James Shield's Sheffield United Column: What the transfer window has taught us
Sometimes, despite the need for transparency, a little opaqueness is no bad thing.
Countless Z-list celebrities have discovered as much, revealing every aspect of their lives to the paparazzi or social media, before learning the hard way that some things are best kept private.
People working in football can also possess this strange and ultimately self-destructive character trait, which presents a problem for those of us calling for greater pellucidity in sport. But just as it is wrong for those tasked with running and managing clubs to distort information, particularly when it relates ownership and governance, even the most inquisitive of supporters can accept that some things are best kept out of the public arena.
Sheffield United’s recruitment, or lack of it during the mid-season window, has been the source of much debate this week. Journalists and fans alike have speculated why Chris Wilder, who before it swung upon was clearly under the impression that at least two new players would be arriving at Bramall Lane, enters Sunday’s game against Chelsea with exactly the same squad that faced Manchester City last weekend. On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after United kept their survival hopes alive by beating fellow strugglers West Bromwich Albion, HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who seized control following a High Court battle a little over a year ago, decided to ro reveal why - alluding during an interview with a Premier League rights-holder that both he and the board feared the targets Wilder had identified might have little impact upon results and appearing to question the wisdom of the choices made last term.
“You always have to position yourself and don’t think with emotions,” Prince Abdullah said. “We had to look at our position in the table and, if we brought in two or three loans and it doesn’t work out, then it would add to the burden that we would have to manage next year.
“Number two, you have to look at our past record in loans, especially in January. Number three, the board made that decision but the whole team has to pick itself up.”
“When the team is playing well, they don’t need anyone,” he continued, again emphasising that he wants to retain Wilder’s services no matter what. “I don’t think any one player could have saved us. We have to save ourselves from within...I really believe in the team and the players we have.”
Prince Abdullah is perfectly within his rights, for whatever reason, to withhold funding for transfers. As the person ultimately in charge of United, it is also his prerogative to make the final call on any deals the manager - or head coach as he often, and intriguingly, refers to Wilder - wants to complete. He is the one who will pick up the tab or be responsible for balancing the books. The Saudi Arabian is also United’s ultimate boss.
But equally, Wilder is also permitted to feel more than a little aggrieved by the sound of his employers seemingly doubting - and publicly too - his ability to make the right calls regarding personnel. Particularly when one of those players he had recommended - former Preston North End defender Ben Davies - later completed a deadline day switch to Liverpool for a cut price fee. The sum they paid should, had United progressed negotiations before Jurgen Klopp stepped in, been well within their budget.
Admittedly, none of the deals United completed this time last year - and which reading between the lines appear to have influenced the directors’ stance now - turned out to be hugely successful. Panos Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic were used only sparingly. Even then record signing Sander Berge, pushed forward by a member of United’s hierarchy but endorsed by Wilder, did not begin to start fulfilling his potential until the start of this term.
But context is important. Retsos and Zivkovic struggled for opportunities because of the form of those around them. Had they not been brought in, and United had suffered the same fitness issues then as they are grappling with now, it is unlikely Wilder’s squad would have finished ninth in the table. That saw them pocket around £21m in merit placement prize money; roughly £5m more than Everton in 12th. The differential between 20th and 18th, perhaps a better consideration now, is nearly £4m. So it’s possible to claim that any incomings could have washed their own face, given that United are only three points behind Fulham who presently occupy the final relegation berth.
Mo Besic, brought in from Goodison Park two summers ago, also made little impression during his stay in South Yorkshire. But again, the Bosnian suffered because those around him were doing so well, with Berge’s presence later intensifying competition for places in midfield.
Context is important. Given the ocean they are now swimming in, permanent incomings are unlikely to hit the ground running because United simply do not possess the financial might to prise proven elite level performers away from domestic rivals. And, over the course of the past five-and-a-half years, their record when it comes to loans is actually pretty damn good. Marvin Johnson, Scott Hogan and Gary Madine helped them climb out of the Championship. Kieran Dowell, now of Norwich City, did the same while Jay O’Shea impressed en route to the 2017 League One title.
By their own standards, United have increased their spending under Prince Abdullah, which should be welcomed. Likewise his willingness to explain why they failed to strengthen and attempt to provide clarity about Wilder’s position. But I also fear this is one of those instances where, even though it goes against the grain, United might have been better served by keeping some of this information quiet. Hopefully nothing more than a little tension behind the scenes, which isn’t always a bad thing, comes of it. Particularly with results suggesting United are rediscovering confidence and form.