Going inside the top-level meeting designed to shape Sheffield United's Premier League future
Towards the end of last season, as a campaign which had seen his team make a mockery of claims they were destined for relegation drew towards a close, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder summoned members of his inner circle to a meeting at the Steelphalt Academy.
There, inside an open plan office overlooking the first team training pitch and affording views across the city’s north-easterm suburbs and beyond, some of the Premier League club’s most influential thinkers began the process of deciding how best to reshape its squad whilst remaining within the parameters of a budget reduced by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s fair to say, we’ve lost a chunk of change,” Wilder told journalists during one of his countless virtual briefings during Project Restart. “That’s just the way it is. Everyone is in the same boat. But I still think the leading names, the really powerful names, will continue to spend big.”
With Manchester City and Chelsea already flexing their financial muscles, Wilder’s suspicions proved correct. Far from being deflated, as many had predicted, the transfer market appears in pretty rude health.
Although potential targets dominated the conversation, a number of other subjects were also discussed during the get-together, which ended with a series of proposals being drafted to put to United’s board of directors. Indeed, given Wilder’s desire to ensure his employers build on the progress they have made since being promoted 16 months ago, those were arguably the ones he cared about the most. Including plans to improve the working environment at Shirecliffe and gain access to new cutting edge technologies, they are the items Wilder believes offer United the best chance of establishing themselves at the highest level for many years to come. And, given the fact he lacks the funds to acquire players with long term track records of top-flight success, also ensure those he does recruit realise their potential.
The announcement that United are constructing a new base on the site where they prepare for games, replacing the old converted social club Wilder’s side uses at present, is the first step of this programme. The Star understands the 52-year-old commissioned plans and costings to erect a series of prefabricated buildings there last summer, after guiding United out of the Championship. Although the club’s hierarchy agreed it would be a desirable step to take - AFC Bournemouth used the same company to overhaul their training ground in double-quick time when former manager Eddie Howe expressed concerns about its suitability for PL football - the power struggle between Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud meant the idea was mothballed. After winning the battle for control of United, the Saudi Arabian has now given the green light - although the exact details of the structure have yet to be revealed.
Wilder views this as a way of ensuring United not only continue to deliver results - they have won 17 and drawn 13 of their last 44 games - but also become an even more attractive destination for ambitious professionals.
“Everything is moving so quickly now,” he said midway through last term. “The science people use to try and get an edge over the opposition, the analysis work that goes on and the prehab and rehab protocols are getting so advanced and, in order to keep doing well, you’ve got to try and keep up as much as possible.”
“Players want to see these things, and not only because it sends the right message,” he continued. “They’re not daft, they know what is possible and what isn’t possible. But they’ve also seen what others in the business have access to and how it can help.”
Knowing that players’ minds can be swayed by things like facilities and infrastructure when they are considering moves, Wilder views the overhaul of the Steelphalt Academy as an important weapon in the fight to attract fresh talent and retain the services of those already in situ.
Former Rangers goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, who agreed a move to South Yorkshire last month, has spent the past five years working at Auchenhowie, previously known as Murray Park and The Hummel Training Centre, which boasts undersoil heating, nearly £200,000 worth of gym equipment, a hydrotherapy pool and computer systems which enable players to activate personalised fitness schedules compiled by on-site conditioners.
Reading midfielder John Swift, who is hopeful of joining United, started his career at Chelsea. Their training ground at Cobham is even more impressive; housing cold immersion baths, together with saunas and steam rooms.
Although United can not afford such luxuries, Wilder is determined they enjoy the best their budget allows. This extends to the location of their pre-season training camp, which was also debated during his recent summit with coaching staff. Despite social distancing measures still being in place as Europe battles to prevent a second wave of the respiratory disease sweeping across the continent, United aim to spend at least a week abroad before returning to action next month. However, their choice of location could change dispensing upon government travel guidelines. That means a number of alternative destinations - and friendly opposition - are likely to have been identified alongside their preferred choice, which has previously been used by Liverpool and Leicester City.
“You can’t stand still,” Wilder said. “You’ve got to try and be the best you can be, but in a sensible way.”