James Shield's Sheffield United Column: No fanfare, but Middle East development could be huge for The Blades

It escaped most people’s notice. Probably because, unless you translated the post on the Sheffield United owner’s Twitter feed, the news was relayed in Arabic.
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But HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s decision to establish a brand new football club - in the emirate of Dubai - could turn out to be one of the most important taken at Bramall Lane in recent years. Certainly, if my suspicions about the thinking behind the decision to found Al-Hilal United (AHU) are correct, it has the potential to influence results there in the future. Only not, if they are, for a good few years yet.

Little is known about Prince Abdullah’s latest project. Other than the fact it competes in the UAE Second Division and stages games at The Sevens Stadium; a multi purpose sports ground, built by the region’s major airline, located on the intersection between the E66 road and the E77, which leads towards the interior. Opponents will include the likes of Al Falah from Abu Dhabi and Al Mooj, who are based in Al Jazira Al Hamra; a town famous for its abandoned buildings and reputedly haunted mosque. The Netflix thriller 6 Underground was also filmed there not so long ago.

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But AHU are worthy of our attention. Because, as the name suggests, they appear to form part of a framework designed to spread United’s reach and influence in the global transfer market.

Given the remarkable progress Wilder’s squad has made in recent months - they were due to enter this weekend’s game at Newcastle ranked seventh, pushing for European qualification, only a season after being promoted - United now view the likes of Wolves, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea as rivals, which presents obvious challenges. Particularly if they are serious about maintaining their steep upward trajectory. All three, together with teams such as Arsenal, Everton and Steve Bruce’s side, possess much deeper pockets and can recruit players from areas too expensive for United, at this stage of their development, to enter.

So in order to keep pace, to make sure they can continue to prevent the division from becoming all about money rather than skill and intelligence, United must think smarter and outside the box.

But as they found during a foray into the Chinese market around a decade-and-a-half ago, it is impossible to bring overseas footballers to England unless they have appeared in a designated number of recent internationals. By which time market forces dictate the price to acquire them has usually soared.

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When it emerged Prince Abdullah had also made a major investment in Beerschot, some commentators suggested they could be used to park foreign talent ahead of moves to South Yorkshire thanks to Belgium’s immigration laws which, by British standards, remain relatively relaxed. But with non-EU nationals required to be paid a minimum annual salary before they can sign for a club affiliated to the Royal Belgian Football Association, that could still prove expensive. Particularly if the individuals concerned are viewed as long term projects.

A view of Dubai, where Al-Hilal United play, from the top of Burj al-KhalifaA view of Dubai, where Al-Hilal United play, from the top of Burj al-Khalifa
A view of Dubai, where Al-Hilal United play, from the top of Burj al-Khalifa

No such ruling appears to exist in Dubai. Or at least the bar is not set as high. So, for the sake of argument, United could purchase a player from Columbia, coach them at AHU and then dispatch them to Beerschot. Should they demonstrate the necessary qualities, they could then be considered for moves to United.

It is for this reason, I wonder if AHU are part of a portfolio of interests similar to the City Group, the holding company which has Manchester City, New York City, Melbourne City, Girona and Montivideo City Torque under its umbrella.

All five have derived considerable sporting and commercial benefits from this pioneering set-up. United, Beerschot and AHU could, if I’m right and all goes to plan, enjoy the same.