches with six wins and two defeats, one of which would have been a draw but for a late equaliser being wrongly ruled out at Middlesbrough, inevitably the conversation will turn to what if? Concerning, of course, the financial clout, or rather lack of it, which manager Wilder was able to wield in the summer transfer window? The good news is that the question of what if has become a case of when.
It is becoming increasingly clear after initial doubts the core group of players who performed so spectacularly to win the League One title last season are capable of delivering much more in the Championship. Wilder, with his grounded, tried-and-tested formula continues to squeeze the maximum out of them. It has disguised meticulous work done on the training ground and made the step up in class appear almost seamless.
Ten summer signings, all but two from the lower leagues with defender Richard Stearman, wing-back Enda Stevens and striker Clayton Donaldson being the picks, have made the Blades stronger. Tellingly, Stearman and Donaldson were the only two playing in the Championship last season. But even eternal optimists must admit that after recruitment within a surprisingly limited budget United remain short on quality to make the dream a reality. Especially up front where the fitness of Billy Sharp and now Donaldson is absolutely crucial.
If Wilder maintains a top six position come New Year's Day can the kind of investment that was anticipated but never materialised in the summer be expected in the January transfer window?
The answer is almost certainly in the affirmative. A boardroom reshuffle – yes, yet another one – announced on the eve of the trip to Sunderland in a successful attempt to avoid much analysis, is possibly the most significant of its kind for many years at the Lane.
Providing United are in position as serious promotion contenders Prince Abdullah appears ready, at last, to step up to the plate.
McCabe who for so long solely shouldered financial responsibility, has been waiting patiently for the Saudi royal to live up to expectation ever since his “game-changing” arrival in September 2013. An additional investor, most likely from China where property developer McCabe and his Scarborough Group has extensive business interests, may be in place before the January transfer window opens. Resignations from the Board of McCabe's sons, Scott and Simon, announced last week is almost certainly the pre-curser to a very different looking set-up.
In a rather pointed statement from the club, there was great emphasis placed on McCabe’s long-standing commitment and his family ’s investment “of more than £100million directly into the football club”.
In what sounded like preparation for taking a step back, it also offered a reminder of the club’s structural development under his stewardship, the ground itself, the now renowned Academy at Shirecliffe, the Junior Development Centre at Crookes and funds provided by the family’s Scarborough Foundation to support the SUFC Community Foundation which it set up and other charitable causes.
The most illuminating part of the statement is contained in a direct quote from McCabe. "It is to be remembered that a key reason in Prince Abdullah joining us four years ago was not only his clear belief in the Blades potential to succeed and grow as a business, but also as a result of the McCabe Family providing a 50% interest in BLL (Blades Leisure Limited), concurrent to him committing new capital required to aid our joint aim of getting the Blades back into the top echelons of English football.”
In other words, McCabe who had been manfully shouldering the burden until Prince Abdullah’s cut-price arrival in 2013, has run out of patience with his ‘silent’ partner and is now putting the ball firmly in the Saudi royal’s half of the pitch.
Apparently Prince Abdullah, who remains a man of mystery to supporters, has decided to take a bit more interest in the Blades. McCabe says: “Sheffield United's return to the Championship this season coincided with Prince Abdullah being able to commit more time and energy to the Club, emphasised by his recent return as a Director of SUFC and BLL.” This despite supporters initially being told that the Prince’s role as General President of Youth Welfare in the Saudi government precluded him from hands-on involvement at the Lane.
McCabe continued: “Since promotion the Prince, along with fellow Director Tareq Hawasli, new Board representative Yusuf Giansiracusa and other colleagues from Saudi Arabia and Europe, have demonstrated their desire to increase their involvement in directing and overseeing SUFC's management. We see this as a positive move that should further benefit our fine and proud Club.”
McCabe, whose interests on the club and BBL Boards will now be represented by directors Stephen Bettis, Martin Green and Jeremy Tutton, chief financial officer of Scarborough Group International, concludes: “"The McCabes remain on hand to introduce Board members and the Club's Executive to important individuals in the world of football known to us here in the UK and Internationally.”
Sheffield-born McCabe has had a love-hate relationship with supporters. Many hold him personally responsible for United’s dramatic fall from grace and prolonged League One oblivion aided by disastrous managerial appointments and in some cases dismissals.
He would maybe agree he got more wrong than right but in Wilder he’s finally come up trumps. Whatever else you may criticise him for, no-one can surely argue about his commitment to stay the course in some desperately difficult times. And, of course, he is a Blade. Under McCabe United have remained very much a club which bonds closely with fans and local community.
If and when he does move aside United will be in the hands of a Saudi led regime with the likelihood of Chinese involvement. Cash aplenty, maybe, and the now ubiquitous route towards sustainable competition at the highest level.
But the beating heart of the club will also become purely a financial opportunity. Exciting times but be careful what you wish for.