James Shield's Sheffield United Column: They don't have to be mates but this is how the stand-off between manager and owner could be solved

Apparently, ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’ and ‘The Sound of Silence’ weren’t just song titles. They provided pretty accurate descriptions of the relationship between Simon and Garfunkel too.
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The duo were barely on speaking terms for the best part of two decades. Which makes it all the more remarkable, although their sterile, collegiate folk rock warblings were never my cup of char, that they created some of the best known tracks of an entire generation. Garfunkel, the one with the scary hair for those not in the know, supposedly felt so betrayed by his childhood pal’s decision to record a solo single at the beginning of their career as a double act, it poisoned the rest of their time together.

No one is expecting Chris Wilder and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to make sweet music together. And if they tried, after listening to the Sheffield United manager serenade the crowd outside the Town Hall following his team’s promotion from the Championship, I wouldn’t expect them to be troubling the download charts anytime soon. Although on second thoughts, if Ella Henderson and Tom Grennan’s cheesy schmaltz can do it, anyone probably can.

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Still, it’s probably better if they just stick to the football. And focus on trying to repair a partnership, if indeed that’s possible, which seems to have grown every bit as strained and distrustful as the one involving Queens’ finest.

H.H. Prince Musa'ad bin Khalid bin Musa'ad Al Sa'ud, (l) manager Chris Wilder and H.R.H Prince Abdullah bin Mosa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Sa'ud.  Simon Bellis/SportimageH.H. Prince Musa'ad bin Khalid bin Musa'ad Al Sa'ud, (l) manager Chris Wilder and H.R.H Prince Abdullah bin Mosa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Sa'ud.  Simon Bellis/Sportimage
H.H. Prince Musa'ad bin Khalid bin Musa'ad Al Sa'ud, (l) manager Chris Wilder and H.R.H Prince Abdullah bin Mosa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Sa'ud. Simon Bellis/Sportimage

After simmering away for around 12 months, the tension between the pair finally came surging to the surface on Tuesday when Wilder, who was supposedly there to discuss United’s game against Aston Villa 24 hours later, decided to pursue a different agenda. Unless the club’s owner stuck to “the plan”, he told journalists on the Zoom call, then his position would effectively become untenable. The exact details, and identity of its architects, remains unclear. But Wilder, stopping short of issuing any ultimatums but skillfully laying a trail of clues to follow, left no one in the audience under any illusions about what will happen if it isn’t adhered to. In adhered to in a way which meets with his approval.

“I don’t know,” he replied, when asked if his immediate future lies at Bramall Lane. “I don’t know.

“Head down and onto the Villa game. Then what will be will be. I want to stay, definitely. If we stick to the plan.”

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United did get their heads down, meaning they enter this weekend’s meeting with Southampton on the back of a deserved 1-0 win, albeit without any senior centre-halves after seeing Phil Jagielka dismissed early in the second-half. But given what had gone on before, it was impossible to escape the feeling that what happens on the pitch is now merely a distraction from the main event. The arm-wrestle for power and influence over first team affairs.

Although Wilder obviously feels strongly about the situation, and is convinced his way is right, he has also been in the game long enough to know that directors always tend to win arguments like this because they hold the purse strings. And the 53-year-old, who has twice led United to promotion since taking charge in 2016, is worldly wise enough to appreciate that Saudi prince’s - or prince’s from anywhere in the world for that matter - don’t take kindly to being told what to do.

Despite insisting he wants to keep his squad together when - and, given they finished the contest with Villa 12 points adrift of safety, it remains when - they are relegated from the Premier League, Wilder will appreciate some departures are inevitable. And those will be top line players.

He was keen to underline that protecting United’s financial position is his biggest priority. Clearly, given the fact they have substantial sums invested in the project, that also goes for the board. So, removing all the pus and detritus which develops around wounds like this, Wilder and his bosses essentially want the same thing: A successful team, capable of returning to the top-flight as quickly as possible, plus a prudent but ambitious budget.

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So, to boil everything down, those in the boot room and the boardroom agree on United’s direction of travel. But they differ, or at least fear they do, about the best means of transport.

Let’s not kid ourselves here. The situation is very grave. Very grave indeed.

But can it be rescued? Will Wilder and Prince Abdullah, who not so long ago publicly stated he wants to retain the 53-year-old’s services, ever be capable of sharing a conference call without cursing each other off camera? Of course they can. Providing they both want to do it. And given that everyone at Bramall Lane has had a gutful of political infighting over the past few seasons, it is definitely worth trying to arrange some sort of mediation process.

Everyone involved in this dispute has plenty to lose. Wilder won’t want to leave the job, maybe the best he will ever have, in these circumstances. Prince Abdullah is unlikely to welcome the prospect of losing the very individual, by his own admission, he would look to hire if the hot seat became vacant. Of course, if there really is no chance of a reconciliation, then it’s best for United and their own sanity that the two part company. But hopefully that doesn’t happen. And it doesn’t have to, providing an honest broker can be found.

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The best person for that role is someone who enjoys the respect of both men but with no ties whatsoever to United. A go-between who does not owe their position to either of their patronage and so, as a result, can speak frankly and freely.

Does a suitable candidate exist? Is anybody out there? Answers on a postcard please. You never know, if you can conjure a name you might just spare United from any damaging upheaval at a time when they need clarity and consistency.

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