James Shield: This is a huge and pivotal season for Sheffield United

Make no mistake about it, this is a big season for Sheffield United.

Thursday, 28th July 2022, 5:00 pm

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I also suspect it’s a pivotal one too. A campaign which will decide if the club is on the cusp of something very special or about to enter one of the most challenging periods in its recent history.

Not the most challenging because, as we know, United have a knack of allowing opportunities to slip from their grasp and allowing off the pitch shenanigans to hijack events on it. But if the campaign doesn’t go well and promotion isn’t achieved, there’s a very real prospect that it will prove impossible to create any sort of lasting legacy from their recent two seasons in the Premier League.

All eyes right now are on Monday’s visit to Watford, which will be the first competitive outing for Paul Heckingbottom’s side since last term’s play-off semi-finals.

The team which beat them, Nottingham Forest, then dispatched Huddersfield Town at Wembley before embarking upon the type of spending spree which makes the money spent by Heckingbottom’s predecessor Chris Wilder - the man responsible for taking United up three years ago and then leading them to a ninth placed finish - seem pretty insignificant. And Evangelos Markinis’ largesse still might not be enough to avoid relegation.

The size of Forest’s gamble reflects the riches that are on offer when you reach the top-flight. Okay, so most of those end up in the pockets of the employees rather than employers. But still, United really should have more to show for the time they spent there than a borrowing arrangement with Macquarie Bank secured on the parachute payments they are receiving through to 2024.

A proud football club, this is a critical season for Sheffield United: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Nevertheless, at this stage of the transfer window United seem to be performing pretty well. Reda Khadra, Brighton and Hove Albion’s talented young midfielder, was unveiled on Tuesday evening after joining Anel Ahmedhodzic, Tommy Doyle, Ciaran Clark at the Randox Health Academy.

So far so good although, as history teaches us, it’s impossible to judge whether or not a recruitment drive has been a success until after the transfer deadline. Despite my continued doubts about aspects of his game, United won’t look quite as strong if the Norway international is lured away over the next few weeks.

It must also be a concern that the vast majority of the deals Heckingbottom’s employers have brokered are temporary rather than permanent acquisitions. Some, including Khadra and Clark, could yet be turned into actual purchases. But the fact 14 members of the 44-year-old’s squad are scheduled to become free agents next summer heightens the feeling that United still require a long-term strategy rather than relying on Heckingbottom’s powers of persuasion to deliver some sort of continuity. Remember, it wasn’t so long ago that Heckingbottom himself described uncertainty as a plague on coaches.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

If the core of this squad eventually breaks up, you can bet your bottom dollar that some people will argue it’s a positive development. But if that is the case, then United’s manager and his coaches shouldn’t be travelling to Hertfordshire with it. Yes, there’s always going to be some natural wastage. But the numbers shouldn’t be in double figures, particularly at a time when Heckingbottom is clearly operating under strict financial restraints.

While United’s staff attempt to plot a course out of the Championship, their leaders’ concentration must be focused on strengthening their financial position.

Yes, there’s advantages to borrowing rather than buying talent. Your money can go further, when it comes to ability. Particularly when the lender, as Huddersfield have demonstrated during their dealings with Chelsea, is prepared to heavily subsidise a salary in order to develop their asset.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom: Darren Staples / Sportimage

But there’s no point in denying it, adopting this approach has a downside too. Perform well and the player in question will spend at least a month before Christmas being linked with a return to their employers or a switch to somewhere else. Plus, unless they help you go up, then the money spent to acquire them essentially becomes dead.

Timing is everything as well. For some reason it went largely under the radar but, at a recent meeting of PL shareholders, a proposal was put forward which would compel EFL members to field a prescribed number of under-23’s from the country’s leading 20 sides.

Fortunately, Fair Game, an organisation backed by academics and politicians which aims to bring together “value driven” clubs, flagged up this dangerous idea with its chief executive officer Niall Couper describing the so called ‘New Deal’ for football as possessing “More holes” than a “Slice of Swiss cheese.”

“It shows a complete lack of respect for the hard-working community clubs that are the heart and soul of so many towns throughout the country,” Couper continued. “The football pyramid is not the Premier League’s plaything.

“To insist upon under-23’s playing in the EFL undermines the sporting integrity of the pyramid.

Evangelos Marinakis, the Nottingham Forest owner: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images

“A merit based system (which was also discussed by PL members) does nothing to tackle the gambking culture that led to the problems that have inflicted clubs like Derby, Macclesfield, Bolton and Bury in recent years.”

The trouble is, English football is so impressed by money, so willing to drop its principles for the first billionaire who gives it the glad eye, that you know some owners will go along with it if they think it might make them a few quid.

The players they’ve brought in look shrewd acquisitions. A couple of them, you’d think, have a chance of staying beyond the terms of their temporary agreements.

But United need to get out of this division - and fast - if they want to maintain a degree of control over their own destiny. And, a proud sporting institution, they must also find a way of weaning themselves off loans.