Sheffield United: Why the Blades should attempt to hang on to their prized asset David Brooks... at (almost) any cost
As we met in the Copthorne Hotel next to Sheffield United's Bramall Lane home, David Brooks sipped on a Lucozade and worked his way through a packet of chewing gum as he discussed his past, the present and his future.
We met in early April, when Brooks had made his long-awaited return from glandular fever and was steadily being introduced back into the first-team fold.
Boss Chris Wilder and the United medical staff were keen not to rush him too soon, and risk a relapse.
Brooks, mature beyond his years at just 20 years old, spoke about his rejection from Manchester City and how he bounced back to become a Wales international, after settling just over the Pennines at United, for my book on Wilder’s Blades revolution.
Unsurprisingly, one Sunday afternoon in September featured prominently as Brooks linked up superbly with Leon Clarke, embarrassed Jack Hunt on Sky Sports and walked away from Hillsborough with the man of the match award from that 4-2 victory.
It is moments like that, when Brooks showed up on the biggest stage, in the most vociferous of atmospheres and stuck the ball through Hunt’s legs, that stick in the mind, and get fans off their seats.
Which is why, with newspaper speculation suggesting Bournemouth had made a £12m bid for the Welsh international, I suggested on Twitter that, purely from the point of view of watching him play, I hope he isn’t sold.
The response, for me, was fascinating. As ever with a football opinion on Twitter, some agreed and others didn’t, which is fair enough.
The absence of insults and swearing made it even better. But opinion seemed to be divided, and some interesting points were raised.
My main one was that, as a journalist who first saw Brooks glide across the mud at Stocksbridge for United’s U23s, I think he is a joy to watch.
His attitude hadn’t changed from playing in front of 300 people when he stepped out in front of 30,000, and the kid just a) loves to play football and have the ball at his feet, and b) shows no fear.
Along with his sharp brain and even sharper feet, it can be a deadly combination. But, of course, I write from a relatively safe position; in that, unlike Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah, I am not in charge of a loss-making football club and don’t have to fund the deficit every year from my own pocket.
It’s not a particularly glamorous way to look at football - that sometimes players have to be sold to keep the lights on - but nonetheless it’s an important part of the bigger picture.
To that end, it’s also unlikely that if, say Brooks was sold for £12m, we’d see Wilder handed that amount to spend in the market. And even if he was, signing a £12m player would come with the associated wage demands of a £12m player, so in even the best-case scenario United would arguably worse off.
Wilder’s transfer record since taking over has been good, but with any player there are no guarantees. The higher the fee, the greater that risk can be. Much has also been made of Wilder’s increased budget for the new campaign, rightly inflated after last season’s valiant assault on the play-offs, but it still seems inconceivable that he has the resources to bring in players valued in the eight-figure bracket.
In Brooks, he already has one. Of the fans advocating cashing in on the club’s biggest asset, the main reasons seem to be the risk that he doesn’t kick on, and the fact that he isn’t a certain starter in any position for United. Both are valid points but on the balance of probabilities, and especially as he trains every so often with the Wales national squad, Brooks will only get better, rather than regress.
He will grow with experience of being around the first-team picture, and confidence as he becomes a more integral part of the squad - as I believe he would if he had not seen his season disrupted entirely by glandular fever.
Versatility, too, has rarely been known to hamper any player. United’s coaching staff admit they are still unsure about Brooks’ best position, but in the 3-5-2 system they play so well there are only two real choices - as a No.10 or a second striker, unless a slight tweak in formation sees Brooks and Mark Duffy both deployed as No.10s behind a main striker. Not many Championship defences, for my money, would fancy facing that.
The final decision on Brooks’ future, of course, is out of the hands of the supporters and media and it was reassuring when Wilder faced the media last week for the first time this summer and said none of his players had expressed a desire to leave.
But Eddie Howe is expected to test United’s resolve with an offer and if he is indeed sold, this summer or any other, it seems imperative that United learn the lessons of the past.
The presence of two graduates from their academy, Kyle Walker and Harry Maguire, in England’s World Cup squad suggest they were dramatically undersold for around £3m each, although other factors including length of contract and divisional status always influence deals.
United, based on last season’s showing, are a top-10 Championship club at least and Brooks is under contract for a lengthy period of time. Neither suggest the panic button should be pressed just yet. If it is, the valuations of James Maddison and Jack Grealish, in the £20m-£30m bracket, should offer some sort of guideline.
Is it any coincidence that speculation over Bournemouth’s Brooks bid has trickled out so soon after the youngster changed his agent? It’s impossible to tell. But for once, United appear to be in a relatively strong bargaining position with one of their young stars and despite all the talk in modern day football of ‘player power’, it is still they who hold the player’s registration - so any deal done should be for their benefit, and theirs alone.