How Sheffield United could exploit Slavisa Jokanovic's contacts at one of the world's leading football clubs in their pursuit of promotion next season
Three years ago, visitors to one of the restaurants which afford diners a panoramic view of the pitch at Stamford Bridge might have noticed two people locked deep in conversation around a small glass table which had been discreetly set aside in one corner of the room.
The man, sporting an open necked collar and smartly tailored suit, will have been recognisable only to those with a deep knowledge of football or die-hard Sheffield United supporters. The woman, however, was one of the most powerful and influential figures in world football.
It was there, at a hastily arranged lunch inside the stadium’s 1905 Club, where Paul Mitchell and Marina Granovskaia cemented the relationship which would first see Jamal Blackman and then Ethan Ampadu complete loan moves from west London to South Yorkshire. Although Mitchell’s boss has now changed, with Slavisa Jokanovic taking the reins following Chris Wilder’s departure in March, it was also the meeting when the two clubs entered into an agreement: a loose, unofficial pact to use Bramall Lane as a staging post for some of Chelsea’s finest young talent.
Sources with knowledge of the meeting between Mitchell, United’s head of recruitment, and Granovskaia, Roman Abramovich’s eyes and ears on the ground at the European champions, recount how the pair got along so well they decided to continue their discussions over food rather than the coffee table situated in the Russian-Canadian’s office.
And after United’s two year stay in the Premier League came to an end earlier this month, Bramall Lane’s hierarchy will hope the relationship Mitchell helped build with Granovskaia and her associates will open doors locked to others now they are back in the Championship.
With their owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his advisor and confidant Jan van Winckel recently appointing Jokanovic as Wilder’s replacement, United are well-placed to cherry-pick some of the most promising members of Chelsea’s development squad and bring them north. The Serb, who has been encouraged to view the temporary transfer market as his first port of call during the forthcoming window, spent a couple of seasons at Chelsea before retiring as a player and has previous for plundering his former club’s ranks.
So it would be a major surprise if many of those names he has put forward as potential signings are not currently contracted to Thomas Tuchel’s side.
Chelsea’s academy, home to some of the most gifted footballers in the world, has long been a source of fresh blood for teams looking to acquire high-calibre talent at a fraction of the usual cost. Providing, of course, they are content to borrow rather than permanently acquire those on its books.
There is also a crop of professionals who, after outgrowing the development programme, are searching for first team football in order to try and strengthen their case for a place in their employers’ starting eleven.
It is this pool where Jokanovic has successfully gone fishing in the past, using his contacts at Chelsea to bring Lucas Piazon and Tamas Kalas to Craven Cottage during his spell in charge of Fulham which saw him win the second of two promotions from England’s second tier.
Others have done the same, with Conor Gallagher, who forged a deadly partnership with Rhian Brewster at Swansea City, leaving the Liberty Stadium to spend last term at West Bromwich Albion. He was replaced by Marc Guehi, who captured Tuchel’s imagination by excelling during City’s march into the play-off final. Luke McCormick appears ready for a step-up after impressing for Bristol Rovers while Armando Broja, most recently of Vitesse Arnheim, was prolific at youth level.
Although he will not officially arrive at United until early next month, United are arguably even better placed to do business with Chelsea now thanks to Jokanovic’s presence. The former Yugoslavia international played alongside both Jon Harley, who now works at their Cobham training complex, and Carlo Cudicini, one of three loan managers employed by Chelsea, during his time there. Despite being expected to adopt a more global approach to scouting than has been seen in the past, as United attempt to ramp-up their network of global sister clubs, Jokanovic still boasts strong ties in the capital where he played under Claudio Ranieri.
Having pledged to keep his distance until his contract with Qatari outfit Al-Gharafa expires, Jokanovic’s fingerprints could be found on the retained and released list United published last week.
The imminent departures of Sander Berge and John Lundstram are out of his hands, with the two midfielders both deciding to leave long before the Serb’s appointment, However, Jokanovic is understood to have endorsed the plan to offer Kean Bryan a new contract. Mobile and with more than enough pace to compete with even the quickest attackers, the defender is still far from the finished article having struggled for game time since waving goodbye to Manchester City. But his qualities could make him an intriguing project for Jokanovic, who has cited speed, power and creativity as three things all new signings must possess.
By electing to focus primarily on loan signings this summer, United are taking a pragmatic approach towards both the loss of their top-flight status and the harsh financial realities of football post the Covid-19 pandemic. That pragmatism is likely, although by no means certain, expected to see them try and utilise the connections both Mitchell, should he remain in position long-term, and Jokanovic enjoy at Chelsea.