James Shield's Sheffield United Column: This is the most important ingredient for Premier League success
Earlier this summer, over a couple of pints with a few old football mates, I found myself discussing the constant shifts in power between those clubs expected to challenge for Premier League titles. Manchester City cropped up. So, after running them close following several years of relative mediocrity, did Liverpool. But team which dominated the conversation was Chelsea who, after once being regarded as almost perennial dead certs, are now being dismissed as also-rans.
What you might ask, other than the fact they will face them twice next season, does events at Stamford Bridge have to do with Sheffield United? The answer, actually, is plenty. Because the Londoners' slide out of contention illustrates the importance of devising a coherent strategy. For the long, the medium and even the very short term.
When Roman Abramovich first began splashing his roubles in the capital, changing manager every 12 months was no barrier to success. Indeed, according to some usually perceptive commentators, the constant flow of silverware into his new investment's trophy cabinet meant supposedly watertight theories, such as 'stability equals success', were, to all intents and purposes, redundant. Which, of course, was a even more nonsensical than telling Maurizio Sarri to give up the fags.
What that argument overlooked - indeed it is still being peddled - is that Chelsea could chop and change and still achieve consistency so long as they had more money than everyone else. No matter how gifted the coach, they are only ever as good as the players at their disposal. And big money, barring a couple of notable exceptions, usually attracts bloody good ones.
But when City came along and spent even bigger bucks, Chelsea needed to try something else. A plan, preferably involving the development of talent, to help bridge the financial divide which suddenly separated them from the Abu Dhabi controlled regime at Eastlands. The trouble was, still is perhaps, that they carried on in exactly the same fashion and yet still expected to achieve the same results. Even though the dynamics had changed.
This is where United come in. Next term, when they embark upon their first top-flight campaign in over a decade, Chris Wilder's side will inevitably be included among the bookmakers favourites to go straight back down. The landscape has changed beyond all recognition since they last graced the highest level. Even more so, the maths.
However, although the odds will be stacked against them, United can compete if they show knowledge, intelligence and stick rigidly, especially in times of adversity, to a recruitment blueprint and tactical programme.
When they met to compile their list of targets, within days of securing automatic promotion from the Championship, a theme to those Wilder and his staff elected to chase was quick to emerge. Oli McBurnie, Neal Maupay and Luke Freeman, who together with Dean Henderson have attracted interest from Bramall Lane, are all young or young'ish. Their careers are on an upward curve. Athletic and with potential, every single one of them would command a healthy resale value if they impressed against elite opposition. And that, like it or not, is vital given the importance of balancing the books in the absence of a billionaire benefactor. Crucially, and without wishing to sound defeatist, these four have all demonstrated they can perform in the second tier should United end-up aiming to bounce straight back.
But not all of the income Wilder's employers received after climbing out of the EFL should be spent on his first team squad. A portion must be allocated to improving training facilities and expanding scouting networks. To put it another way, making sure their transformation under the former Northampton Town chief helps build a lasting legacy.
Perhaps controversially, community programmes and the women's team should be handed a chunk too. Because expanding United's reach and footprint across the region will help guarantee future prosperity.
Naturally, the focus must be to avoid relegation. But carving a niche, maximising the assets already at their disposal on and off the pitch, can help ensure their recent upturn in fortune is not a flash in the pan.
It will take nerve, courage and a determination. Particularly during those inevitable periods when things go awry. But, given the monetary might many of their rivals possess, United would be foolish to bring only a chequebook to the fight. Guile is required.