Guest Sheffield United Column: With Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah set for the High Court to decide ownership of the Blades, there’s a lot more than ’just’ promotion at stake for United this summer
Rewind, if you can stomach doing so, to 2.30pm on May 8, 2016.
Sheffield United had just been soundly beaten by Scunthorpe United at the end of a non-entity of a season and, as a final act of penance, Nigel Adkins sent his team on an excruciating, end-of-season, lap of shame performed before a scattering of supporters.
An embarrassing finale, for a directionless team, led by a befuddling manager.
Now fast-forward to 2.30pm, on March 16 2019. The Blades had just moved into second place in the Championship, by beating Leeds at Elland Road; ten games unbeaten, celebrated by an ecstatic, travelling horde.
In the passing of just over two-and-a-half-years Chris Wilder has transformed a team of also-rans into one with genuine Premier League aspirations.
He has done so with a 55 per cent win ratio, too, and by playing a brand of football described by the club’s greatest ever player, Tony Currie, as an absolute pleasure to watch. The average league attendance at Bramall Lane has risen by 6,000 and, in the words of many, Wilder has ‘given the club back to its supporters.’
United's ‘on the front foot’ style of football has won accolade way beyond the Steel City – Wilder’s team are one of the most televised in the second tier – and opposition fans regularly craving a similarly expansive approach. And it’s not just the Blades’ style that gains admiration; even more remarkable is the consistency of performance Wilder demands and receives from his players.
Heady times indeed for Blades fans starved for far too long of a team they could really get behind and believe in.
But Blades fans know well enough the transient nature of their team’s success. The acquired wisdom of years, following their team through its occasional highs and less unusual lows, reminds them of the importance of enjoying every single moment of this particular journey.
For beyond every sun-drenched, scented meadow they have nonchalantly skipped through in days gone by, lays a steaming heap of dung.
John Harris’ team of the 1970s and Porterfield’s in the 1980s; Bassett’s in the 1990s, Warnock’s in the 2000s – all provided passages of pleasure and moments of ecstasy and, in Bassett’s case, a period of sustained success. The uniting factor in the demise of all - bar, arguably, Warnock’s reign – was events in the Blades boardroom rather than the boot room.
In the 70s, rather than building on the foundations of an excellent team assembled by Harris, the Blades board sanctioned the construction of a new South Stand and turned a sixth-placed finish in 1974 into rock-bottom, relegation a year later.
Porterfield’s momentum, in achieving two promotions in three seasons in the 1980s, was curtailed, again, by a lack of investment leading to his departure and relegation back to the third division two years later.
Bassett worked miracles, taking United into the top flight and keeping them there on a threadbare budget in the 1990s, but eventually succumbed -having experienced probably the most turbulent period in the club’s ownership history.
During his reign Bassett worked under the ownership of Messrs Brealey, Woolhouse, McDonald and very nearly Sam Hashimi. Derek Dooley’s role in maintaining a semblance of normality amidst chaotic governance becomes ever more apparent with hindsight.
Warnock’s success in taking United back into the top flight in 2006 was undermined by the Carlos Tevez affair, involving one of the most flagrant breaches of etiquette and rules in English football history. Once again the elation of promotion transformed to the agony of relegation within a single season.
And so to Wilder’s Blades. Thanks to Kevin McCabe’s fleet footedness in snatching Wilder from Charlton Athletic’s grasp in May 2016, United have at the helm one of the most talented managers in English football. One who knows not just how to win football matches but how to do it with a style and a swagger that captures the imagination of supporters.
Add to this Wilder being a lifelong Blade, having progressed through the ranks from ball boy, to player, to manager, and the story becomes captivating. Throw in a star striker-cum-captain and owner who are also red and white to their core and we move into fairytale territory. In Blades terms, this really is as good as it gets.
So what could possibly go wrong?
Included in the original shareholder agreement drawn up between Kevin McCabe and his co-owner Prince Abdullah was a clause, which compelled the Prince to purchase the Blades’ property interests, including the Stadium, Shirecliffe Academy and Crookes properties, in the event that he took his shareholding beyond 75 per cent.
On the face of things this all seemed sensible and straightforward, ensuring the reunification of the football club with its property interests in the event of a buy out.
However, at the point Prince Abdullah triggered his buy out clause, it is alleged that he tried to side step the obligation within the original agreement to buy the property assets from McCabe.
As reported in The Star by James Shield: After a preliminary legal hearing, Mr. Justice Fancourt detailed how a commercial “manoeuvre” had been utilised by Prince Abdullah in order to avoid, or at least defer, buying the property assets from McCabe.
Unsurprisingly, this raised the ire of McCabe and destroyed any remnants of trust within their relationship and consequently, the club’s co-owners are moving, seemingly inexorably, towards their High Noon in the High Court in May, when the extent of their grievances will be laid bare.
To their credit, McCabe and Prince Abdullah have managed to avoid their spat becoming a distraction away from the priority of winning football matches. Wilder has received strong support and runs the football element of the club with minimal interference. In part due to his employers’ fall-out, the current first team manager is as powerful as any in living memory.
This has an upside and a downside. Many clubs pay a hefty price for their owner gaining too high a profile and meddling in team affairs, irrespective of their qualification to do so. Notts County owner Alan Hardy provided his own recent, graphic version of being caught with his pants down, while the Football League’s oldest club slides towards relegation to the National League.
So having an operator as wily as Wilder in charge of pretty much all football related matters offers strong advantages. Even more so given his lifelong affiliation with his club and stated desire to protect its long-term best interests.
The downside of this ‘manager-centric’ model is the inherent fickleness and instability of professional football. The current, average tenure of a Championship manager is around one year, which means Wilder has - already – significantly outstayed the majority of his counterparts.
While, there are no obvious signs of him seeking a move, Wilder’s resolve has yet to be tested by an approach from an established top-flight club with the resources to match his ambition. This may only be a matter of time.
Also feasible is a scenario whereby United suffer a downturn in form and Wilder faces a backlash from supporters, which takes little account of his overall contribution, and convinces him it’s time to go.
He talks regularly of how supporter expectations have grown since his arrival and expresses occasional frustration at the ill-informed (my words not his) disapproval of the “gerrit in t’box” brigade – a small section of fans that vent against his team’s precise build-up play.
Again, the suggestion here is not that this is about to happen or that it definitely will. But it wouldn’t be a huge surprise if it did.
Ultimately, managers, coaches and players come and go. Instability is normal. Nevertheless, replacing good managers is fraught with difficulty and great ones, nigh on impossible. Wilder will leave a huge void when he eventually departs.
Which makes effective, stable governance in the boardroom even more crucial. In this regard, Kevin McCabe has served United for the best part of two decades.
That’s not to say his stewardship has been perfect or without its failures but a large majority of supporters seem to acknowledge and trust that he has the best interests of his club at heart and has significantly improved what he inherited. So the current uncertainty surrounding future ownership is deeply troubling given the potential downside of getting it wrong.
McCabe turns 71 next month and whatever the outcome of his dispute with Prince Abdullah, he has made clear his intention to reduce his family’s involvement in United, sooner rather than later.
His priority will surely be to leave the club in safe hands, though defining what that means in practice is far from straightforward.
What seems abundantly clear is that McCabe no longer trusts his co-owner to take full control of the Blades and is prepared to stand in a witness box to prevent it from happening. Whether Prince Abdullah will have the appetite to do likewise is less clear and an out-of-court settlement could be the most likely outcome.
The Blades’ drive towards the Premier League adds another layer of complexity to the dispute, given the thick end of £200m is at stake. If Wilder’s team finishes in a play-off place there remains the prospect of the co-owners battling it out in court while their team fights for a return to the top flight.
As things stand, there is a lot more than promotion at stake for United in 2019.