James Shield's Sheffield United Column: Newcastle, Saudi Arabia and the next step The Blades should consider taking
There’s no point in denying it. Contrary to what managers, coaches and owners might claim whenever they’re under pressure, football fans are usually pretty easy bunch to please.
You, me and everyone else who follows the beautiful game, we don’t ask for an awful lot. We’re not the most demanding of partners. It doesn’t take a Rolex, a fancy holiday or even a regular night out to keep us happy. Just a bit of respect, honesty, commitment from our players and the odd decent result will do quite nicely thanks very much.
Given that most clubs win the sum total of nothing, that’s actually a pretty good thing. But not always.
And despite the fact we’ll tell people vying for our affections that we’re not impressed by money, actually we are. Even though we don’t expect the watch or the trip to the Maldives, we are quick to worship those with a few million or billion sloshing around in their bank accounts. And, being a window into society, conflate wealth with intelligence.
The two, trust me, don’t go hand in hand. Sometimes, But not always. As we have discovered, on a number of occasions recently, with devastating consequences.
We’ve seen an example of that coalescence last week, following the takeover at Newcastle. Okay, context is important. Zippy and Bungle could have bought St James’ Park and been feted following Mike Ashley’s time at the helm. But the sage nodding of heads as Amanda Staveley trots out the usual lines folk do when they purchase a club is laughable. Not because I wish her or her project any ill will, despite my personal concerns about ‘sportswashing’ which appear well-founded following attempts to frame concerns about the buyout as being motivated purely by jealousy. Rather because, unless I’ve missed something, the blueprint she’s been outlining, is torn straight from the ‘How to Impress and Influence’ playbook spin doctors and gormless, self-important members of the PR professional always purchase for their clients in situations such as this. With all due respect, Staveley and the people she represents aren’t football experts. But they’re been treated as such, including by some members of my own profession, simply because they’ve got a few quid.
Comparisons between Sheffield United and Newcastle aren’t worth the paper or webpages they’re written on for a whole host of reasons. Up in the North-East, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, one of the biggest sovereign wealth funds on the planet, leads the consortium which has just taken charge. Staveley, who fronted the deal, and the billionaire Reuben brothers have also acquired stakes.
The PIF, whose chairman Mohammed bin Salman is accused by US intelligence of approving the operation which led to dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi being murdered and then apparently dismembered, has clearly passed the PL’s test which disbars prospective owners from taking charge of one of its members if they have committed an act which would be a criminal offence in this country.
HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, United’s Saudi owner, is a private individual. Having assiduously steered clear of politics since taking sole control, he may or may not be dismayed by his country’s human rights record. Those who claim he should come under the same type of scrutiny as MBS are misguided. It would be like holding a member of the Communist Party of Britain responsible for Margaret Thatcher’s decision to close the pits.
But United and Newcastle do have something in common. And that, until Staveley and her partners appoint someone to oversee their acquisition’s sporting and technical affairs, is the lack of a figurehead boasting a wealth of genuine experience at the game’s coalface. Someone with clear responsibility for devising a strategy for success, implementing it and then being held accountable for the club’s followers if it all goes pear shaped.
Jan van Winckel, Prince Abdullah’s friend and confidant, probably performs this role at Bramall Lane. The Belgian, a university graduate, UEFA Pro Licence holder and former technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, is known to advise his employer on sporting matters. But he doesn't officially hold the position of technical or sporting director. His influence, therefore, is pretty opaque. Which, through no fault of his own, has the potential to create problems.
United’s hierarchy, like most of their counterparts across the English game, have done lots of things right and plenty of things wrong during their time in charge.
Appointing Jokanovic, despite seemingly being intent on doing anything but at the beginning of the selection process following Chris Wilder’s departure, was a smart move. The thinking behind their United World project, a global network of clubs which also includes Beerschot and Kerala United, is clever - even if its ability to bear fruit ultimately depends on the operation here in South Yorkshire.
Included among the latter, the mistakes, is the failure to outline and then action a coherent masterplan to ensure that is the case. That is reflected by the number of loans United brought in during the recent transfer window and the speed with which they were brokered. The Covid-19 pandemic has been put forward as an excuse for placing a sticking plaster across the holes which exist within United’s squad. But plenty of their Championship rivals were able to complete permanent deals - and quickly - despite also seeing their balance sheets badly affected by the global health crisis.
Having named Jokanovic as their manager in May, with the Serb starting work a month later, the window of opportunity has probably now passed. But when he does eventually depart, or if it is someone he trusts and can work with, United must consider either making van Winckel their actual rather than de facto director of football or making an external appointment. Providing they have influence, real tangible influence, It could prevent some of the problems they have been forced to confront of late arising in the first place.