BLADES fans’ worst nightmare emerged in the High court when counsel acting for co-owner Kevin McCabe and Sheffield United Limited suggested that if his client does not win the bitter battle for full control of the club, team boss Chris Wilder is likely to quit.
That Paul Downes QC could make such a suggestion, presumably with the consent of McCabe, can be interpreted as either a tactical ploy or the first public notice of Wilder’s intention should Judge Mr Justice Fancourt rule in favour of Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Either way Mr Justice Fancourt observed “speculation was not going to help” and pointed out that Wilder was not being called by either SUL or UTB, a company owned by Prince Abdullah, as a witness.
The startling claim came during Mr Downes’ cross-examination of United’s chief executive Stephen Bettis, with whom Wilder has formed a close relationship and relies on as a buffer and sounding board between the two warring factions. Only last month, shortly after winning promotion to the Premier League, Wilder said: "The relationship I've got with Steve allows me to do my job in and around the football club to the best of my ability.”
Mr Downes said: “Mr Chris Wilder is emotionally attached to Sheffield United and feels a great deal of love and loyalty to Kevin McCabe personally. Kevin McCabe has been attacked personally in this case and he [Wilder] is not going to stay, is he, if Prince Abdullah wins?”
The barrister added: “Chris Wilder has a very good relationship with Kevin McCabe. He would be broken hearted if he thought Mr McCabe was being disrespected.” Bettis, appearing as a witness for UTB, replied: “Yes, he has a huge amount of respect for what he [McCabe] has done for the club.”
Bettis is in his second spell at Bramall Lane, allegedly having his wages stopped by McCabe without being informed after revealing his intention to base himself in Los Angeles to concentrate on other business matters. It was suggested by Mr Downes, when cross-examining Prince Abdullah last week, that because both men have homes in LA there was a connection. Something the Saudi royal denied.
Bettis, who believed that he could still perform his role for the Blades before discovering his pay had ceased without warning, said in court that “there were no hard feelings” towards McCabe.
He resumed as CEO at Bramall Lane in 2018, a return welcomed by Wilder. “Stephen played a vital role in our League One title success, he was a fantastic sounding board for me and a great link with the Board,” said the Blades boss who nevertheless threatened to quit over management issues immediately after promotion to the Championship was won.
Apart from demanding improved financial backing in the transfer market for the step up, having performed miracles on a shoestring, Wilder was not happy about the perceived role of Jan Van Winkel who was appointed to the board in December 2017.
The Belgian, who has a UEFA-pro coaching licence, and formed a close relationship with Prince Abdullah when working as technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, was trying to interfere in team affairs, something that Wilder was not prepared to countenance.
Van Winkel, No2 to Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa when the latter coached French side Olympique de Marseille, remains in the shadows at the Lane. Also a director of Belgian second tier club Beerschot Wilrijk, which Prince Abdullah part owns, there are fears that should his Saudi boss win full control of United, the latter may attempt to appoint Van Winkel director of football. Believed to be a preferred model of Prince Abdullah’s but something which would be totally unacceptable to Wilder.
A recent guest on the BBC’s Saturday lunchtime TV show Football Focus, the Blades boss reiterated his firm belief in having full control of team affairs.