TONY CURRIE let slip what many Sheffield United fans fear when he quit his seat on the Board immediately after learning that Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had won full control of the club.
“It will be catastrophic if we lose [manager] Chris Wilder because of this takeover,” he said, revealing the very real concerns existing behind the scenes. Of Prince Abdullah, Currie, voted United’s best ever player and who has a stand named after him, added: “I’ve only seen him at the ground twice. I've only spoken to him once.”
High Court judge Mr Justice Fancourt had just ordered co-owner Kevin McCabe to sell his 50 per cent shareholding to the Saudi who paid £1 for the other half in 2013. The culmination of a bitterly-fought six-week courtroom battle between the men and, pending a possible appeal, marking the end of lifelong Blades fan McCabe’s 25-year involvement with the club, shaking Bramall Lane to its foundations.
Paul Downes QC, representing McCabe in the High Court had hinted of something similar when the case was being heard in London during the summer. “Mr Chris Wilder is emotionally attached to Sheffield United and feels a great deal of love and loyalty to Kevin McCabe personally,” he said. “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.” The claim came during Mr Downes’ cross-examination of United chief executive Stephen Bettis who was appearing as a witness for UTB, a company owned by Prince Abdullah. A claim, it can only be surmised was sanctioned by McCabe.
Tellingly, Wilder has never responded. Although he does indeed have a close relationship with McCabe, he has wisely chosen to walk a diplomatic path, insisting that what goes on between his paymaster is not his concern.
Suddenly that has changed. Wilder, scheduled to take part in a hastily arranged fans’ forum at the Lane on Thursday alongside Bettis, will be seeking clarity from the new regime.
So what would make the former United ball boy, quit the club he has played for and supported since childhood? There is only one issue and that is the management model going forward. Wilder might be a dynamic, modern-thinking and innovative manager, but he is also old school when it comes to basics of the job.
Prince Abdullah and his advisors are thought to prefer a continental approach where a director of football sources potential players leaving the manager to exclusively coach and deal with day-to-day team matters.
This is totally unacceptable to Wilder and he used an appearance on BBC’s Football Focus shortly after clinching promotion to the Premier League to offer a reminder to anyone who might be listening. Behind closed doors Wilder was certainly not happy about the perceived role of Jan Van Winkel, 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 would not countenance and brought to an immediate halt.
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 worries in the Wilder camp that the Saudi views Van Winkel in the role of director of football.
Given Wilder’s untouchable status at Bramall Lane having lifted United from League One to the top flight within three seasons, that is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Fear of losing the man with the Midas touch as United plot to remain in the Premier League next season has seen to that.
But even so, if Wilder does not receive an assurance this will remain the case at the end of the campaign he won’t react kindly. Possibly the only hope might be if McCabe puts club before grievance and asks him to hold fire for the next eight months as a personal favour.
“It is a sad day,” said Currie. “Over the past 25 years Kevin McCabe has transformed the club. We have a team in the Premier League with a brilliant manager, an academy producing players for the England team and one of the best stadiums in the country.
“All of that is down to Kevin. I'm sad for him and sad for myself and I'm sad for Sheffield United supporters.”