ANOTHER equally important match was taking place at Bramall Lane as Sheffield United began an Easter programme which leaves them within one stride of reaching the Premier League.
Sheffield United co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, embroiled in a bitter power struggle for control of the club, agreed to meet and watch the 2-0 win against Nottingham Forest from a private box in the John Street Stand.
Their discreet get-together on the opposite side of the ground from the directors’ box away from distraction, can only be interpreted as a last-ditch bid to reach some sort of compromise from their entrenched positions before an upcoming High Court hearing in which the club’s dirty linen will inevitably be washed in public. Some of which has already emerged.
Since their private discussion, United have moved to the brink of returning to the top flight after a 12-year absence and with it a guaranteed £190milllion boost to the coffers, including any future parachute payments.
After United swept aside former Blades boss Nigel Adkins’ Hull City, winning 3-0 at the KCOM Stadium, rivals Leeds United suffered their second holiday defeat. If the Blades beat relegated Ipswich at Bramall Lane on Saturday, although still not mathematically certain, they will be back in the Premier League after a 12-year absence.
It would leave Leeds, who play Aston Villa at Elland Road the following day, an impossible task of overturning a goal difference which currently stands at plus 11, needing to beat Villa then Ipswich at Portman Road by huge margins and hope the Blades lose at Stoke on the final day of the season.
This latest development, not least the guaranteed £190m windfall for reaching the top flight, might further serve to focus United’s co-owners’ minds in a bid to bury the hatchet and start afresh or find a solution to the impasse against a backdrop of McCabe being accused of “being a bully” and “not liked by the people of Sheffield. Accusations levelled by Yusef Giansiracusa, a long-standing friend of Prince Abdullah and United director.
Otherwise one or the other will be preparing to assume full control pending the court hearing due to start shortly in London. If the judgment finds in McCabe’s favour it is likely there will be a collective sigh of relief around Bramall Lane. He and manager Chris Wilder are more or less on the same page. Should Prince Abdullah, reported to have personal wealth of £260million, emerge the victor Wilder will doubtless be seeking urgent clarification of what the immediate future holds.
Under a Saudi-led regime all the old questions will resurface. Not least the thorny issue of the appointment of a director of football which Prince Abdullah is believed to favour and Wilder is adamantly opposed. The manager, however, is in an even stronger position now than when he threatened to quit at the end of last season over this and funding issues.
If, as expected, United clinch automatic promotion, even under the Saudi prince Wilder will hold all the cards. Quite simply what he has achieved in just three years since being appointed makes him invaluable. One of the hottest properties in football management and a perfect fit for United. Only a fool would not move mountains to accommodate him now that United are set to enter The Promised Land.
If the Blades confirm their return to the Premier League by beating Ipswich in front of a sell-out crowd at the Lane, Wilder will want serious financial clout. Absolutely vital if they are to have a chance of remaining in the top flight rather than just visit it. Not for him the prospect of a season sitting back and feeding off scraps in the hope of avoiding the bottom three.
Prince Abdullah bought 50 per cent of Blades Leisure Limited, a company which was controlled by the McCabe family under the umbrella of Sheffield United Limited, for £1 in 2013 in return for what the latter described at the time as ‘game-changing’ investment. Initially, it is believed that the Saudi royal invested £10m. But what has followed hardly meets McCabe’s extravagant description.
Sheffield-born McCabe, a life-long fan, feels let-down by his partner’s on-going contribution which has not been as advertised in the brochure. Five-and-a-half years ago he was looking for someone to lift the burden and help take United rapidly to where they stand now. Thirty-two months later United finished 11th in Legue One, their lowest position for 33 years.
It has ultimately been left to the appointment of Wilder whose unique and remarkable skills working with very limited budgets has steered the Blades from the wilderness back to the brink of the big time in such a short time.
In a shareholders meeting just over a year ago, reported exclusively here on ViewFromTheJohnStreet.com, McCabe called into question Prince Abdullah’s understanding and intent for the club.
Since then the war has escalated. McCabe’s efforts to rid the Lane of the Saudi whom despite his five-and-a-half-year association is a rare visitor and remains a mystery man to the fanbase, have backfired in a complicated legal dispute. Meanwhile, Prince Abdullah, who wants to buy the football club but not its other property assets, is deploying his own strategy to see off McCabe. It is claimed by McCabe’s team that Prince Abdullah performed an ‘underhand financial manoeuvre’ in an attempt to secure the club on the cheap.
The grandson of Saudi Arabia’s founder and first monarch, King Abdulaziz, travelled with his entourage including family members from London’s St Pancras station on the 9.02 to Sheffield. They were met by a representative of United and whisked away to the ground an hour-and-a-quarter before kick-off.
Prince Abdullah cut a strange figure on the journey up from London. As the country basked in temperatures reaching 75 degrees, he wore a heavy full length overcoat for the entire trip and after giving the Saudi sports pages and English national football headlines a quick glance on his iPad, immersed himself in a card game app for much of the journey.
What was said in their private box will only come to light if there is a change of direction involving the upcoming court proceedings. But a document revealed last week just how entrenched the two men are, suggests that finding a solution other than through the judiciary is unlikely.
Giansiracusa, appointed to United’s board of directors and a key ally, sent an email to McCabe accusing him of “duplicitous interference” by appointing Simon Ratcliffe as chief financial officer. According to the pre-trial document it was sent as far back as 2017, which indicates how long the unrest has been going on. It added: “You are something of a bully as I am sure you know.” And: “I have come to learn that the people of Sheffield don’t very much like you but that bit of information did not take long to learn and was offered up freely by pretty much anyone I might ask.”
Petty squabbling that quickly escalated into full scale war. Ironic, isn’t it, that as manager, players and fans stand truly united after dark, despairing times the owners and the board, split straight down the middle according to their master’s voice, continue to leave the club in limbo.
Hopefully they have got the message and Good Friday’s Bramall Lane summit will bear fruit. But don’t hold your breath.
WHAT THE ROW IS ALL ABOUT
Prince Abdullah bought 50 per cent of Blades Leisure Limited, a company which was controlled by the McCabe family under the umbrella of Sheffield United Limited, for £1 in 2013 in return for serious investment.
After their fall-out when that investment fell short of what was expected leading to McCabe’s deciding he wanted to end the relationship, Sheffield United Limited made an offer for the prince’s 50 per cent share held by his company called UTB LLC.
Mr Justice Fancourt, sitting at a preliminary High Court hearing last July said UTB had responded with a “manoeuvre” which would mean that “UTB was entitled to purchase all Sheffield’s shares at a low price”. He added: “This unsurprisingly caused consternation and considerable upset for the McCabes and Sheffield United Ltd…they felt that they had been tricked out of their entitlement.”
The judge said the row over shares had led to UTB taking legal action. Sheffield United Ltd had made a counter claim and alleged “unfairly prejudicial conduct”.
All the proceedings are hotly contested,” said the judge. “It is therefore impossible to say, until trial of the various claims, whether UTB or Sheffield [United Limited] will emerge as the person in control of Blades and so in control of the football club, if either does.”