Sheffield United: The background to the battle for control of Premier League-bound Blades

Given that he has been involved in football for over 20 years, the majority of them at the helm of Sheffield United, it would be a surprise if Kevin McCabe had not reiterated his desire to sell the club should be win this month's High Court battle for sole control without having at least one potential buyer in mind.

Wednesday, 1st May 2019, 5:04 pm
Updated Wednesday, 1st May 2019, 8:13 pm
Chris Wilder has performed wonder steering Sheffield United back to the Premier League: James Wilson/Sportimage

The Scarborough based businessman, a veteran of the Carlos Tevez Affair and other confrontations with the authorities, has made no secret of his desire to hand over the reins since the collapse of his partnership with fellow co-owner HRH Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud midway through last season.

Indeed, he admitted as much after addressing shareholders earlier this term. Many of those who attended December's annual general meeting, ostensibly called to discuss United's latest accounts, left the event under no illusion whatsoever that McCabe wanted to leave the boardroom at the earliest possible opportunity and return to being a fan. When as yet unsubstantiated rumours began circulating that he has reserved a private box in the John Street Stand, they gathered momentum.

But McCabe's decision to use an interview with a satellite television channel to admit he wants to "pass on the baton", given the spotlight on Bramall Lane after Chris Wilder's team secured promotion to the Premier League, is unlikely to have been accidental. Presumably aware that gaining top-flight status means every comment uttered by directors, coaching staff and players alike will now resonate with twice as much force than when United were in the Championship, one expects McCabe chose both his timing and his message deliberately. In the past, particularly when securing £20m in compensation from West Ham following the Tevez controversy, he has proven a shrewd and strategic operator.

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Kevin McCabe during Sheffield United's League One title winning celebrations: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Next week, when Wilder and his squad are preparing for an open top bus parade and civic reception to mark their achievement, the dispute between the McCabe and Prince Abdullah reaches the High Court in London, where a judge, after considering representations from both parties involved and numerous witnesses, will decide who runs United moving forward.

The issue between the two, who both control 50 per cent of United's parent company Blades Leisure Limited (BLL), traces back to December 2017 when McCabe, after deciding their relationship had become untenable, informed the Saudi royal that he was submitting a takeover bid.

Under the terms of the investment agreement which paved the way for Prince Abdullah's arrival in 2013, the former chairman of Al-Hilal was then obliged to either accept the £5m offer or respond with an equal one of his own, which he subsequently did. Although this should have paved the way for him to take charge, McCabe was angered by a manoeuvre he argued was designed to ensure Prince Abdullah did not have to purchase all of United's property interests, including their stadium and development centres, before completion.

"They felt that they had been tricked out of their entitlement," Mr Justice Fancourt reported following a preliminary hearing 10 months ago. "The parties fell out badly," he added.

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

McCabe and his family use a company called Sheffield United Limited (SUL) to represent their interests in BLL, while Prince Abdullah's are held by one entitled UTB. However, as documents published by the court reveal, a portion of UTB's shares were transferred to a new entity, UTB 2018, which his lawyers argued negated the need to immediately purchase the leaseholds and freeholds McCabe currently grants to United at what has been described as a favourable rate. When McCabe refused to sign off the shares, Prince Abdullah launched legal proceedings, which McCabe, via SUL, then countered.

Wilder has made little attempt to disguise his frustration with the situation, even going so far as to admit he came close to leaving United during the close season before eventually signing a new contract following Steve Bettis' return as chief executive and then leading the club into the top-flight last month.

"There's been common sense between Prince Abdullah and myself to ensure the club is run properly in spite of our differences,” McCabe told the broadcaster.

Although Prince Abdullah is understood to be determined to retain control if he wins the proceedings - or is obliged to buy both United and its associated properties immediately rather than at a later date - Wilder's success on the pitch means there is likely to be no shortage of interest in the club if it is eventually put up for sale.

Sheffield United co-owner Kevin McCabe wants to return to being "a fan"

Sources in the business community predict McCabe is likely to have held outline talks with at least one prospective buyer before confirming his intention to step aside if he comes out on top. China's decision to encourage domestic investors to support its Belt and Road initiative rather than English football means the United States is now the most obvious avenue to explore, although United's increased profile could attract interest from elsewhere.