JERMAIN DEFOE – yes, he whom is reported to earn £130,000-a-week – and Shane Long, believed to bank £60,000-a-week, are said to top the list of Chris Wilder’s January transfer targets.
Fanciful maybe, so Sheffield United fans dream on. But because the story was written this week by trusted Sheffield journalist and broadcaster Alan Biggs, the circumstance surrounding it carries weight. Not a man to float speculative names just to grab cheap headlines, Biggs’s report must surely be read as reflecting a coded message from the Blades boss to his warring employers.
An early marker of where he stands on a higher calibre of player required to give United a better than average chance of promotion to the Premier League. Defoe, who was at Buckingham Palace on Friday to receive an OBE for work done by his foundation to help vulnerable children, and Long are likely to be out of reach. But equally it sounds very much like Wilder isn’t to prepared to settle for the likes of striker James Wilson, signed on loan last January from Manchester United and whom made little impact.
Right on cue and if ever a match underlined what Sheffield United need if they are to make a significant stride forward, it was the goalless draw against neighbours Wednesday. A team arriving at Bramall Lane on the back of four successive defeats, the latter a 0-4 humiliation against Norwich at Hillsborough and having failed to keep a clean sheet for the entire season (16 matches).
United dominated, enjoying 75 per cent possession. A mis-match which only reaffirmed how superior they have become to their local rivals now four points above the relegation zone. But for all that the Blades managed to get only five of 19 shots on target and David McGoldrick’s penalty kick was saved by Owls keeper Cameron Dawson who had a terrific night.
It was ironic that Sheffield-born Dawson, 23, roundly criticised by Wednesday fans in recent weeks, found a cheerleader in the Blades boss. “He’s taken a bit of stick but we watched the game against Norwich back on the tape and he saved a pen, and made some unbelievable saves,” said Wilder. “I think they’re lucky to have a very good young goalkeeper on their books.”
The frustration for Wilder is that he knows co-owner Kevin McCabe, who was in town to watch from the directors’ box, is singing from the same hymn sheet.
If the truth be known McCabe has long since been convinced that if the Blades want to play with the big boys then serious investment is required. A cash resource the like of which has never been available at Bramall Lane. He said as much before an audience during a fundraising event 21 months ago with Wilder sitting by his side on stage at Sheffield University. “The key is investment, not loans from the bank,” said McCabe.
Chief executive Stephen Bettis, a man who has a close and trusted relationship with Wilder, said this week: “Both owners are united in their vision and determination to return this football club to the Premier League where it belongs.”
Well, you would hope so but there was no reference to suggest they are in any hurry. Sadly, because of McCabe’s ongoing struggle to prevent co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud from wrestling full control of the club, it would seem not enough vision or determination to override their bitter dispute which is expected to be settled in the High Court.
Even if McCabe were to win out and an amicable financial arrangement is reached to rid United of the Saudi royal, a new investor(s) would have to be found and in place before the club can seriously progress.
All of which is of little use to ambitious Blades manager Chris Wilder as the clock ticks. Frankly, he has taken United as far as he can. Unless there is a shift of attitude behind the scenes or dramatic developments, all that is left is a firefight to keep his team in contention. Good enough for most supporters maybe, but certainly not for the boss.
Groundhog Day? Having voiced his concerns last May and threatening to quit, if little changes he will almost certainly be looking elsewhere to further a remarkable and hard-won managerial career when the final whistle is blown on this campaign.
No Blades fan worth their salt could blame him. It would, of course, be a catastrophe for the club and for the owners who would face an onslaught of criticism from supporters which would almost certainly deem the relationship irreparable.
The manager, as reported here on ViewFromTheJohnStreet.com, has recently made public his concerns and not to subtly either. If McCabe and Prince Abdullah take time out to heed the latest warning signs, however, and can at least agree on a short-term fix giving Wilder ammunition to reach the promised land, it is their one chance to change the dynamic.
During his 30 months in charge Wilder has lifted United from the foot of League One to the Championship’s summit. Last season, their return to the second tier after 60 months in the wilderness, he established them as a top half team. Dallying with the higher echelons until mid-November before natural physics intervened to finish a creditable six points short of the play-offs.
He did so with precious little extra financial resource and almost the same squad as before. But knowing what might have been is what troubles Wilder. After the Spring stand-off, £4million-plus defender John Egan became United’s record buy, but he still couldn’t attract the heavyweight hitters up front he identified, despite the sale of £11.5m David Brooks to Bournemouth.
It is unlikely that Defoe, in the second season of a three-year contract at Bournemouth, will be pulling on a Blades shirt come the New Year. But there can be no denying, even at the ripe old sage of 36 and in the twilight of his illustrious career on the fringe of the Cherries Premier League squad, the former England international (57 caps, 20 goals) would be the perfect short-term solution for the Blades. The man is a goal machine wherever he has been, scoring a career total of 272 most of them in the top flight.
He certainly has more than enough experience in his locker to add what is patently missing up front for United as the derby demonstrated. That is not to aim criticism at Blades skipper and ten-goal top scorer Billy Sharp who has performed consistently and racked up 76 goals since rejoining the club in the summer of 2016.
But privately Sharp would surely admit United lack a recognised clinical finisher who can take half-chances and make all the difference. The type of missed opportunities that cost them two points against Wednesday and a temporary return to the top of the table. That could have helped bury Derby County in a dominant first half display at Pride Park, a match which the Blades lost.
Long, 31, cost £12m from Hull City. He is midway through a lucrative new four-year contract at Southampton, signed in the summer of 2016. The Republic of Ireland international has failed to score in nine appearances for the Saints this season and only hit the target five times last term. He has recently suffered an ankle injury which may require surgery.
Finances aside, to have any hope of attracting players of the calibre Wilder is looking for will require the Blades, currently lying fourth just three points behind leaders Norwich, to remain in touch at the top.
“We understand the importance of the games coming up,” said Wilder. Adding: “The lads have done well. Now we’ve got to carry it on by trying to ensure we’re in the mix for the second half of the season.”