James Shield: Sheffield United's latest big idea makes sense, but is also a huge risk

Okay, some footballers can be a little bit entitled. I’ll tell you a story which explains why I know.

Thursday, 2nd June 2022, 5:00 pm

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It’s set in China, where Sheffield United had decided to spend preseason as part of an expansion project there. One which enjoyed fleeting success before eventually withering on the vine as these things often do.

Anyway, back to the Far East and a hotel lobby in Shenyang; the city where a friendly was about to be staged against what was then the leading team from Liaoning. As part of the trip, which also took in Beijing, Hangzhou and Changsha, dinners were arranged before each of the three matches United would play in order to help raise their profile with local dignitaries. At this particular event, one of those present who clearly had a few yuan, arrived armed with a DVD console for every member of the squad. Younger readers of this column will probably have to look up what they are but, trust me, they were pretty sought after back then.

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H.R.H Prince Abdullah bin Mosa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud listens as chief executive Stephen Bettis speaks: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Everyone who received their gift was touched by the gesture. Well, nearly everyone. “It’s not a totally top of the range model is it,” moaned one ungrateful so and so; much, I later discovered, to the annoyance of his colleagues. “So I don’t really want it. I’ll probably just leave it here.”

“If you don’t want it, then I’ll have it,” replied Yours Truly, to prove a point as much as anything. “No, you’re okay. I won’t use it because I’ve got a better one,” the ungrateful individual replied. “But it was given to me so no one else is having it. I’ll just leave it in the box at home.”

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and his assistant Stuart McCall: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Neil Warnock’s squad back then was full of solid, down to earth blokes. But every dressing room usually has ‘one’. I won’t name the guy in question because I’m more polite than he is. But, maybe because of the character and team spirit that particular United side boasted, he didn’t stick around for long.

The make-up of a sportsperson

Paul Heckingbottom was fortunate to have inherited a similarly straight up bunch when he was appointed in November. But I’ve recounted this incident because it’s important to remember that every professional sportsperson has a ruthless, ‘put themselves first’ streak. If they didn’t, it would be impossible to make it to the top in such a competitive business. Successful managers, coaches and administrators recognise that. They know the best teams aren’t really one homogenous unit. Rather a collection of individuals, despite what some misty eyed folk will tell you, brought together by a set of ideals and a common purpose. One - and I don’t blame them for this - is usually of some benefit to themselves. Either in terms of profile, money or ideally both.

The best bit

Sheffield United's squad are set for another round of wage cuts according to chief executive Steve Bettis: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Arguably the most interesting piece of information to emerge from Steve Bettis’ roundtable interview with a selection of journalists this week was the chief executive’s admission that the wage cuts United’s suffered after being relegated two seasons ago will be followed by more next term. Some clubs only dock salaries once. United, as part of the cost control measures the ownership hopes can protect their financial position, are doing it twice. There’s even, heaven forbid, a League One clause in Bramall Lane’s contractual template. Fingers crossed those never get triggered.

It’s a sensible strategy designed to protect United’s position in these times of financial uncertainty. But also a risk. Albeit, United’s board clearly believe, a calculated one. Players, as my Chinese yarn reveals, can often be overindulged. But, the same as any other employee in any other work place, perform at their best if they’re happy. And I doubt too many are delighted by the prospect of seeing their pay packets become a little thinner following last month’s defeat to Nottingham Forest in the Championship play-off semi-finals.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

The obvious response - and yes, it was my first one - is to tell them that if promotion is achieved those will automatically grow fat. It’s a compelling argument too, given that everyone outside Downing Street seems to realise we’re about to be hit by the worst cost of living crisis since heaven knows when. Footballers, certainly those in the top two divisions, get rewarded bloody well for doing something which, in the grand scheme of things, isn’t actually that important.

However, society shouldn’t get hoodwinked into a race to the bottom. Something politicians and lobbyists of a certain persuasion try are very good at doing whenever a union’s members go out on strike.

The reality

United’s rivals will know what they’re doing with regards to wages. And because not everyone within the game takes similar steps, are bound to try and use it to their own advantage. The biggest earners at Bramall Lane can probably swallow the cut. But they’ll also be the ones in the highest demand during this summer’s transfer window. And, despite the bullish and welcome pronouncements United are making about keeping the core of their squad together, we all know that failing to win promotion means some of its most influential members could move on.

United’s strategy makes sense. Plenty of folk will applaud them for taking such a bold step.

But it also presents a challenge because they don’t operate in a vacuum and most other clubs aren’t doing the same.

Who knows, they could be trailblazers. Their wage idea might catch on. Until it does, though, it presents Heckingbottom and his staff with a challenge: How to keep - and yes, I get these clauses weren’t slipped discreetly into deals - people happy and engaged despite seeing their earnings go down.