JAMAL BLACKMAN is a wealthy young man. Exceptionally so considering his limited experience. The 24-year-old’s extraordinary five-year contract at Chelsea which he extended last year and a ready made starting role waiting for him at Bramall Lane, club and player have priced themselves out of the market as far as Sheffield United are concerned.
Playing a game of bluff and counter bluff in an effort to strike a deal, Blades boss Chris Wilder ran out of patience and turned to Manchester United loanee Dean Henderson to fill the vacancy.
Blackman has become £2.7million better off since signing the deal offered at Stamford Bridge in 2014. A 20-year-old who had already been there for three years without kicking a competitive ball. He had originally been earning £13,000 a week and in the unlikely event he should still be at Chelsea in 12 months’ time will have banked at the very least £3,380,000 from club owner Roman Abramovic’s kitty.
United were reportedly prepared to make a permanent offer for 6ft 6ins Blackman but not at the Londoners’ reported £2.5m valuation. Chelsea, knowing the keeper has no prospect of making their first team, would prefer to sell in order to recoup costs and profit on the player.
Another loan deal was never in prospect hence the sudden departure of Blackman, the regular No1, before United’s final match of the 2017-18 season at Bristol City. “We only wanted to pick players who will be with us next season,” was Wilder’s telling explanation of Blackman’s omission and return south before his deal at the Lane had expired.
That decision now seems to be the first card dealt in a bid to return the goalkeeper to Sheffield permanently at a reasonable price. Even Blackman posted on Instagram: “I’ve enjoyed every minute of being a Blade. Adding intriguingly: “So much more to come from this team and me – who knows what the future holds.”
Last season Blackman was one of 36 Chelsea players on loan in what is a profitable cottage industry for the club. Apart from the likes of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, to Crystal Palace and who played in England’s opening World Cup match this week, few if any have a prospect of playing in Chelsea’s first team.
The model is akin to football farming. Skim the underlying talent pool available then strike agreements with largely lower league clubs, as was done with United concerning Blackman, to meet part or all of their wages. This allows for subsidised career development and hopefully enable a healthy sell-on price when their contracts are near to completion.
Blackman’s progress has achieved just that. His move to the Lane showcased his talent at Championship level and will almost certainly see him leave Stamford Bridge for a sizeable sum this summer.
Henderson’s arrival on a season-long loan from Old Trafford represents a coup for Blades boss Wilder who headed off competition from other Championship club’s for the 21-year-old England Under-21 international. It came only three days after he signed a new two-year contract at Old Trafford.
He told club TV station MUTV: “Coming off the back of last season and playing games at Shrewsbury and having a good season there, to return to the biggest club in the world and put pen-to-paper again is a great achievement for me and my family. It's another dream come true."
The comparison with Blackman, who demonstrated his potential during a season at Wycombe Wanderers before joining United, is striking. Before that, he had just one League Cup appearance for Middlesbrough and a two-month stint at Swedish club Ostersunds FK to his name.
Henderson, too, was untried apart from seven appearances in a short loan spell at League Two Grimsby where he kept six clean sheets. He followed that and attracted attention last season with 48 outings for Shrewsbury Town, the last of which was their League One play-off final defeat to Rotherham at Wembley. He kept 19 clean sheets for the Shrews.
“It is a position you've got to get right in terms of not only ability, but character too and we have no doubt following chats between myself, Dean and Darren Ward (the Blades goalkeeping coach), that we've got both,” said Wilder.
“Dean is a confident boy who has proved himself wherever he has been. He is positive and most importantly a winner and he will handle the pressure of coming here. He had a fantastic season for Shrewsbury, playing a starring role in what they achieved last year, and he is someone we've tracked for quite a while now.
“We're well stocked now in what is a crucial department at any level and we've got very healthy competition for that number one jersey.”
Blackman’s departure opened up the opportunity for Simon Moore to regain the goalkeeper’s jersey which was his throughout United’s promotion season from League One. A position he only lost after being injured in pre-season which led to the arrival of Blackman.
Now Moore, who has just signed a 12-month extension to a contract which was due to expire at the end of 2018-19, faces playing second fiddle to Henderson if the new arrival lives up to the manager’s expectation. Jake Eastwood, meanwhile, may be starting to consider his future.
After beginning last season as Blackman’s deputy, the 21-year-old was sent on loan to Chesterfield. He made just three appearances for United, one in the Championship replacing injured Moore midway through the second half at Wolves and two EFL Cup starts.