Analysis: What Prince Abdullah's interview really told us about his disagreements with former Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder
Most of it was public knowledge thanks, in no small part, to some pretty frank comments from Chris Wilder towards the end of his reign at the club.
The former Sheffield United manager refused to explicitly identify every single issue. But, by cryptically referring to himself as “head coach” and then intimating his future was in doubt unless Bramall Lane’s hierarchy followed “the plan” - his plan - Wilder knew every single journalist with access to his weekly Zoom briefings would be able to join the dots. A much more sophisticated character than his image might suggest, the 53-year-old let it be known he felt his work was being interfered with and that there were disagreements behind the scenes about recruitment strategy.
Something had to give. History has taught us that owners always win this type of footballing power struggle. So, when Wilder’s departure was confirmed 24 hours before United’s visit to Leicester City, no one was genuinely surprised.
HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s interview with a Premier League rights-holder - helping to bankroll the competition buys you certain privileges - detailing his take on the events which led to Wilder’s departure represented an attempt by United’s hierarchy to redress the balance. The level of detail he went into was surprising, claiming that Wilder had demanded £4m midway through the season in return for his resignation.
“Chris said, in a one hour call, why he wanted to,” Prince Abdullah recounted, referring to an incident believed to have taken place following January’s defeat by Crystal Palace. “He said he felt the team needed a change, a new voice.”
“We were very clear and said we don’t want to fire you, but if you want to resign you can,” he continued, noting Wilder had received his public backing only a month earlier. “But we will not pay you the same money as if we were firing you. The emails started between his representatives and our financial guy and we were astonished to find he had asked for £4m to resign.”
Clearly, Prince Abdullah wants to chip away at the perception that Wilder, a lifelong United supporter and also an ex-player, always put the club’s interest before his own. It is thought that Wilder was asked to provide a response by SKY, the organisation which broadcast the Saudi’s thoughts. But, almost certainly bound by a non-disclosure agreement, that was likely to have been an offer made purely out of courtesy rather than genuine expectation. It would seem that a ‘mirror’ clause was not inserted into the package which sealed his exit. Either that or, after consulting with his lawyers, Prince Abdullah felt this was a move he could safely make.
Time will tell if the calculations Prince Abdullah’s advisors have made about how his comments will resonate are correct. If his replacement comes in and United perform well in the Championship - where their directors acknowledge they are heading after finding themselves cut adrift in the relegation zone with only nine matches remaining - then supporters will quickly embrace the new regime. If not, then more discontent beckons. Either way, the legacy of a man who not only delivered two promotions and then a ninth placed top-flight finish but also reconnected the team with its fan base will not be tarnished easily. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation.
Prince Abdullah is entitled to tell his side of the story. But as well as being a defensive manoeuvre, or a simple rebalancing exercise depending on your point of view, many of his comments also carry a high degree of risk. As The Star revealed last week, many within Prince Abdullah’s inner circle felt Wilder’s complaints his squad lacked enough genuine Premier League quality to make a difference at the highest level effectively demoralised those within it. Also, with academics at the CIES, a respected research unit based in Switzerland, recently reporting that United had a negative net spending balance of around 134m euros, they felt comfortable asking why?
But after confirming the board wants more input regarding recruitment- “It can’t be my way or the highway every time, only these players and no one else.” - Prince Abdullah inadvertently strayed into the same territory as Wilder. Although record signing Rhian Brewster and Aaron Ramsdale were highlighted as exceptions, one wonders how the likes of Jayden Bogle, Max Lowe, Wes Foderingham and others who have been brought in since United climbed out of the second will feel after hearing Prince Abdullah acknowledge he effectively agreed with Wilder, despite disagreeing about how the situation had come about.
“We needed players to help us this season, not in the future...we thought we should be more open...rather than limit ourselves to one market.
“We don’t see the players we have missed out on, like the ones suggested by the board for very reasonable value. One of them is having a great season in Germany.”
Bizarrely, it sounds as if Prince Abdullah and Wilder had more in common than either would care to admit. Both had concerns about United’s depth of calibre. Both were uneasy about how their money was being spent and what it was being spent on.
Owners and managers frequently row. But they’re usually able to resolve things without washing their dirty linen in public. In this instance, one can only conclude the real issue at United, the one which saw Wilder’s reign come to an end in disappointingly acrimonious circumstances and left Prince Abdullah feeling bruised enough to respond in such explosive fashion, was the breakdown of the personal relationship between what were two of its biggest figureheads.