JOHN BRAYFORD must have driven from Sheffield United’s training base for the final time with mixed feelings as the summer transfer window drew to a close.
The 29-year-old defender arrived at Sheffield United amid a fanfare, quickly establishing himself as a firm favourite with supporters and the dressing room. In stark contrast his departure almost went unnoticed.
Unfortunately for the likeable Brayford his unwanted presence at United following the appointment of manager Chris Wilder in May last year, was much more about previous regimes under Nigel Clough in particular, and Nigel Adkins than the player.
It also tells you all you need to know about managing director Mal Brannigan’s dismissal, dressed up as mutual consent, in December 2015. He and Clough, sacked seven months earlier and who also plotted closely on transfer dealings when at Derby County, worked hand-in-glove and were mistakenly trusted by club owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Brayford was signed for £1.5million on a three-and-a-half year contract by Clough and wages believed to be £15,000-a-week. That’s £780,000-a-year; just shy of £2.7m over the period of the deal. When you consider the size of the fee and personal terms driven by Clough and Brannigan when United were well ensconced in League One, as pointed out by ViewFromTheJohnStreet.com at the time, the recklessness of it is breathtaking. Ultimately the club's co-owners must have been asleep at the helm.
In other circumstances Brayford could well have been an important part of Wilder’s Championship squad. After Chris Hussey became the manager’s first signing he described the former Bury defender, now on loan at Swindon, and Brayford as by far the best fullbacks in League One. “Shows what I know,” Wilder smiled recently. Hussey made nine starts for United, only 11 appearances in total. His last league outing was in October last year. Brayford made only four appearances under Wilder before being loaned to Burton.
Another of Clough’s signings, ex-Derby defender Kieron Freeman, pictured below, also transfer listed, knuckled down to prove his worth in the right wing-back role, becoming one of the big success stories of last season’s title-winning campaign. Freeman may not be as quick as Brayford but he is arguably more accomplished.
Kieron Freeman stepped up to fill the vacancy left by John Brayford's loan to Burton last season and is now widely regarded as the better player.
If Brayford, who last week rejoined Clough, Burton Albion’s boss, for the fourth time in his career, was that particular manager’s pet project at the expense of United’s bank balance, Dean Hammond infamously represented the same for successor Adkins at the Lane. The Blades wage bill under him spiralled to £6m. That was three times the average for football’s third tier and the largest in the division.
Hammond’s loan deal from Leicester included a clause which United had inexplicably agreed, entitling him to a year’s contract at the end of it. His signature was barely dry before being transfer-listed. Tellingly there were no takers and the club paid him off.
Brayford also transfer-listed and with no takers but Clough waiting hawkishly in the wings, left United with a cheque to cover the remainder of his contract due to run until next summer. Comparisons with Hammond, however, should be limited to financial matters. As players they were chalk and cheese. Hammond, Adkins’ poster boy, contributed very little to absolutely nothing at the Lane, a passenger in midfield much to supporters’ frustration.
Brayford, with his penetrating runs and delivery from right-back, made a huge impression during a spectacular loan spell from Cardiff. True, when he returned six months later in January 2015 for the Clough-inspired mega deal, he never recaptured that form, especially after injury. But the player who also operated at centre-half when needs be, remained an important member of the team and retained his relationship with the fans.
Wilder, talking about use of the budget made available to him for the promotion-winning campaign, mentioned that owners McCabe and Prince Abdullah “had been caught with their pants down” on occasions in the past.
It is the legacy of such trouser-wrenching deals that have resulted in a far more guarded approach and reliance on the current manager’s ability to extract the maximum out of what is available to him. This summer’s transfer activity has been business-like but far from what many Blades fans were expecting.
Given Wilder’s nous and no-nonesense approach, had he been trusted with a budget designed to launch a serious promotion challenge, it may have paid dividends. The word ‘may’ is now clearly a bridge too far for McCabe and the Saudi Prince who have settled for life in the Championship at least until another major investor is brought on board. What that says about the Prince, once heralded as a "game-changer" by McCabe, is unclear.
Brayford appeared to have a genuine affection for United, forged by a bond with supporters during that initial loan period from Cardiff then of the Premier League. On returning to the Blades after claiming he’d taken a 50 per cent pay cut, he said: “Once Cardiff agreed the deal I don’t think personal terms would have been issue. I have fond memories of this place. It’s special.” Easy to say in the knowledge that he had secured a particularly good renumeration package but probably a genuine sentiment all the same.
Clough, however, has had the last laugh. First he took Brayford on loan to Burton last season with United subsidising the Brewers by still paying part of the player's considerable wages. Cash which the sacked Blades boss was originally instrumental in securing. Then Clough’s cat-and-mouse strategy over the summer in the knowledge that he was always going to be reunited with Brayford, boxed the Blades into a corner.
Wilder even went so far as going public about the possibility of integrating Brayford back into the sqaud. An effort maybe to force Burton’s hand. Clough, however, held firm compelling United to face reality and strike a deal with the costly player deemed superfluous to requirements. The proceeds of which compensate Brayford for a considerable drop in salary at the Pirelli Stadium where he signed a two-year deal three-and-a-half hours after leaving Shirecliffe.
Not only is it Brayford’s fourth reincarnation with Clough it is also the third time, including last season’s loan, that he has joined Burton where he started his career when they were a non league club. Clough, of course, has managed the Brewers twice.
All somewhat incestious and a great shame for Brayford, the victim of politics and past profligacy. With all due respect to Burton’s outstanding achievement of securing and maintaining their Championship status, his future would have been much more promising at Bramall Lane.
He, if not his boss, is assured of a great reception when returning to the Lane with Burton on March 3 next year. It will serve as a stark reminder for Brayford of what might have been.