James Shield's Sheffield United Column: This is the biggest test facing The Blades right now
Progress comes at a price; particularly in football where money, not character, talent, good intentions or community spirit is the most frequent subject of conversation at most of the country’s clubs.
Managers usually want more, and frequently get it. Chairman and owners are excused all sorts of reckless and at times utterly shady dealings so long as supporters and journalists, many of whom espouse probity and prudence in one breath and then celebrate the exact opposite with another, see a few more quid getting pumped into the coffers.
Before, as is usually the case, flying straight out the other end like a bad case of financial diarrhoea. Cash, it seems, has become the only gauge of ambition.
Sheffield United have done things differently in recent years, with one of the two promotions achieved under Chris Wilder disproving the law that those with the deepest pockets inevitably climb to the top of their respective table.
But money, despite continuing the same trend in the Premier League this season, is set to become a major issue again at Bramall Lane again. Both in the boardroom, where HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud discovered over the weekend that Kevin McCabe’s latest attempt to appeal against his ownership had failed, and on the pitch. The two are not, such is the increasingly rapacious nature of the modern game, mutually exclusive.
Before Tuesday’s meeting with Manchester City, and also this weekend’s FA Cup tie at Millwall, Wilder has been quizzed on the progress of contract talks with three of his most influential players.
John Lundstram, John Egan and Enda Stevens were, if the timescale presented to the media was correct, all invited to discuss new deals towards the end of the autumn. As things stand, all three remain unsigned.
Given the complexity of the agreements being discussed, which are likely to contain numerous loyalty and performance based bonuses, career opportunity clauses and perhaps even image based rights, that is neither cause for criticism nor concern. Those representing the trio - and the same goes for those negotiating on behalf of United’s coaching staff - are perfectly entitled to try and achieve the best possible outcome for their clients.
The difficulty United have now, however, is their top-flight status. With a cataclysmic sequence of results required to see them go down, they must discover a way of paying their employees a fair wage in a competition where the average salary is now £61,024 a week. Or, even though the industry standard at United is likely to be lower than that mark, accept that some members of Wilder’s squad, (and I’m not referring to these three in particular), will inevitably be lured away by those who can.
Some churn is inevitable. Professionals always find their level. United, whose recruitment model is built on spotting unfulfilled talent, have done plenty of poaching themselves.
But this is the challenge facing Prince Abdullah and his new board who, after apparently seeing off McCabe’s bid to wrestle back control after two decades in the hot-seat, must provide Wilder with the resources to build upon his achievements since taking charge four years ago. Whilst also making good on their arrangement, as detailed in the official statement announcing the Court of Appeal’s refusal to consider McCabe’s concerns, to purchase the property interests, including the Steelphalt Academy training complex and stadium itself, currently held by his companies.
It will be a difficult and, although not impossible, challenging task requiring imagination, expert knowledge and lashings of hard work. Because United must never be exposed to the whims of bankers, lenders and charlatans who now circle around professional sport in the hope of making a fast buck themselves and then leave others to pick up the mess.
But that is the assignment they must now complete, in order to continue moving forward, precisely because they have gathered so much momentum of late.