James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Give Chris Wilder a chance next month, because his sums always add up
Football, as someone famous probably never said, is a game of opinions.
But no matter where you stand on Jose Mourinho versus Pep Guardiola, the supposed merits of tiki-taka or exorbitant ticket prices, not even their fiercest of critics could deny Sheffield United have made a superb start to the Championship season. Sixth in the table after 21 matches, eight months after leaving the rest of League One trailing in its wake, Chris Wilder’s side should be battling against relegation if budgets decided results. Fortunately, good players, intelligent strategies and excellent scouting systems also influence outcomes. United, whose financial resources are dwarfed by 19 of the division’s 24 clubs, clearly possess all three.
Which makes the forthcoming transfer window such a pivotal moment. Not only for the present campaign but, given co-owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s recent admission in this newspaper that “long-term, clubs with deeper pockets have a better chance”, potentially the next four or five years too. United, with no access to top-flight parachute payments or sovereign wealth funds, might never enjoy a better opportunity to secure top-flight football unless either their circumstances or those of the game in general change. (It will be interesting to see how the Chinese government’s decision to impose greater checks and balances on those investing overseas changes the sport’s financial landscape).
Although calls for United to gamble should, given the possible consequences, be ignored at all costs, despite the fact pleas to sanction three, four or even five millions pound signings demonstrate a lack of understanding about the actual sums involved, it would surely be prudent to increase, even slightly, the amount they plan to make available for transfers? After all, studying the latest set of accounts, my rudimentary calculations suggest even the highest wage packet at Bramall Lane is below the competition’s mean of £16,000.
Utility bills, taxes and all the other boring things folk ignore when estimating the cost of running a football club eat into monies received. Channeling every spare penny into the first team squad means other key benchmarks of a successful institution, such as state-of-the-art training grounds and youth academies, at best get neglected or at worst totally ignored.
But by recruiting the likes of John Fleck and Mark Duffy on free transfers, having acquired Leon Clarke, Jack O’Connell and Richard Stearman for relatively modest sums, Wilder and his staff have shown an impressive eye for value and talent. Crucially, Paul Coutts being an obvious example, they are capable of getting the best out of and then improving, existing players too. Overall, the value of United’s squad has risen considerably under Wilder’s leadership. What, for arguments’ sake, is Fleck worth now?
So with several areas in need of strengthening - including centre-forward, central midfield and possibly a specialist left-sided centre-half - United must do everything in their power to ensure funding is available for the right additions. Because this could be their moment. The time when a public display of ambition, tempered by a dose of realism, reaps huge rewards.