Sheffield United: How Prince Abdullah performed on his first official engagement as The Blades owner
Flanked by Chris Wilder, Steve Bettis and his son-in-law, now the youngest chairman in the Premier League, HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa'ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud announced himself to the world as the new owner of Sheffield United dressed in jeans, a black hoodie and casual polo shirt.
The message was clear. This is a man, despite his royal status back home in Saudi Arabia, with little time for formalities. Someone keen, after winning a long and at times bitter court case with his former business partner Kevin McCabe, keen to get down to business quickly and begin leaving a mark on this proud and famous old club.
But first, before outlining the changes he wants to make at Bramall Lane or addressing some of the more delicate aspects of his stewardship, the 54-year-old opened with a joke. It was addressed to someone standing at the back of the room. But also designed to resonate with a support base understandably nervous, after McCabe's long dynasty appeared to end on Monday, about what the future holds.
"Nobody costs me more than Chris," Prince Abdullah laughed, glancing at United's manager to his right. "My wife is here, but nobdoy costs me more than him. Still, I'd better be careful because I don't want to get into trouble with her when I go home."
The quip was a prelude to more important subjects, including his plans to establish United in the Premier League and acquire their property portfolio, including the stadium which staged yesterday's media conference, from the McCabe family. That is a requirement of the High Court ruling which brought about a seismic change in South Yorkshire's footballing landscape.
"It is too early to talk about (the real estate)," Prince Abdullah admitted. "Because we have yet to agree a price for those assets. I will handle it, no problems, it is part of the responsibility."
Inevitably, given recent events in global arena, there were questions about his country's human rights record too. But after admitting "I don't like to talk about politics, that's why I like sport," Prince Abdullah steered the conversation back to the things he believes will define his reign; namely results and, after delivering two promotions in the past three seasons, the relationship he has with the manager responsible for transforming United's fortunes on the pitch.
"I'm very happy with the way (United are performing) this season. I don't think we have been over-matched by any means. I think the football we play, is beautfiful. And you applaud Chris and the players, the ones we have brought in and the ones who were here, for all of that."
So will, given the whispers about Jan van Winckel's presence, Wilder's terms of reference change? The Belgian, a technical director to the Saudi Arabian Football Federation and previously Marcelo Bielsa's assistant at Olympique de Marseille, is expected to become much more prominent following a self-enforced period of absence. But Prince Abdullah rejected suggestions that, despite acknowledging he will continue to draw upon van Winckel's advice, Wilder will no longer retain the final say on recruitment or other issues relating to first team affairs.
"I think I would be crazy if I said 'no'. And the last time I checked, I am not crazy. Chris is the face of this great club and, as the people say, he is one of our own."
Even though he had been briefed on Prince Abdullah's thoughts beforehand, Wilder visibly relaxed at that point.
Inevitably, the issue of finance was also raised, with the man now tasked with steering United through one of the most important periods in their recent history attempting to address claims, made by McCabe's counsel during June's High Court hearing, that his means are "piddling". Stressing his personal circumstances have improved of late, Prince Abdullah insisted he had intervened personally to push through the deal which, two months ago, saw Oli McBurnie become United's record signing.
"I think actions speak louder than words," he said. "The last transfer window, we worked hard to raise it (the budget). When it was time to sign McBurnie, I stepped up and supported the decision. I gave guarantees to the club from my own money. Of course we will support Chris. But often you see clubs suffer when they over-spend and then go back to the Championship. We do not want, and I do not believe, that will happen though. I must stress that."
Intriguingly, with Prince Abdullah's home country now making moves to become a major player in world sports, both he and HRH Prince Musa’ad Bin Khalid Bin Abdulrahman Al Saud, who is set to become chair of a revamped United board, suggested there are opportunities for United to exploit in the Kingdom. Even though, it was made plain, this purchase is not being backed by its government.
"It is a private investment," Prince Abdullah, who once served as Saudi Arabia's General President of Youth Welfare, said. "I was appointed Minister of Sport but then back into the private sector. That is why fans can't compare this to PSG for example, which is backed by a country."
Before acquiring 50 per cent of United's shares in 2013, Prince Abdullah, who made his money in paper manufacturing, was chairman of Al-Hilal; the 15-time Saudi Pro League winners. The knowledge and contacts he gleaned there, Prince Abdullah stated, could prove inavaluable now.
"The team I was president of, it has a huge fan base and has won more AFC trophies than any other. It it a very big club. So I know how to deal with fans, and I know how to deal with coaches.
"I am connected in the football world and I know who are the good agents. I have been in football all my life and it is my passion. I don't travel if there is a Premier League game on, and when their is a game on, I love it. So I feel I am more than qualified to run a club in the Premier League. The key is to surround yourself with good people."
Despite expressing his satisfaction with United's footballing operations - "I am sure there is room for improvement, though. Most fans will only measure success by the first team" - Prince Abdullah expressed a desire for his latest acquisition to improve its commercial performance.
"Sheffield United as club, I am not worried about the technical side. But in other areas, we can work hard. We can bring in bigger and better sponsors. I am sure we can work hard in that area."
Dismissing suggestions he could quickly pass on the baton to ALK Capital - the group of North American investors who, despite reaching an agreement in principle with McCabe, still want to buy United - Prince Abdullah also mounted a passionate defence of the bin Laden family's probity following a slew of negative headlines after it emerged he had once approached them for backing. Describing its most notorious member Osama as "one bad sheep", Prince Abduallah insisted the actions of the one-time Al-Qaeda terrorist should not be allowed to sully the reputation of his relatives, who have invested in a series of high profile and legitimate projects.
"When I invested shares, I was not a Sheffield United fan," he said. "Now I am. You love the colours and the team, you love the tradition. If it was about money, they best decision now would be to sell the club. But I don't want to sell the club because I want to make it bigger and better."
Prince Abdullah also tackled the thorny subject of his attendance record at United fixtures which, together with a number of other factors, was an early source of friction with McCabe. The Scarborough-based businessman, who took charge of United's board in 1998, made a £5m offer for Prince Abdullah's stake two years ago. That was matched and, despite a row over share transfer McCabe later labelled as "unfairly predjudicial", forced through by Mr Justice Fancourt on Monday. Prince Musa’ad, and Prince Abdullah's daughter, Princess Latifa, are moving to Sheffield he confirmed.
"I'm happy to be here," Prince Abdullah said. "I think it is a huge responsibility and honour to own this club. I can assure everybody that we will work hard to make this great club better. I can assure you that all of my team will work hard to make it even better. In five years time, with Chris in charge, we will be in an even better place."