Sheffield United: A bright new world beckons but familiar challenges remain

Either Daniel James is one of the bargains of the century or Sheffield United did well, remarkably well in fact, to persuade AFC Bournemouth to pay around £12m for David Brooks.
Chris Wilder and Stephen Bettis: Robin Parker/SportimageChris Wilder and Stephen Bettis: Robin Parker/Sportimage
Chris Wilder and Stephen Bettis: Robin Parker/Sportimage

The Swansea City youngster, reportedly Old Trafford bound following his breakthrough season in the Championship, might not be as experienced as his fellow Wales international. Or boast a spell with a Premier League club's academy on his footballing CV.

But the spending power of his soon-to-be employers, coupled with the leverage this gives his present club's transfer negotiation team, means the £15m fee which has reportedly been agreed reflects well on those tasked with driving-up Brooks' value ahead of his move to the south coast nearly 12 months ago.

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It is a trick Chris Wilder and his staff must perform again this summer, only with an important twist. Rather than squeezing as much money as possible out of potential buyers, United will spend the next three months or so attempting to deliver value for money in a market where the normal rules of business seemingly do not apply.

Bournemouth's David Brooks: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire.Bournemouth's David Brooks: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire.
Bournemouth's David Brooks: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire.

Since Wilder's appointment in 2016, United have benefited from his ability to identify players whose worth and potential has been grossly under-estimated by others. Jack O'Connell, acquired for £500,000, could now command around 30 times that amount. John Fleck, Mark Duffy, Enda Stevens and David McGoldrick, key members of the squad promoted to the top-flight last term, all arrived on frees.

Given the vast sums teams competing at the highest level now spend on scouting, unearthing gems is likely to become increasingly difficult. But Wilder, having decided there is a direct correlation between career trajectory and attitude, is intent on giving it a try.

"We've always tried to spend properly," he said. "We've been able to bring good players and good people in but, I think, good assets as well.

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"We're not looking to move anyone on and we don't want to lose anyone either. But, safe to say, I believe a lot of the lads who have come in over the past couple of years or so are worth a lot more now than when we got them and, for me, that's important for a whole host of reasons."

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.
Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, Wilder would probably have played his cards differently when Bournemouth first expressed an interest in Brooks midway through the 2017/18 season. United, midway through what proved an unsuccessful challenge for a top six finish, fought off that approach during the January window before accepting an improved proposal at the end of the campaign.

At the time Wilder, unaware of the effect Bramall Lane's boardroom rift would have on his budget, put up very little resistance behind the scenes. But it quickly became clear that the row between co-owners Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, which is now ambling through the High Court, meant ploughing the lions' share of the money back into recruitment might prove difficult although around a third was spent on centre-half John Egan.

This potentially toxic cocktail of politics and football only makes United's achievements last term even more remarkable. Particularly when you consider the absence of controversial schemes such as stadium buy backs to comply with the English Football League's financial rules.

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Speaking at the FT Business in Football summit, Leeds owner Andrea Radrizzani described the sale of Derby County's ground to his counterpart Mel Morris as "greater cheating" than the Spygate scandal. United's neighbours Sheffield Wednesday are also set to follow County's lead, with the EFL expected to examine the trend at its annual conference this summer.

Swansea City's Daniel James: Simon Galloway/PA Wire.Swansea City's Daniel James: Simon Galloway/PA Wire.
Swansea City's Daniel James: Simon Galloway/PA Wire.

Wilder, meanwhile, is pressing ahead with strengthening the options at his disposal after leading United back into the top-flight. Two centre-forwards, an attacking midfielder and another wing-back feature on the wanted list he compiled towards the end of last month. Chief executive Steve Bettis, one of Wilder's most trusted confidants behind the scenes, has been involved in ensuring potential targets comply with United's budget.

"There's a lot of work that's gone in to this," Wilder said. "And we'll be working hard to try and make sure it pays off."