Inside the meeting which will shape Sheffield United's movements in the transfer market
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The agenda, which could succinctly be described as ‘What is this football club’, made it sound like a get-together of philosophy students debating sense, place and being, But it was actually one of the most important discussions those in attendance would hold during a season which saw United win promotion from the Championship and reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup.
Part of a process which began 14 months earlier, following Heckingbottom’s appointment on a long-term contract, the 45-year-old, Stuart McCall, Jack Lester and Paul Mitchell never had a chance to test their findings. Prohibited from signing players by the English Football League, a ban which was eventually lifted when United renegotiated some of the debts, United finished the campaign with essentially the same squad which had started it. However, as they scour the market for high-calibre acquisitions which fit within their severely limited budget, Heckingbottom and his cohorts have now dusted down the notes they compiled during that gathering and distilled them into bullet points for potential targets.
“It’s important that you have an identity, something that you stand for if you like, and every club is different.” Heckingbottom told The Star just over a fortnight ago. “We’ve definitely got an identity and also a way of playing. That means, if you can put it across clearly, it can be really attractive to people with the same aims and values. And, for obvious reasons, those are the people we want.”
Although the spin war surrounding the resources placed at Heckingbottom’s disposal has now begun in earnest, following suggestions that the pot of money he’s been handed by United’s hierarchy might not be the actual pot at all, sources within the game confirm the former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief is working on the basis that he’ll receive just over 10 percent of the monies generated by his employers’ return to the top-flight in order to reprofile their squad. They’ve arrived at that conclusion after assessing some of the exploratory talks he’s held with clients and their clubs.
In PL terms, it’s a pittance. Heckingbottom and his colleagues face a huge challenge. But as their recent troubles with the EFL demonstrated, United aren’t minted. Despite being about to rub shoulders with the elite names of English football for the third time in five seasons.
Still, Heckingbottom has shown he can beat the financial odds before. And the tool he used to help him perform this trick was building a narrative around United. Over the course of this summer, expect promoting it to become one of the key tasks on the ‘to do’ list of Bramall Lane’s PR department.
“Because we’ve got clearly defined principles and a way of doing things, a style if you want to out it like that, we were able to put those to him because we knew they matched his,” Heckingbottom continued, outlining how United captured Anel Ahmedhodzic from under the noses of his other suitors at the beginning of last term. “There was a lot of interest in him, as you’d expect, because he’s a quality player. The thing was, we were able to put things to him that showed he was really suited to us. He agreed, and that’s why he chose us pretty early on.”
The ‘things’ which seduced Ahmedhodzic, now one of the most influential performers on United’s books, included detailing how they would encourage him to attack despite being a defender and also reminding that he would be joining a team of fighters; which appealed to the sensibilities of an individual whose family were forced to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina because of the horrors of the Balkans War. The blue collar values Heckingbottom also embraces - “It’s important we reflect and represent our community” - will doubtless pique the interest of others who are searching for an opportunity which promises more than simply a bumper salary.
“There’s things we can offer here, we believe, because of the environment that we’ve tried to create and what the lads who are already here bring,” Heckingbottom said. “It’s something, I think, that appeals to individuals with the same values. Something they want to be a part of. I know, with the dressing room we’ve got, that I would have done. (They’re) Not just good players but good people as well.”
Another tactic Heckingbottom will use to try and snare the players he wants will be to emphasise United’s proven track record of nurturing talent. As well as transforming Iliman Ndiaye into one of the most coveted youngsters in the country and seeing the likes of Kyle Walker, Harry Maguire and Dominic Calvert-Lewin graduate from their youth programme, United helped Manchester City duo Tommy Doyle and James McAtee harness their potential following loans moves to South Yorkshire last season. These case studies, coupled with the platform Morgan Gibbs-White was given by United before his £45m move to Nottingham Forest, should prove compelling not only for up-and-coming youngsters themselves but also technical and sporting directors looking to arrange temporary transfers for their own club’s best up-and-coming professionals.
“What you do, is you look to find a bracket to work in, a niche, an area of the market that suits you,” Heckingbottom said. “I think there’s a whole host of things this club, because of what it is and what it stands for, can offer a player that are really attractive.”