WE thought it might be all over after defeat at Birmingham City. Well it is now.
Derby County’s midweek victory against Cardiff punctured ex-Blades boss Neil Warnock’s hopes of taking the Bluebirds to the Premier League. It flattened Sheffield United’s remaining ambition of reaching the Championship play-offs.
A mathematician will tell you it remains a possibility for the time being with Preston at home and a trip to Bristol City remaining. Reality says otherwise. Now the real work begins to give United the best chance of taking at least one step further next season.
First up is the most important issue of all. The future of manager Chris Wilder. It may seem inconceivable to many that the lifelong Blades fan would choose to leave a club he has played for and subsequently led for the last two terrific seasons.
But until the club’s ownership issue is settled, the managerial model going forward made clear and the budget he has to work with revealed, his future must remain in the balance.
Given that co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud launched his campaign to take full control in January and is being bitterly opposed by partner Kevin McCabe who said recently that he hopes the issue is resolved by the summer, that may not be soon enough for Wilder.
He and McCabe share a similar vision moving forward. Which by inference, given the mistrust the latter has for Prince Abdullah’s intentions, suggests they are shared by Wilder. Something should the Saudi royal wrestle control, does not bode well.
Wilder is known to prefer British and Irish players to work with at Championship level. Prince Abdullah, who has appointed Jan Van Winckel to the Board, a man possessing a UEFA-pro coaching licence, favours the continental route. Wilder and McCabe are in constant contact and both being from Sheffield have a local understanding of each other, are close, share a sense of history at Bramall Lane and talk the same football language.
Van Winckel, 44, is technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and previously assistant manager of Olympique de Marseille under former Argentina and Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa. Prince Abdullah said of the Belgian’s arrival: “Jan is someone whom I have known for a while now. He is an experienced football man.”
This led to McCabe blocking 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. Another indication of the strong alliance between Wilder and McCabe and the manager’s dependence on the latter to protect his interests at Board level.
If that were not enough, there is the question of how much money is going to be made available to spend in the summer window. Something that needs to be finalised immediately after United’s season draws to a close at the end of April. But unless McCabe and Prince Abdullah reach an agreement soon, that is unlikely to happen.
Wilder knew before the season kicked off his squad was not properly equipped to win promotion. He has worked with the sixth lowest budget, £5.9million, in the Championship, marginally less than Barnsley’s. He was, however, willing to accept that the owners’ ambition for this campaign didn’t match his own and work with that.
Having come so close to being within reach of a shot at the Premier League in his first season as a Championship boss, however, it is unlikely he will be in the same amiable frame of mind again.
Indeed, it would be letting down himself and an army of Blades fans firmly on his side if he were to do so. Wilder said after the goalless draw against Sheffield Wednesday at the Lane in January: “I don’t want to be sat on the beach at the end of the season after finishing eighth, ninth or tenth and everyone saying it was a fantastic season while I’m watching teams in the play-offs and getting promoted and thinking ‘really? We should be in there’.” Which now, of course, is exactly what he’ll be doing.
The truth is he extracted the maximum from a squad of players largely of recent lower league experience he and Blades fans should be proud of. After winning the League One title last season, they stepped up to the plate and outperformed. A now expected mid-table finish disguises the fact they have been in promotion contention all but the last 12 days of another memorable and gripping season.
But what would be the point for Wilder of merely repeating the exercise. He’s a Blades fan but he also earns his living from being a manager and has burning ambition. He has gone on record as saying that while his current job is what other Blades fans dream of, it is not something he had ever aspired to.
Make no mistake, Wilder is no fool. Yes, after occupying the manager’s office for almost two years at the club he loves, walking away would be a wrench. But if there is no guarantee he will be equipped to do the job properly next time around, or indeed confirmation of what the managerial model will be under a possible new regime, what is the point of remaining just to tread water?
Wilder’s standing was already high when he arrived at the Lane having won promotions with Oxford United, returning the U’s to the Football League, and Northampton Town. His transformation of a club on its knees and bereft of direction to one that won the League One title with a record 100 points in less than 12 months only enhanced it. United’s performance in his first season managing at Championship level with largely journeymen and a limited budget, is attracting huge attention.
Wilder must look at what Sean Dyche has done at Burnley in the top flight and draw comparisons with what he is capable of. Closer to home, Carlos Carvalhal sacked by Sheffield Wednesday on Christmas Eve after hitting a brick wall, quickly demonstrated with Swansea City on the Premier League stage what a good boss he is.
Wilder will not be short of offers. Southampton, I have learned, have put Wilder’s name on a shortlist, whether or not the Saints are relegated from the Premier League. Mark Hughes, replacing sacked Mauricio Pellegrino last month, signed a short-term contract until the end of the season but it is unclear if he is willing to remain, especially if the club do step down. They view the Blades boss, a former Southampton player, as an ideal candidate to either return them to the top flight or reverse their current decline should they survive but Hughes leaves.
In November West Brom decided against an approach after opting for Alan Pardew, sacked last month, to replace Tony Pulis. A decision they have since lived to regret as the Baggies face up to life in the Championship. Wilder is a particularly perfect fit now, armed with £100m prize money for finishing bottom, decreasing parachute payments totalling £90m and worth £40m next season alone. West Brom have already said that they do not expect to make major cuts to first team spending.
To lose Chris Wilder would be an enormous setback and set United on course to experience a backlash from supporters that would never be forgiven. It would also be a wanton waste of a huge talent tailor-made for Bramall Lane.
Wilder has done all that has been asked of him and more. The ball is now in his warring bosses’ court. They must act quickly to ensure the manager stays onboard and to maintain a momentum they clearly never expected.
Much of what takes place behind the scenes at Bramall Lane is cloak and dagger but there is no hiding place now.