IF you were told only days ago that Sheffield United were about to spend a club record £4million-plus for a single player, few would have believed you.
Of those, quizzed as to whom it might be, it’s a safe bet the name John Egan would not have been amongst the speculation.
But the 25-year-old Brentford captain and central defender who cost the Bees nothing when he moved from Gillingham only two seasons ago, is here with impressive price tag attached.
Impressive for a club with form like United that is. As the editor of a failing national newspaper used to insist to me, ‘we’re not looking for ways of spending money’ in order to justify not pursuing great stories. An adage that could easily have replaced the ‘strength in adversity’ call to arms that adorns the Blades badge at the exit to the players’ tunnel.
Striker James Beattie, costing exactly £4m from Everton, was the previous record holder way back in 2007, signed by Bryan Robson. United have had eight managers and three caretakers since then. And Britain four Prime Ministers.
Adi Akinbiyi, bought from Burnley for £1.75m in 2006, set the bar before that. Ched Evans (£3m from Manchester City, 2009 in his first spell at the club), was the second most expensive signing after Beattie.
Egan’s arrival, manager Chris Wilder’s first permanent signing of the summer, is a key addition. The Republic of Ireland international, who played once for United on loan from Sunderland in 2012, a 3-2 defeat at Walsall, arrives with a good pedigree. “We see him as a leader and he is worthy of the fee we've paid for him,” said Wilder. “In my opinion he is a better player than a couple of those who have already moved for bigger fees this summer."
More importantly it should herald the beginning of a new era at Bramall Lane. One in which the club, despite a bitter war for control being conducted behind the scenes by its co-owners, is emerging from the bargain basement approach and finally entering the real world.
Wilder confirmed after a disappointing goalless workout at Mansfield in which Egan was an unused sub – “I didn't think we were very good. I thought they were better than us and I don't like that, no matter what the game is” – that a bid has been lodged with Ipswich for 28-year-old striker Martyn Waghorn.
If the offer for last season’s 16-goal top scorer at Portman Road is accepted it is likely to set another club record of around £5m. That would seem suggest some or maybe all of the £12m raised from the sale of David Brooks to Bournemouth is being made available with Wilder also planning to add a second striker to the mix before the permanent transfer deadline passes on August 9. The cash received for Brooks was, of course, another club record at the Lane.
Forward David McGoldrick, on trial and a free agent after leaving Ipswich, was one of the few positives in the performance at Field Mill. Adding to a good display in the 3-2 midweek win at Bradford, although he has still score.
Money of course is not the be all and end all. Just ask the club across the city which is having to reduce costs after a spending spree which failed to deliver.
It is a mistake to use that, however, as a good reason to keep a tight reign on the purse strings unless you are happy to merely tread water. Ambition eventually requires funding to match. The key being how well it is spent.
For too long in my almost half a decade of watching the Blades has the club careered between a largely self-inflicted culture of boom or bust. When it has spent it’s often been unwisely, leading to a prolonged fear of repeating the mistake before frustration kicks in and the cycle starts again.
The truth is that if you want to play with the big boys it requires a well thought out strategy and confidence of leadership starting at the top. Ironic then that having resolved a good deal of the problem with the appointment of Wilder and the remarkable success he has brought in two years on a shoestring budget, it is at the summit where the club is being seriously let down.
Last season was a prime example. Had Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud been singing from the same hymn sheet it is not beyond the bounds of reason that United could now be preparing to start life in the Premier League.
Said, of course, with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless had the co-owners backed the manager to make the type of signings he is trying to attract now, and wanted then, it is unlikely the finale to 2017-18 would have resulted in falling six points short of the play-offs.
Or that Wilder, the club’s greatest asset dismayed by the his employers’ lack of direction, and by inference ambition, would have then threatened to quit.
That he achieved what he did staffed essentially by the same lower league players who had won promotion 12 months earlier, was a great feat. But it was also a demonstration of costly hesitancy and serious lack of judgment from his bosses. Almost as if a steady mid-table finish was all that was ever required and probably the truth. Less adventurous supporters thought similar.
It is unlikely the coming season will be as open as the last one and present the same opportunity. It may take a significant rise in spending just for United to stand still in what has become an increasingly competitive Championship environment.
Huge parachute payments and the spoils of life in the top flight, particularly for clubs established there for some time such as newly-relegated Stoke City, have ensured that.
It may be that having arrived at a bridge too far last season, United, even armed with better quality in key positions, could well miss out again. That will be the moment to determine real intent.
Having dipped a toe in the water with the signing of Egan, who is set to make his debut in the prestigious friendly against Italians Internazionale at the Lane, the big test now for United’s top brass, whatever the outcome of the ownership issue, is to start swimming and carry on swimming. Even if by next May the ocean still feels cold and dry land remains distant.
That takes courage and a firm belief you’re heading in the right direction with the correct guidance. What better GPS to have than Wilder? There is no guarantee but have United ever had a more trustworthy and level-headed manager to spend their money?
The time and circumstances are right to take the plunge. Otherwise it’s back to treading water in the kiddies’ pool.