A FASCINATING article by Henry Winter, Chief Football Writer at The Times, delves deep into the Sheffield United's ethos and offers another insight into the thinking of club co-owner Kevin McCabe's plans for the future.
Winter visited the training ground at Shirecliffe to see for himself what the club is all about; it's working class principles which mirrors the city, it's zero tolerance policy on egos and a pride in its 'one of our own' policy which has produced the likes of Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire who has six tickets in the Leppings Lane end for the Steel City derby.
McCabe reveals why he believes the football being played under manager Chris Wilder is the best since the days of Tony Currie; his reason for keeping faith with striker Ched Evans; his continuing sense of injustice over the Carlos Tevez affair. He also fires a broadside at the FA for not doing enough to enable the likes of United from safeguarding promising youngsters who are cherry-picked by bigger clubs when they are not ready.
Talking about the controversy which surrounded Evans, causing a national uproar, McCabe revealed: “I dealt with it by seeing the lad, to assimilate (establish) to myself whether I was going to sack him. When I heard his story, which I didn’t like one iota as an older guy like myself coming from a different era, I knew he hadn’t committed a crime. So that’s how he got my support.”
In what amounts to confirmation that he is nearing a decision to take a back seat, McCabe adds: "The family still owns the real estate because I don’t want: a), for us to play in blue and white, and b), to move away from Bramall Lane, at least in my lifetime. Whoever actually takes over, I want them to have a real feel for what Sheffield United’s about: foundations deep in the community.”
On a return to the top flight he says: “We’re anxious — desperate — to get back to the Premier League. Look, Sheffield desperately needs two Premier League clubs to boost profile, prosperity. With both Wednesday and United there’s a passion. Sheffield’s a much bigger football city than Leeds and Newcastle."
As United make the final preparations for their visit to Hillsborough, boss Wilder added his two-penneth. “The club represents a working-class background at its very best, based in the heart of the city. We consider it a city club, where the other lot down the road (Wednesday) is outside.”
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By HENRY WINTER, Chief Football Writer
Sheffield United were not surprised when Harry Maguire, one of their famous old boys, contacted them to buy tickets among the travelling fans heading to Hillsborough for the Steel City derby tomorrow. Like Kyle Walker, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and many others, Maguire has never forgotten how the Blades gave him a chance.
Sheffield United are not the type to boast but there have been a few quiet smiles amid the sweat at their dream factory, the SteelPhalt Academy at Shirecliffe. They have just been ranked eighth in the list of clubs whose academy graduates have played most minutes in the Premier League, a source of great pride for their co-owner, Kevin McCabe.
“Maguire, Walker and Calvert-Lewin will always be part of the club, their roots come back to Sheffield United,” McCabe says, watching training on a brisk autumnal morning. With him is his young, impressive academy manager, Travis Binnion, who adds: “Harry ordered six tickets in the away end at Hillsborough. Kyle will be there if he can.”
The “one of our own” feel stretches from McCabe to manager Chris Wilder and captain Billy Sharp and also Binnion, a former youth-team player here. “Chairman, manager and captain are all fans, you don’t get that elsewhere,” Binnion says. “We have the branding ‘Forged in Steel’ and that’s powerful. Honesty, integrity and respect are the three words we hammer into them all the time, round the dinner table, on the bus, representing the club. With Chris Wilder as manager, you’ve got no chance of surviving if you’re big-time here. The club doesn’t tolerate any egos.
“We work on life skills. We sent our first-year scholars to asphalt producers, recycling, grafting for a week, dealing with rat shit, some in overalls in a foundry, night-times playing non-League teams and training to show them, ‘If I’m not going to be a footballer, it’ll be this’. It almost broke a couple of them.”
Such is the quality of the development programme that elite clubs watch and pounce. “The big clubs try to hoover up the best players, serenade the parents, give perks,” McCabe says. “With the FA, there’s rhetoric but never any action. The worst example was Jacob Mellis. Chelsea took him; if he’d been with us another two years, he’d have been a better person as well as player. Where’s he now?”
Mansfield Town in League Two. “He would have played in the first team here, in the Championship at 17, 18, instead of falling down,” Carl Shieber, the head of football administration, says. “The sad thing is we’d get less for Mellis now (under the Elite Player Performance Plan), £130,000, than back then when it was still peanuts, £400,000.”
Binnion emphasises the “pathway” offered outside the Premier League. “Look at the England team, all those who have come through EFL because of opportunity and grounding: John Stones (Barnsley), Dele Alli (MK Dons), Joe Hart (Shrewsbury Town), Harry Maguire here. I can’t see these top clubs blooding them.
“You might be at City and then gone because some Mexican comes in. We got Brooksy (David Brooks) out of City at 17, wow, technically different class. He didn’t want to win the ball back at City, but we look at what he might be, we persevere.
“He got player of the tournament at Toulon (with England this summer). Hopefully we can keep him. But there will be a price. It will be a good chunk of money for us. Look at little Sammy (Ompreon) there, blue boots, unbelievably talented, in the mould of David Brooks, but Chelsea can just spit him out. Chelsea released him in December, we took him, we have invested in him for the next three years. He’s technically outstanding, but look at him, he won’t be a man until he’s 20.”
Talk turns to the loss of Aaron Ramsdale, a promising goalkeeper, to Bournemouth. “Little old Bournemouth,” McCabe sighs. “But they are in the league that’s got the cash.
“He was given a 300 per cent wage increase,” Shieber shrugs. “What could we do? Manchester City were interested in Ramsdale, and their response in January when Bournemouth put the bid in was if it goes well, we’ll just pay for him later on. The same thing that happened with Kyle Walker (via Spurs).”
The food chain is well established. “If parents are offered a house in Sale, with private education for the kid, and a seven-year contract, not many players turn that down,” Binnion adds. “These kids earn so much money so early that it must be hard not only for the players but for their families to stay on track.”
We stroll back to the pavilion canteen, soon joined by the lithe, cheery figure of Derek Geary, formerly of Wednesday and United, and now lead coach of the under-18s. “Kids are spoilt rotten, they get pampered,” Geary argues. “I made my debut at Wednesday and had Des Walker beside me, and you’d expect someone like that to help, but he hammered me. Even after 50 league games, Des still had me making tea, and saying, ‘You’re not good enough yet’.
“It was the best thing that happened to me. Now they’ve played one game and (say) ‘I don’t have to make tea’. When I was at Wednesday, they told me I was too small. I used that as a motivation. Jamie Vardy got there because he was released by Wednesday, that was the bump he needed.”
We head to Bramall Lane to catch up with Wilder. On the way, McCabe points to various projects supported by the club. “We serve the city,” he says. “I’m steward of an institution. International owners have got to grasp that. I was born across the street from the ground. I go back before Tony Currie (1968-76), my initial idol was Joe Shaw (1945-66) and Alan Hodgkinson (1954-71).”
On arrival at Bramall Lane, McCabe admires the statues of Shaw and of the former chairman, Derek Dooley, standing about 30 yards from the South Stand. “I deliberately placed the statues there as the (new) entrance to the stadium (with the planned new stand cantilevering out). We have consent at Bramall Lane to extend it to 45,000.
“We’re anxious — desperate — to get back to the Premier League. Look, Sheffield desperately needs two Premier League clubs to boost profile, prosperity. With both Wednesday and United there’s a passion. Sheffield’s a much bigger football city than Leeds and Newcastle. Bramall Lane is the oldest stadium in the world. We’re the world’s oldest United.”
McCabe finds some of the Premier League excesses distasteful. “Having to cope with the obscene amount of money for players, who become mercenaries, and stomach the amount of money paid out for agents’ fees plus salary packages, is not my cup of tea. Football has got out of control. It will only cure itself and get back to the people’s game if something drastic happens, like a broadcasting organisation getting into trouble.”
Such a scenario seems unlikely, especially with possible new bidders such as Facebook being mentioned.
Relegation in 2007 still rankles with McCabe. West Ham were fined £5.5million by the Premier League for fielding an ineligible player in Carlos Tevez but, crucially, were not deducted points so they stayed up instead.
“It was an improper injustice over Tevez,” McCabe recalls. “I don’t forget it. Am I bitter about it? Not really, I get on with life, I still speak to the executive chairman Richard Scudamore but the governance of the Premier League was disgraceful. They never, ever once put to the tribunal between themselves and West Ham to deduct points. West Ham admitted it, they cheated, they lied getting Javier Mascherano and Tevez. I look back and think, why the hell did it happen to this club? Even the Ched Evans affair, why is it Sheffield United?”
Evans served two and a half years after being convicted of rape, was found not guilty after a retrial, and has now returned to the club. “When you’re in charge, you can’t back away, you have to cope with it,” McCabe says. “I dealt with it by seeing the lad, to assimilate (establish) to myself whether I was going to sack him. When I heard his story, which I didn’t like one iota as an older guy like myself coming from a different era, I knew he hadn’t committed a crime. So that’s how he got my support.”
Did he discuss the support of Evans with representatives of the club’s ladies’ team? “We talked to people inside the club. It’s been proven that the lad was innocent, the girl didn’t press (charges), she didn’t say she’d been raped, she thought she’d lost her handbag, and the police told her their interpretation. It’s not our problem any more. But, hey, the lad was worth an awful lot of money who would have got us automatic promotion.”
So was it a football or financial decision? “It was principle. But the abuse we took for it has changed my view of life in general, the death threats, non-stop abusive phone calls, you couldn’t believe it. It got to the stage where the only thing I could do was say no to Ched to protect my own people here.”
He remembers other testing times, relegation on the last day of the 1993-94 season. “Two-one up against Chelsea, lost 3-2,” McCabe says. “It’s a heart-attack club.” He enters Wilder’s office and the manager quickly adds to the narrative. “It’s not a club for the faint-hearted and what’s gone over Tevez, Ched,” Wilder says. But it is special.
“The club represents a working-class background at its very best, based in the heart of the city. We consider it a city club, where the other lot down the road (Wednesday) is outside.”
McCabe clearly enjoys listening to the locally born Wilder. “Chris didn’t have the best of starts last season but the fans tolerated it because he’s our lad. It is unusual to have a culture from Chris, Billy and myself. There’s an understanding of what the club is, that passion, give your all on the field of play.
It’s the best football I’ve seen since the Tony Currie days. Dave Bassett and Neil Warnock were great managers but it was very much direct. I’d only ever speak to Neil when we were losing because when we were winning he was like a dog with two tails!”
I want them to have a real feel for what Sheffield United’s about Wilder smiles. “Supporters have been brought up with Currie, Alan Woodward, Len Badger, they want to see decent football, front foot, wanting to make tackles. We want to make this place a tough place to come and get points, without anything naughty going off on the way from the train station to the ground, we don’t want our supporters or my team making it easy.” McCabe laments, “We’ve still got bloody idiots, supporters who let us down.”
So what of the future? Will his sons carry it on? “Look, Simon lives in Beaconsfield, works out of London. Scott lives two hours away. The answer is I don’t think so. It will be their decision. I’ve got (co-owner) Prince Abdullah, nice guy, he’s beginning to understand. The family still owns the real estate because I don’t want: a), for us to play in blue and white, and b), to move away from Bramall Lane, at least in my lifetime. Whoever actually takes over, I want them to have a real feel for what Sheffield United’s about: foundations deep in the community.”