James Shield's Sheffield United Column: The big issue that needs addressing behind the scenes at Bramall Lane
Sometimes it can be a blessing.
But only sometimes. Usually when you are burdened with a bunch of overpaid players nobody actually wants. Not even if you offer to pay their agents' fee, laundry bills and insurance contributions. Oh, and chuck their taxi fare into the whole mix as well.
At most clubs, however, it isn’t a good thing to let key squad members approach the end of their deals. Sheffield United discovered to their cost what can occur when this happens, after watching John Lundstram leave for nothing five months ago. Admittedly the midfielder was pretty woeful as they spiralled towards relegation - although, at this point, it’s only fair to point out he wasn’t the only member of the squad to stink out the Premier League. But Lundstram still must have been worth a couple of million quid. Rangers, where he eventually pitched up to the surprise of absolutely no one, got him for zilch.
Contract planning shouldn’t actually be the most difficult art to master, providing the proper due diligence has been performed on acquisitions. But plotting the trajectory of someone’s career definitely isn’t an exact science. Why? Because no amount of scouting reports or statistical analysis can predict if a lad - or a lass - is going to go off the rails or suffer a debilitating injury.
And if you are an EFL outfit with money to burn, the whole administrative situation can get even more complex. Aston Villa, for example, were able to start paying top dollar wages to attract proven PL performers the moment they won the 2019 play-off final. Some dead wood was inevitable as the best of the rest were also lured to Villa Park.
United, who beat Dean Smith’s men to automatic promotion, wanted Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash. But both of them moved to the Midlands instead with the likes of Danny Ings, Emiliano Buendia, Betrand Traore and Leon Bailey later following in their footsteps.
Watkins is now an England international and valued at significantly more than the £30m Villa paid to prise him away from Brentford. The Londoners, now an elite level outfit themselves, have put the money they received to damn good use.
At places like Bramall Lane, where there isn’t a billionaire holding court in the boardroom and the whole operation effectively funds itself, it is much more important to calculate a player’s likely shelf-life. If Jokanovic does take United up, the sky could be the limit. But history has taught us, those tasked with ensuring the balance sheet stays balanced would be pretty damn reckless if they didn’t consider the possibility of an immediate return to the Championship. Even after leading them to a ninth placed finish during their first season back in the top-flight, the Serb’s predecessor Chris Wilder acknowledged survival was still United’s number one target. They ended up missing it by a pretty damn big margin. But Wilder, just as Jokanovic will do if he gets the opportunity, still factored that scenario into his recruitment strategy.
Just before the former Yugoslavia midfielder accepted the challenge of succeeding Wilder, his employers were privately briefing they felt the squad at his disposal was already equipped to challenge for promotion. Albeit with a little tinkering which, unfortunately for the new guy, didn’t get completed anywhere near quickly enough to deny rivals such as West Bromwich Albion, AFC Bournemouth and Fulham a double digit head start. But that’s another argument. For another of these columns. If I haven’t already mentioned it enough.
That signalled the football brains among United’s hierarchy believed the likes of George Baldock and Chris Basham were still too good for the second tier. And without sifting through the reasons why last term proved to be a b***s up of epic proportions, they probably weren’t too far wrong. But given that he only turns 34 in November, the same will go for David McGoldrick and probably even the evergreen Billy Sharp if Jokanovic’s side falls just short next summer. But both of them - and Basham and Baldock - will be free agents by then.
Naturally, there are advantages to this type of situation. Particularly if finances need to be reprofiled, the options available are not fit for purpose or costs need to be slashed. But they are outweighed by the potential problems. They include the inability to receive any sort of return on an investment and also the possibility that people who could have important roles to play going forward are lured away.
Savings are also negligible because agents, whose only loyalty is to themselves and the folk they represent, will factor a free agent’s estimated value into any wage negotiations. Oh, and no manager, apart from those who earn a living taking jobs no one else will touch, likes uncertainty. Coherent plans and clearly defined strategies are all pre-requisites for success. Unless, of course, you have so much spare cash sloshing around in your coffers it’s possible to cherry pick the best performers for every position at any given moment. Or go on a sweep through football’s global supermarket. Or the idea all along is to eventually fillet your playing staff. If so, it doesn’t ring true with what we were being told only a couple of months ago.
While Jokanovic and his coaching staff are plotting United’s course towards Christmas, those whose responsibility it is to oversee non-sporting matters must continue addressing the contract situation after making a start with Iliman Ndiaye a few weeks ago. Or they will be leaving themselves, the rest of the team, Jokanovic and also the supporters who pay their hard earned cash to come and watch, terribly exposed.