James Shield: A theory, and a proposal, to put to Sheffield United's board of directors
You can’t help but wonder if it was down to a failure of communication.
Chris Wilder didn’t really want to leave, despite the obvious differences of opinion.
HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud had explicitly stated, in an impromtu interview with a Premier League rights-holder during the build-up to Christmas, that he had no intention of losing the 53-year-old.
But in the end, following months of disagreement about all kinds of things behind the scenes, Sheffield United last week parted company with arguably their most successful ever manager.
It is a crying shame, a real gut-wrencher for both parties involved in the affair, that his reign not only ended in the most abrupt fashion possible but also with so much acrimony swirling around in the cold South Yorkshire air.
Reams and reams has written about the reasons behind Wilder’s departure, and the events which spawned them, since his five year reign one week ago. This newspaper has already documented all of them so, with no desire whatsoever to keep traipsing over old ground, I won’t bother going into too much detail here. Even folks with only a passing interest in what goes on at Bramall Lane know Wilder and Prince Abdullah, who now has the unenviable job of trying to replace someone responsible for overseeing two promotions as United’s impending relegation looms on the horizon, were finding it increasingly difficult to agree on all manner of issues.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of this sorry episode, whether blame should be apportioned to one side or shared between the two, Wilder had become more than just a manager, head coach or whatever. For many people, he was the figurehead and standard bearer of a popular movement too; one which sought to remind the suits and scientists looking to seize control of the sport that passion, a sense of place, belonging and community, is always more valuable than pounds, shillings, statistical insights or some unpronounceable unit of miniscule measurement.
So, while referencing the club’s remarkable achievements since appointing Wilder in the summer of 2016, let me make a suggestion for the future. One which might prevent whoever is tasked with replacing someone who not only delivered huge success on the pitch but also re-energised an entire support base and helped the club rediscover its identity from being engulfed by the ginormous boots they must attempt to fill.
United might be entering Sunday’ FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea on the back of a 5-0 thumping by Leicester City and adrift at the bottom of the table. But, make no mistake, Wilder has brought the type of success which was beyond the imagination of even his most dedicated cheerleaders since seizing the reins and shaking United out of the coma it had slipped into following a lengthy period in League One. Being a lifelong fan and former player has helped cement his legendary status. First and foremost, though, he is just bloody good at what he does.
The same goes for those around him and, when the decks are finally cleared, Wilder and his inner circle are unlikely to be out of work for long.
Disputes behind the scenes are commonplace in football. But most are resolved because people are allowed to talk. Often, a legendary figure or respected former player acts as a conduit between the warring factions. Not owing their authority to the patronage of either, they can encourage both the the negotiating table, if necessary bang heads together, and help them find some common ground. In a results based business, that shouldn’t be too hard to find although, (genuinely, don’t read between the lines here), egos often get in the way.
Of course, as countless managers including Jose Mourinho and now Wilder can testify, there is only ever going to be one winner in a tug-of-war between members of their profession and club owners. The person holding the purse strings, the ultimate boss, will always come out on top.
So finding someone with the qualities I described to mediate and also, in necessary, provide encouragement and advice is always going to be difficult. But surely not beyond the wherewithal of folk who have made millions, even billions, of pounds in their personal lives or won thousands of points? Then again, (still, don’t read between the lines), life has taught me there’s not always a direct correlation between intelligence and wealth. Ruthlessness, luck and the eye for an opportunity, maybe.
But, trust me, although they might like to convince themselves otherwise, having a bank balance the size of a small country’s GDP doesn’t make someone an expert on whatever crosses their desk.
One way of facilitating this would involve a change of statute, without necessarily eroding the authority of the board. Inviting interested parties with the relevant experience to put themselves up for election - say, every two years - with registered supporters being able to cast votes to decide the holder of this ‘independent’ position would also help cultivate relationships with the terraces.
It should be a paid position, to help attract the right calibre of candidate. Someone like - plucking a name purely out of thin air - Brian Deane for example, who boasts an understanding of both the sporting and the administrative challenges facing football professionals thanks to his involvement with projects in England, Norway and Kosovo. And it would be money well spent.
Who knows, if something in place now, it might also have helped Wilder and Prince Abdullah get most of what they wanted and avoided a divorce?