James Shield’s Sheffield United Column: Events at the High Court demonstrate Chris Wilder is even more important to Bramall Lane’s success than we thought

Not so long ago, at a ground far away from Bramall Lane, I discovered the answer to one of football's greatest mysteries.

By James Shield
Thursday, 23 May, 2019, 11:27
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

Squeezed into its press box, clutching a lukewarm cup of coffee and trying to ignore the rotting carcass of a dead pigeon the cleaners had decided to leave lying in state, the pre-match tedium was broken by the sight of the home team's manager waving a rolled-up newspaper at someone sat a few seats to my right.

On closer inspection, as the journalist in question was beckoned down to the touchline, the paragraphs which had been highlighted using bright yellow ink gave the game away. Something had been written the irate coach disagreed with. And, no matter what, he was determined to have it out.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder: James Wilson/Sportimage

That was the moment, despite being assured on numerous occasions that reportage carries less weight in the dressing room than an anorexic ant, when it become apparent nothing could be further from the truth. My confusion about how players always seemed to know when they'd got a bad write-up or low ratings mark, despite insisting they had no interest in anything that was ever written about them, was definitely no more.

I was thinking about this incident yesterday, as the battle for sole control of Sheffield United continued to paint an unwelcome and unhelpful picture of a club which, after reaching the Premier League, should still be celebrating promotion rather than washing its dirty laundry in public. Both Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud clearly feel they have good reason for taking their grievance to the High Court. Be it feeling disrespected, slighted or fearful about what might happen if the other takes the reins.

But neither, even taking the breakdown of their business relationship into account, can pretend the politics or the headlines they are creating are anything but an hindrance as Chris Wilder attempts to make the changes required to ensure his squad is capable of competing at top-flight level. Because, as my anecdote confirms, prospective targets will be reading about how incendiary the atmosphere is inside United’s boardroom. And then, if they are also in receipt of rival offers, taking a decision on whether to move to South Yorkshire or ply their trade elsewhere.

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It seems likely, even though this might be grossly unfair, that the only people likely to emerge from this whole process with their reputations intact in the eyes of United supporters, are Wilder and the side which finished second in the Championship last term. Actually, make that enhanced, because as it becomes apparent the tension between the two warring factions is greater than even the most cynical among us dared to imagine, United's achievements over the past 12 months become even more remarkable. Wilder and his backroom staff were able to shield their charges from the worst of the row between Prince Abdullah and McCabe. The team itself, particularly the most senior members, were able to stay focused despite being aware of some of the details.

Kevin McCabe & HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud © BLADES SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY

With tensions which had simmered beneath the surface for a year or so finally bubbling over following United's League One title win - the first of two promotions Wilder has now delivered - the second was an even greater triumph of concentration. Although he rather it were not the case, the crash course in diplomacy and safeguarding Wilder has been forced to complete could prove invaluable moving forward as United deal with the fall-out of events in London. If McCabe stays at the helm before passing on the baton to new owners or Prince Abdullah takes charge, a period of readjustment is inevitable. During, it must be stated, one of the most critical and potentially lucrative periods in United's history.

Footballers and football folk, no matter what they often say, do not live in a hermetically sealed bubble. They read, listen and think like the rest of us. Which makes Wilder and his powers of persuasion, whether those above him like it or not, an even more important figure than we thought.

Chris Wilder has won two promotions with Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Captain Billy Sharp has played a key role too: James Wilson/Sportimage