THERE is no way back. Those who sat through the shareholders’ gathering before Sheffield United’s goalless draw with Nottingham Forest were left in little doubt.
Co-owner Kevin McCabe, who called the meeting, revealed he is aggressively fighting partner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud attempted takeover of the club, triggered in January, which will now be litigated in the courts.
McCabe, who sold 50 per cent of the club to the Saudi prince in 2013 in return for what was described as “game-changing” investment, told a packed audience at the Copthorne Hotel on Bramall Lane, of his misgivings about United falling into the hands of anyone who doesn’t understand the “ethos, culture and heritage” of the club.
He said he and the Prince, “a decent man” whom in the past he has stoutly defended when asked about perceived lack of investment by the Saudi, didn’t talk often but he hopes the leadership issue could be resolved by the summer. A confirmation of the breakdown in their relationship. The damage has been done and given the gravity of their differences It is hard to see how the partnership could ever be repaired.
Equally worrying for supporters is a dispute between Prince Abdullah’s camp and manager Chris Wilder and McCabe about the correct way forward for the club. The McCabe-Wilder alliance believe that buying British and Irish players remains the best strategy. Prince Abdullah, aided by the advice of recent addition to the SUFC Board, Belgian Jan Van Winckel, who has a UEFA-pro coaching licence, wants to take an international approach.
Van Winckel, 44 later this month, technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and previously assistant manager of Olympique de Marseille under former Argentina and Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa, was also appointed in December to the board of United’s parent company Blades Leisure Limited. Significantly, McCabe blocked an attempt by his partner to appoint Van Winckel to the club's technical board which numbers Wilder, No2 Alan Knill, head of recruitment Paul Mitchell, academy chief Travis Binnion and head of administration Carl Shieber.
Whilst Van Winckel has expressed his support for Wilder, the man much admired by Prince Abdullah, clearly has his own agenda. One that if pursued would almost certainly call into serious question the manager’s desire to continue. A new regime may also doubt Wilder’s ability to handle a dressing room populated by foreign players from very different backgrounds and expectations.
Prince Abdullah said on his appointment: "Jan is someone whom I have known for a while now. He is an experienced football man and we are delighted to have him as part of the team at board level."
The latest twist in the struggle for power comes after Prince Abdullah, who recently bought into Belgian second tier club Beerschot Wilrijk where Van Winckel is also a Board member, claimed earlier last week he is more concerned about winning promotion than his bid to take complete control of the club “at a fair price”.
Really? What little we hear from the court of Saud is sounding as vacuous as his four-and-a-half years at Bramall Lane.
It also directly contradicts McCabe’s thinly disguised disappointment before an audience during a fundraiser at Sheffield University last month with Wilder sat on stage alongside him, that his royal highness is letting the side down.
If Prince Abdullah’s message, apparently and unsurprisingly via an intermediary, were true instead of being driven purely by a financial dispute in an effort to buy United and its associated property assets for a bargain, the team manager’s job over the last nine months would have been very different.
Putting together a squad designed to compete with the best instead of what has actually happened. Trawling football’s bargain basement last summer, relying purely on instinct and overworked motivational skills to re-establish the Blades as a top half Championship team. McCabe now publicly recognises as much.
That is no slight on the players recruited in the summer and January transfer windows. Whatever the outcome of this season – United are still only two points short of a play-off place with eight matches and 24 points to play for – they have performed well above expectation and deserve to take a bow. Something all Blades fans will surely agree.
No, the spanner in the works hails from the Middle East. A man who has spent four-and-a-half years supposedly in joint control but of whom Blades fans know little. A man who has so far failed to live up to expectation and as McCabe obviously fears, the motive for his involvement at United is becoming increasingly questionable.
A lack of trust which has grown between them has paralysed serious team development. A bitter battle now being played out behind closed doors is one that goes to the very heart of Bramall Lane.
Prince Abdullah bought into United for £1 and in the absence of any current information had at the last count towards the end of Nigel Adkins’ reign in 2016, invested £15m covering an admittedly bloated and mis-managed wage bill and the arrival of striker Billy Sharp from Leeds for a fee believed to be £630,000, but precious little else.
It is reported that he funded “football activities” for three seasons. The cost of last year’s League One title campaign and this season’s return to the Championship have been shared between the co-owners.
McCabe, believed to have invested just over £100m in almost two decades, sold half the club for a token sum in the belief that his new partner was going to inject serious “game-changing” cash. Not just help to cover day-to-day running costs on a tight budget but to hasten a return to the Premier League. Money which McCabe felt unable to provide. The arrangement appeared at the time a perfect solution.
Last month, during a question and answer session before an audience of 500 to help raise money for the Sheffield Scanner appeal, McCabe made it a public first by acknowledging United must be prepared to move with the times and pay bigger transfer fees and wages if they are to reach and stay in the Premier League.
He also admitted the ownership model is not working and has to be resolved before the club can move forward. “I brought Prince Abdullah in for one key reason. Wealth, to invest in football, to invest in a big club in getting back to the Premiership then who knows what,” said McCabe
“I think in a sense the challenge is with use both now because we’ve got over the big hurdle, we’re a proper contender for promotion even this season, there is no grey area there. It’s one that has got to be sorted out.
Pressed further on his partner, McCabe added: “Well as I say I brought him in for one reason, wealth. While there may be some misgivings about Saudi Arabia [it’s record on human rights and its support of the conflict in Yemen which has displaced up to six million civilians and killed thousands], the wealth that is generated in that nation through oil means billionaires are pretty commonplace.”
He added: “With being back in the Championship and with a very, very clear aim for getting promoted back to the Premiership we have to address bringing in more equity that allows more flexibility a higher wage bill and higher transfer fees. Can you do it on a lower budget?
“Well Chris is proving perhaps you can if you have got the right manager and the right recruitment policy, coupled with motivational qualities, tactics and the like. Who said it can’t happen again? But as owners we mustn’t overlook the reality of the league that we’re playing in. The league that we’re playing in now, the Championship, is the fourth best supported league in the world.”
Wilder, a lifetime United supporter who has never tried to hide his respect for McCabe, added: “It’s just doing it in a structured way and when the door does open and if it opened this year we’d gladly walk through it. But one of the things I’d never do is put the owners in a position where it’s a big risk and reward.”
Unfortunately for McCabe, risk and reward is what the modern game is all about unless the aim is just to hold your own in the middle of the Championship and hope for good cup runs to add extra revenue and excitement.
With that in mind he explained he is actively seeking a third investor and in the light of last weekend’s events at the Copthorne, possibly with the eventual intent of squeezing out Prince Abdullah. “I think we’re in vogue for quite a few investors who want to have a look at Sheffield United and that’s up to the owners to sort out where they should look,” he said.