James Shield: Sheffield United & Chelsea have one thing in common, as The Blades edge it on points

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On the face of it, this column is about Chelsea not Sheffield United. Except, really, it isn’t.

But events at Stamford Bridge, where long-term projects last for all of seven months, have set me thinking about one of the biggest challenges facing Paul Heckingbottom and his staff right now: How to ensure a club which, off the pitch at least appears to be living financial quarter by quarter, formulates a plan to ensure continued prosperity on it.

Followers of the west London outfit who aren’t old enough to remember the pre-Roman Abramovich era, won’t thank me for saying this. In fact if my musings permeate the make-believe world they have created for themselves - one where victories, trophies and dominance are a birth-right and should be guaranteed - I can imagine a few of them firing off some snotty Snapchats right now. Other social media platforms are available but I don’t know the verb for posting on TikTok and, to be perfectly honest, can’t be bothered to find out. Really, it’s not that important. But United and Chelsea, or Chelsea and United depending which side of the fence you’re on, have more in common than they realise. A least when it comes to the problems they face over the coming months. Problems, albeit, created by a different set of circumstances in SW6 and S2.

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In order to explain what I mean, I start with the side which used to be managed by Graham Potter. Before Abramovich’s successors, Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital, gave him the boot last weekend. A gifted project manager but known for being a bit of a slow-burn, the former Brighton and Hove Albion head coach only arrived in post in September. Clearly enough time, after witnessing his employers do everything except the things he actually asked for, to make sense out of the chaos he inherited. Well, if you inhabit the Chelsea boardroom at least.

Potter may or may not have been the right man for the job. We’ll never really know. But what his former employers, plus many of their supporters who cheered his exit fail to grasp, is that the landscape around them has changed. Hiring and firing on a whim, making lots of signings and then dispensing with those which didn’t work, are no barriers to success when you have more money than everyone else. But when even more minted owners park their tanks on the Premier League lawn, strategic thinking is required to keep collecting silverware. And strategies take more than two or three transfer windows to implement. Albion and Brentford aren’t punching above their weight simply because of Potter, Roberto De Zerbi or Thomas Frank. It’s because they have articulated a plan of action, put it into practice and stuck to it. Managers, no matter how good, aren’t magicians. They can’t make nonsense coherent.

Nor does anything last forever. Just ask Preston North End, Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers, once the behemoths of English football.

Sheffield United are performing well on the pitch despite the situatioin off it: Jan Kruger/Getty ImagesSheffield United are performing well on the pitch despite the situatioin off it: Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Sheffield United are performing well on the pitch despite the situatioin off it: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Which brings me to United and what is happening there. Second in the Championship table and having reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup, Paul Heckingbottom, his staff and players have excelled themselves this term. Hopefully they continue to do so.

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But they will be doing the 45-year-old and their supporters a great disservice if they expect that to continue in the present circumstances. Because, let’s be frank, if the league table was based on performance behind the scenes, it would look very different to what it does right now. Well, from United’s perspective at least.

Not so long ago, following a report in a national newspaper which collated stories run by The Star and other regional publications and then framed them around an EFL regulation which dictates members who enter administration before a specified date in a season must be deducted points that term, United’s chief executive Steve Bettis felt compelled to issue a response. Suggestions they were days away from ruin, he insisted, were “ridiculous” - even going so far as to label them “b******t”.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James ShieldThe Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

But there was precious little else to cheer about what Bettis said was a full and frank update about United’s financial health. I don’t personally blame him for the situation but contractors were still being paid late, a transfer embargo was still in operation and, despite spending two of the past three years at the highest level, money is short according to what was positioned as a full and frank update.

If United go up, and if they aren’t taken over by Nigerian businessman Dozy Mmobuosi or anyone else, it might kick the can down the road for a couple of miles. But the can will still be there. And in order to stand a chance of surviving, given the lack of spending power, United will need to formulate a proper strategy in order to create a mighty big bang for relatively little buck. Ideally, they should be doing that now. And, in the Bramall Lane bootroom, I know they are. The trouble is, strategies which only exist on paper are pretty damn useless. Heckingbottom needs to be given the tools to actually carry the one he has created out. Lifting the embargo, being able to agree new contracts with those players he wants to keep among the swathe of soon-to-become free agents among his squad, would be a start.

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United, just like Chelsea, need to come up with sustainable ideas and show some joined up thinking. Because if the next seven league games work out the way they want them to, even an accomplished and intelligent operator as Heckingbottom is going to need help from above. Right now, no matter how some folk try to portray things, no matter how many excuses they offer for the obstacles he has been forced to overcome, that simply isn’t there. It should be. It could be. But it isn’t.

Thankfully, unlike Chelsea, United seem to have the football bit sorted out.