Sheffield United: Chris Wilder shines a light on why consolidating Premier League status is so important
In a quiet moment, when his preparations for Saturday's game against Southampton are finalised and all the hard work is done, Chris Wilder might be tempted to spend a few minutes scribbling down some names on a scrap of paper and wondering, if things had been different, how his starting eleven could have looked.
Admittedly, he probably won't. With Sheffield United now competing at Premier League, spare time is few and far between. But the visit of Ralph Hasenhüttl's team, who also boast an enviable record for nurturing high calibre footballers, provided an opportunity to reflect on some of the benefits achieving and hopefully retaining top-flight status might bring to Bramall Lane. The ones unrelated to finance.
The most obvious, United's manager reflected as he traced United's journey through the divisions, is the ability to retain your best players. Not that he has any complaints about those at his disposal. But as Wilder masterminded their rise from the third to the first tier, plenty of fine professionals have been lost along the way. They include Everton's Dominic Calvert-Lewin and AFC Bournemouth duo Aaron Ramsdale and David Brooks.
"No disrespect to the teams some of those boys went to, but I do feel they wouldn't have gone elsewhere if we'd have been up here now," he said. "Everyone talks about the financial rewards of being at this level but there's other bits and pieces too, especially those in terms of the profile.
"If we'd have had that back then, I'm sure they would have stayed. Absolutely certain in fact. They'd have stayed and we could have reaped the benefits. But we were in a different position, a totally different place, back then. We had to raise money."
Che Adams, who is expected to spearhead Southampton's attack when they arrive in South Yorkshire, was another of those sacrificed to fund Wilder's first recruitment drive. Three years ago, after being signed by Nigel Clough, the centre-forward appeared destined to emerge as Billy Sharp's regular strike partner. But after making just one appearance under Wilder, a combination of factors forced his sale to Birmingham City for what, after moving to St Mary's for more than seven times that amount, now seems like a bargain £2m. A sell-on clause inserted into the deal which took Adams to the south coast provided some consolation.
At the time, as he settled into his new job and wanted to assert his authority, Wilder suggested the move had been orchestrated solely by the youngster's representatives with little input from their client. After being promoted back to the Championship later that season, sources at the club began briefing that, had he remained at United, Adams would have been earning more with them than under the terms of his first contract at St Andrews. But, after picking up the story again yesterday, Wilder acknowledged he was immediately intent on negotiating the best possible price having learnt of City's interest. The same, reading between the lines, went for Steelphalt Academy graduate Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who transferred to Goodison Park around three weeks later.
"He was a young player, he'd scored a few goals under Nigel," Wilder said. "There was an approach from another club and he wanted to go. I wanted players who wanted to be here."
"There was no issue between me and Che," Wilder continued. "Also, we had to raise funds to invest in different areas. He did really well (for City) last season and did great to get his move."
Like Adams, who progressed through non-league football before moving to United, Brooks and Ramsdale found the lure of Premier League football impossible to resist when Eddie Howe came calling. Although the latter was also reluctantly sold to generate funding, Wilder hoped winning the League One title would persuade Brooks to stay. It didn't, meaning United had to redraft plans to build a midfield around his talents. It is a situation Wilder is determined to ensure does not arise again, by establishing their place among England's elite.
With Harry Maguire, now the world's most expensive defender, and Kyle Walker, who previously held that title, also progressing through their youth system, United are regarded as one of the best finishing schools in the business for aspiring professionals. The latest opponents, where Wilder began his own career, enjoy a similarly formidable reputation having been responsible for producing the likes of Adam Lallana, Alan Shearer and Gareth Bale. Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain also started out on the south coast.
Although changes to the way youth football is governed has now tipped the balance in favour of the game's richest clubs, Wilder provided an insight into how United might respond when he previewed a fixture which could see them climb into the top third of the table. Southampton will enter the game a point behind 10th placed United.
"What Southampton did in the period I was there, they scouted all around the country.," Wilder said. "Alan Shearer was from Newcastle, there was a few of us with connections to Sheffield and lots of other cities too.
"Obviously it's more difficult now, with what the really powerful clubs do in your own backyard. We want to dominate our own area too, make sure that the families and players with connections here come in and we improve them. Not always in terms of technique, but also in terms of their attitude and other things as well."