MANAGER of hometown club returns it to the Premier League after a painful absence. Not only that, he is credited with reuniting a dysfunctional organisation which had fallen foul of its large, loyal, long-suffering and disillusioned fanbase. Captained by a lifelong fan born in the city and realising a dramatic dream to lead them to the Promised Land.
No, not Chris Wilder whose achievements for Sheffield United remain unsurpassed, and Blades skipper Billy Sharp, but Dean Smith and Jack Grealish at Aston Villa.
Smith was appointed seven months ago when Villa were 15th in the Championship, succeeding Steve Bruce, sacked and now at Sheffield Wednesday, following a run of nine matches without victory.
Smith and his triumphant team did it the hard way, securing a fifth-place finish thanks to a run of 12 matches unbeaten (10 wins) to set up a play-off semi-final with West Midlands rivals West Brom where, despite his personal Villa allegiance, Smith hails from. Now they are joining United in the Premier League next season after winning a Wembley play-off final against Derby County.
But there the similarity ends. Within an hour of booking a ticket to the top flight, worth a minimum of £170million, co-owner Nassef Sawiris said: “The sky is the limit, with such a fan base and such a great squad. We've seen that with great management. Our ambition was not just to get promoted but to do well in the Premier League.”
Admittedly, Egyptian Sawiris and his American partner Wes Edens are both multi-billionaires, far wealthier than United’s co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. But the silence has been deafening, aside of token comment, after the Blades clinched automatic promotion at the beginning of May.
Their fallout became public 18 months ago and failing to see eye-to-eye almost from the start of their failing relationship which began in 2013 when McCabe sold a 50 per cent share of the club to the Saudi royal for £1, they are now engaged in an extraordinarily bitter High Court battle for total control. McCabe pursuing his belief that Prince Abdullah was a bad choice who hasn't lived up to expectation and wishing to see the back of him before selling on.
The latter believes he has responded to McCabes attempted buy-out with a perfectly legitimate counter offer in response and following promotion has since removed the cause of McCabe’s apparent objection to it by agreeing to include the purchase of property, including Bramall Lane, in the deal. McCabe had accused his partner of moving the goalposts and some of his shareholding to another company in an attempted manouvere to avoid buying the property.
In the meantime, Wilder after announcing those players either released or transfer-listed has 16 first team squad members left on his books, of which only four have Premier League experience. Richard Steadman (77 appearances), Chris Basham (22), Enda Stevens (7) and Sharp (2). Of them, wing-back Stevens, the youngest at 28, was the last to make a top flight appearance, for Villa in 2013.
The manager needs help – and quickly. As per usual, Prince Abdullah remains an elusive figure, rarely seen and rarely speaks. His only communication post-promotion being through Twitter. “I hope that this is only the start of greater things to come and look forward to sharing the journey with you,” he said.
Sheffield-born McCabe and a lifelong Blades fan, meanwhile, has given a vague public assurance about spending before the season kicks-off in the second week of August. When quizzed by BBC Radio Sheffield about Wilder’s budget, McCabe said: “Let’s just say it’ll be a healthy one.”
Without an explanation, how two men with absolutely no trust in each other, as reports from their continuing High Court encounter have so dramatically underlined, can voluntarily arrive at a satisfactory sum to fund boss Wilder’s transfer ambitions, is baffling. Especially as one of them expects to assume total responsibility and the other presumably looking to recoup pro rata outlay.
Villa have their challenges. Former owner Randy Learner is set to receive a £30m windfall. A sum agreed when Dr Tony Xia initial £76m purchase following relegation from the Premier League in 2016, included a clause which guaranteed Learner the cash if Villa won promotion within three years.
Last summer Xia, who came to an arrangement with HMRC to settle a £4m unpaid tax bill which threatened to put Villa into administration, sold a majority stake of the club, whilst retaining 49 per cent and a seat on the Board, to NSWE group, a company owned by two billionaires London-based Egyptian Sawiris and American Wes Edens.
But contracts signed by players under the Xia regime, means that promotion to the Premier League commits Villa to giving them substantial pay rises. Striker Scott Hogan, loaned to the Blades in January but who has now returned to the West Midlands, is among them. Unwanted former Sheffield Wednesday forward Ross McCormack, who cost £12m, is reported to be set for a £30,000 increase, putting him on £70,000-a-week.
All of which demonstrates what Wilder is up against and the realistic commitment neither McCabe or Prince Abdullah are likely to endorse at least until their court battle is settled.
Even then, with McCabe keen to immediately sell the club – American buyers are apparently waiting in the wings – and his Saudi partner also said to be exploring a sale, as revealed in the High Court proceedings which won’t end until late June. A judgment isn’t expected until after the new season has started, making the immediate concern of finding reinforcements of the right quality prepared to join a club where ownership is in flux, appear fragile.
All this against a backdrop when ready cash has never been more available at Bramall Lane. United finished 2017-18, their first season back in the Championship, sitting in the middle of the financial table amongst the 92 Football League clubs, having lost £1.9m. By comparison, Wolves, promoted as champions, were bottom having lost £57m. Play-off winners Fulham were second bottom, suffering a £45m loss. Tottenham, who had reigned in player spending, topped the table, showing a £113m surplus. Interestingly, Premier League champions Manchester City recorded a relatively modest £10.4m profit.
Now, having won promotion, United are guaranteed a £170m injection, which rises to well over £200m if relegated and parachute payments come into play. On the strength of this no-one with any fiscal understanding would want United to embark on a spending spree of inflated fees and wages which could haunt them in the future. Only an established top flight club could contemplate spending that sort of money.
But if they are to compete next season, excluding against the top six, on a reasonably level playing field rather than being condemned to a bottom-of-the-table firefight, a sensible balance must be struck.
Ironic, then, that the two men charged with doing just that appear incapable of striking anything but themselves due to a farce completely of their own making.