SHEFFIELD UNITED have entered 2018 with a better than average chance of securing a ticket to the play-offs. If noises coming out of Bramall Lane are to be taken as gospel, however, there is no rush.
Unless a smokescreen is in play to prevent selling clubs from taking financial advantage, manager Chris Wilder, it seems, must continue to operate on a less than generous budget in the January transfer window. That task is made more difficult because as he confirmed this week United's pay scale is below average for the Championship. Owners and team boss are singing from the same hymn sheet at a practical level but when it comes to pace of ambition they remain miles apart.
Here, early in the New Year, the prospect of Premier League football returning to Bramall Lane in August is well within grasp. Just seven points from the second automatic place and in the play-off mix. An astounding statement which would have been laughed at 20 months ago when the Blades limped to their lowest position for 33 years, 11th in League One. Worse, club unity in disarray.
But as the manager volunteered earlier this season “In terms of numbers, whether it’s money we’ve made, whether it’s historic agreements, how much there is, is left totally to the owners. That’s their area of how they want to take the club forward.” A clear reference to his transfer dealings and the £4.5million sell-on windfall following former Blade Kyle Walker’s move from Tottenham to Manchester City for £45m which could rise to £50m with add-ons.
He added: “I’ve said we’d like to bring three or four players in and maybe two or three will go. We’ll keep the numbers the same but up the quality in certain areas. The quality of player we bring in is up to them.” In other words the ball’s in the owners’ court.
That lack of quality has been exposed recently after the loss of central midfield pivot Paul Coutts with a broken leg, the three-match suspension of his partner John Fleck and the continuing injury absence of wing-back Kieron Freeman. Key contributors to the title-winning side of last season and very much key in the current campaign. Thankfully, another of those, driving force Mark Duffy, has avoided serious injury. Wales international and United's most prized asset David Brooks, last seen on December 8 in a home defeat to Bristol City, is another absentee we are told because of glandular fever.
After topping the table in mid-November to lead Wolves by a point, form has taken a dramatic turn. Water after all does find its own level and when depleted it becomes increasingly difficult to turn it into wine.
Since then they have dropped 20 points from a possible 27, ten of them at home. That slim advantage over Wolves, now runaway leaders, has become a 19-point deficit. Boxing Day’s 3-0 romp at home to a lifeless Sunderland is United’s only win in nine matches. But it is a measure of just how well the Blades were doing when you consider that despite this calamitous run, after New Year Day’s 1-1 draw at Derby it was only the second time (the first following another draw, 2-2 at Aston Villa on December 23) they have not been in the top six since August 19.
So having witnessed the explosive potential followed by a wake-up call, why do co-owners Kevin McCabe, pictured top, and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud remain reluctant to give Wilder the calibre of ammunition which would improve significantly his chances of hitting the target?
It is nonsensical to think they don’t share the ambition of manager and fans. Plans are in progress to increase ground capacity to 38,000 by building a second tier comprising 5,400 seats in the South Stand in readiness for a new era. Chief operating officer Andrew Birks explained: “This is very much about looking ahead following our promotion to the Championship and potentially a place in the highest tier of the English game.”
So there can surely be only one answer.
One man’s revolutionary arrival, an inspirational appointment, transformed beyond everyone’s wildest dreams including his employers, a club that had long since lost its way No-one to have ever sat in the hot-seat at the Lane is more trusted. No-one has fitted it more perfectly.
His know-how is unquestioned, his judgment impeccable. Given a substantial sum Wilder could be relied upon to spend it as if it were his own. Or not at all if he couldn't acquire the right players. That is the make-up of a man, lifelong Blade, former ball boy and player, who if successful again this season will cement his place in history as United’s greatest manager.
Could it be that Wilder relentless progress has caught his bosses, like everyone else, by surprise. In effect the speed of his achievement has effectively upturned the proverbial applecart. They are not yet prepared to risk meeting the cost of funding a top flight side let alone contemplate the financial consequence of an immediate relegation? “My hope is that in five years’ time we’ll be back in the Premier League,” proclaimed McCabe. Not a rally cry as United were digging an escape tunnel from League One at the sixth time of asking, but as recent as September.
If so a steady-as-she-goes direction of travel on a shoe-string budget would be a valid explanation. But it would short-change the best manager they could have ever wished for. Come the summer when highly ambitious Wilder will inevitably be on many managerial shortlists – he has already been considered by West Brom and Swansea during their recent changes – that too could have a consequence. If he is at the Lane to witness United’s return to the top flight in or close to 2022, it will almost certainly be from the stands as a fan.
To be fair to McCabe, he stood in the car park at the Lane after returning from Northampton last season where United clinched promotion from League One, and pledged to celebrating supporters that funds would be available to ensure United “were competitive” in the Championship. Thanks largely to Wilder’s extensive knowledge of the lower leagues that promise has been kept. Competitive, however, is a loose term open to interpretation.
Sheffield-born McCabe who has pumped almost £100 million into United since the 1990s, sold a 50 per cent share of the club for £1 to Prince Abdullah in 2013 with the promise of major investment to lift some of the burden off his shoulders. He has seen precious little return. Helping to cover the wage bill is not what McCabe originally had in mind.
Add to that the Saudi royal remains aloof, leaving McCabe as the point of reference and often the butt of criticism in the full knowledge that whatever frustration and disappointment their might be in private, his partner will take the hit and continue to support him publicly.
McCabe and his sons Scott and Simon stood down from the Board in September explaining "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 Blades Leisure Limited."
But now McCabe and son Scott have suddenly returned, coinciding with an announcement that Belgian Jan Van Winckel who holds a UEFA Pro coaching licence and is technichal director of the Saudi Arabian FA, has become a member of the Board. There has been no explanation of why they returned so quickly or what Van Winckel's specific role is. But McCabe's decision to restake his presence suggests an already uneasy partnership has just become uneasier. Prince Abdullah was president of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority. Van Winckel worked with him in Riyadh to help develop the country’s coaches and players ahead of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
A strategy of restraint, the see-how-we-go school of thought, might have seemed appropriate when United arrived in the Championship, fresh-faced and with only one summer recruit at kick-off, defender Richard Stearman, with current experience at this level. A second, striker Clayton Donaldson, from Birmingham City, followed on deadline day. What has happened since has blown that theory right out of the water. Wilder has proved beyond doubt that had United invested in Championship quality last summer instead of combing the bargain basement we would now be talking realistically about automatic promotion not just the possibility of the play-offs. The irony is with the right backing we still could.
That’s not to say some of those recruits, wing-backs Enda Stevens and George Baldock for example, may have made the cut, but the quality needed to finish the job is not there, something that Wilder is often at pains to point out.
Is it really the case that a 25-year-old midfield player at Southend United, three points above the relegation zone in League One, is a vital component for United to unlock the door to the Premier League come May? Well, with all due respect to the player, as finances stand and as fanciful as that sounds, yes.
Ryan Leonard whose entire career has been played out in the lower leagues apart from one Championship appearance for Plymouth almost eight years ago, a target in the summer has finally arrived pending a medical. The last reported bid of £700,000 for a player out of contract in the summer was rejected earlier this week.
Wilder, also hoping to add at least a couple of loan additions from the top flight, will of course squeeze the maximum from the hand he’s been dealt. If United do secure a play-off place few in the sunny half of Sheffield would bet against the man who has won back-to-back promotions with Northampton and the Blades, going all the way again.
Judging from conversations I have had with Blades fans, there are a surprising number who are comfortable to approach with caution. United have suffered financially in the past they say. Money isn’t always the answer.
While that is true, by definition it is also failing to endorse the difference between then and now, casting doubt on Wilder’s ability to spend wisely. As for the old chestnut the club needs time to adjust to its new suroundings. Take a look at the accompanying chart. In the last 50 years United have spent 40 of them outside the top flight. I for one have watched 49 of those seasons, 28 in the second tier. How long do you need?
There is one huge flaw in the current play-it-safe strategy yet to be mentioned. The enormous prize at stake and the increasing cost difficulties of not taking it. It’s catch-22 unless of course you are happy to become a club which sits in the top half of the Championship but not quite high enough. For supporters who have observed half my time that will sound all too familiar?
Watford who finished 17th last season and remain in the Premier League banked £108.5m from prize money and TV earnings. Relegated Sunderland, who finished bottom, reaped £100m and parachute payments amounting to £76m over the following two years.
Based on those figures promotion and immediate relegation would put £176m into United’s coffers. Survival would be worth at least £105m with the promise of at least a similar amount if they remained in the top flight the following season. A mid-table finish would net £120m. It really is a no-brainer unless you are unwilling to fund the hugely increased wage bill in the first place. Which, it appears, is where United, who currently don't even pay the average for Championship clubs, are right now.
A recent report revealed the seasonal average for top flight clubs currently stands at £40m. So maybe having done the sums and erring on the side of caution, it explains why McCabe revealed in the Autumn that he and Prince Abdullah were searching out a third investor. The likelihood is that will come from China given McCabe's property business links and his part in securing up to £1billion worth of Chinese money from the Sichuan Guodong Construction Group for infrastructure projects across Sheffield over 60 years. The City Council signed a partnership deal in Chengdu where the company is based and where United formerly owned football team Chengdu Blades.
As clubs relegated from the Premier League initially have more money to spend, the challenge for the rest becomes increasingly difficult. In effect an elite, just like has happened in the Premier League, is forming.
Building a squads for now but not the future comes with its own perils. Should United reach the Premier League on the current model and with the best will in the world, how many in the current team would cut it at the highest level? A huge investment program against the clock and under duress would have to be launched as soon as top flight status was confirmed.
There is a reason why Sheffield’s city centre regeneration is still a long way from completion whilst the likes of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle, Glasgow and Belfast enjoy the benefits of their modernisation. The same reason why many visitors to Sheffield would never know it is the birthplace of the world’s most popular game. The National Football Museum, is in Manchester and used to be housed in Preston for God’s sake. Lack of vision and leadership in the past. A cautious approach and a reluctance until recently to adopt a can-do attitude, get up and go.
Chris Wilder is not one of those people and neither for that matter is Kevin McCabe. Where Sheffield United are concerned both deserve better, the difference being it's completely out of the manager's hands.