Analysis: The one area of the pitch where Sheffield United will be vulnerable to Premier League transfer predators
Sheffield United have been warned it is inevitable that some of Bramall Lane’s most talented players will depart this summer, as a direct consequence of being relegated from the Premier League.
Speaking as United’s hierarchy consider the financial implications of losing top-flight status following two seasons at the highest level, caretaker manager Paul Heckingbottom admitted there will be ramifications on the pitch too - long before the new Championship season begins in August.
Despite privately briefing there will be no fire sale of talent when the transfer window reopens, United have privately been told the likelihood of avoiding a major overhaul during the summer recess is slim.
Heckingbottom, who managed Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian before being placed in interim charge last month, acknowledged he also expects a number of leading names to move on as rival clubs exploit United’s predicament.
“People will go, I think that’s fair to say,” he said. “There will be losses, I think that’s certain. It always happens. It would be wrong to try and pretend otherwise.
“The people who come in as a result, they have to make the group better. There’s no doubt about the fact that has to be the aim. In terms of the group as a whole, looking at the big picture, they have to make it better.”
“Of course, I’ll say it again, there will be losses,” Heckingbottom added. “That’s just being realistic.”
Although finishing ninth in the table last term has guaranteed United access to an enhanced parachute payment, losing access to the broadcasting and commercial opportunities available to elite level sides is bound to have a debilitating effect upon their spending power moving forward. With the Covid-19 pandemic also wreaking havoc with most teams’ financial plans, United renewed their loan facility with Australian bank MacQuarie earlier this year - with the facility being secured on PL TV monies until 2023.
Unless owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his board pump significant sums into United’s coffers over the coming months, the majority of the funding made available to Chris Wilder’s permanent successor is set to come from sales. Sander Berge, who until Rhian Brewster’s arrival from Liverpool was United’s record signing, is widely expected to be among those to leave with Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur both invited to submit bids for the Norway international.
In normal circumstances, and given that he has not played since December after suffering a serious hamstring injury, losing Berge would not prove to be too much of an issue for United. However, with John Lundstram entering the final month of his present deal having refused to sign an extension, United face the prospect of losing their two most experienced attacking midfielders.
Iliman Ndiaye, who made his debut at Leicester City four weeks ago, is likely to be granted more opportunities following United’s return to the Championship. But aged 21 and with only 15 minutes of senior football to his name, the Frenchman will be tasked with providing cover and support for a more experienced performer.
It underlines the importance of not only reaching agreement with Ndiaye’s agent about a new contract for his client as The Star revealed yesterday, talks between the two parties remain ongoing - but also ensuring the search for Wilder’s replacement does not drag on a moment longer than necessary.
Speaking after United’s defeat by Wolverhampton Wanderers, which mathematically sealed their fate following a miserable campaign, Heckingbottom revealed “decisions are being taken” by those tasked with leading the hunt before acknowledging a quick appointment would be preferable.
With Oostende’s head coach Alexander Blessin and former Watford and Fulham manager Slavisa Jokanovic both being linked with the vacancy, that raises the possibility that whoever seizes control could be invited to help shape recruitment policy before actually being confirmed in post. Jan van Winckel, Prince Abdullah’s footballing advisor, is also set to take a more hands-on role when it comes to identifying and procuring targets.
With the vultures set to begin circling above South Yorkshire in the not too distant future, United will probably breathe a sigh of relief that centre-half Jack O’Connell is unlikely to feature in any of their remaining six games. Arguably the greatest beneficiary of United’s switch to a back three at the beginning of Wilder’s reign, the centre-half’s specialised role could dissuade clubs who operate with a flat back four from expressing an interest. But if he proves his fitness during pre-season training, O’Connell is set to be in-demand during the January market. That explains Wilder’s decision to terminate Rhys Norrington-Davies’ loan with Luton Town over the festive period and place him with Stoke City, who also operate with a three, instead. Now capped four times by Wales, the youngster is recognised as being O’Connell’s long term replacement.
All in their thirties, United should have no problems retaining the services of David McGoldrick, Chris Basham and Billy Sharp. But George Baldock and Oli McBurnie, who is said to have attracted interest from Molineux, could both prove vulnerable while John Fleck and John Egan are also expected to attract admiring glances from elsewhere, Indeed, being more of a ‘traditional’ defender than O’Connell, Egan could be presented with opportunities which are denied to his colleague.
As well as brokering an agreement with Ndiaye, United must also convince a number of other Steelphalt Academy graduates, including Kyron Gordon and Zak Brunt, that their futures are best served by remaining at Bramall Lane.