SHEFFIELD UNITED were urged to sign striker Aleksandar Mitrovic back in January 2018, but the advice was rebuffed claims Blades co-owner Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
That recommendation, said the Saudi prince giving evidence to the High Court in an on-going battle with partner Kevin McCabe to win full control of the club, came from the controversial figure of Jan Van Winkel who had just been appointed to the Bramall Lane board.
How United, a club we have learned from the court hearing came within 24 hours of not being able to pay wages to players and staff only 14 months earlier because of the burgeoning power struggle, and were already operating on a well-publicised shoe-string budget, would have funded a player on big wages and smashed a strict pay structure, remains, not surprisingly, unsaid.
Prince Abdullah had earlier been asked, somewhat mischievously and unrelated, if he cheated at fantasy football. To Blades fans the idea that the club would have actively pursued Mitrovic at that time, whilst desirable, is just that. Pure fantasy.
It does, however, provide yet another insight into a cavernous division within the club which supporters fear is derailing preperations for returning to the Premier League. Prince Abdullah has given a very different account of the re-signing of striker Ched Evans, as reported here. This appears to be another one.
While Fulham stepped in on the last day of the transfer window to take Mitrovic on loan from Newcastle, Blades boss Chris Wilder had earlier loaned striker James Wilson from Manchester United a move described by Prince Abdullah in court as “very, very, bad”. Wilson was thrown into the starting X1 for the goalless Sheffield derby at Bramall Lane whilst top scorer Billy Sharp began on the bench.
Mitrovic, then considered a £15million flop on Tyneside, went on to help propel Fulham towards the Premier League, scoring 12 goals from 20 appearances, including a brace in United’s 3-0 defeat at Craven Cottage. Wilson scored just once in nine outings (five starts) during an injury-prone stay.
“Mitrovic is an outstanding player and thankfully we won't be coming up against him in the next 11 games,” said Wilder after United’s defeat in west London. “He's going to the World Cup, Newcastle paid what for him? £15m? He should be playing in the Premier League.”
Van Winkel’s arrival on the behest of Prince Abdullah, caused backroom unrest. Not least when the Belgian, who holds a UEFA-pro coaching licence and was assistant to Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa when they were at Olympique Marseille, took to social media in an apparent barbed tweet directed at Wilder.
“A good manager,” he said, “is one who has sense enough to pick specialized (sic) staff to do what he wants done, and self restraint enough to keep from meddling with them when they do it.” A tweet that received a withering response from outraged Blades fans and one that was acknowledged in court as giving Wilder some displeasure.
That Prince Abdullah favours a continental management model with a director of football so that the team manager can concentrate on coaching, and Van Winkel is viewed as such a man, would be totally unacceptable to Wilder. Nevertheless, the Saudi highly values Van Winkel, the former technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and a director at Beerschot Wilrijk, also part-owned by Prince Abdullah. Under cross-examination in court, the prince said he couldn’t “believe that Kevin [McCabe] did not see the advantage of bringing in Jan.” A hint, maybe, of what might follow if McCabe is defeated.
Fulham went on to sign Mitrovic, paying a reported £20m for the man who has 49 international caps and 25 goals for Serbia. His 11-goal contribution last season couldn’t prevent the Cottagers being relegated back to the Championship. The Londoners, who spent just over £100m in the transfer market last summer, have placed a a £30m valuation on his head with West Ham and Crystal Palace believed to be interested. Real Betis, the Spanish side who United will play in a pre-season friendly next month in the Algrave, are reported to have tabled a bid.
FOOTNOTE: Wilson has since scored four goals for Scottish Premier League Aberdeen on a season-long loan. The 23-year-old striker once described by Manchester United academy coach Clayton Blackmore as “better than [Leicester and England’s Sheffield-born] Jamie Vardy”, has just been released from Old Trafford.