Revealed: The clever strategy behind Sheffield United's player contract business
Every so often, Chris Wilder likes to tell a story harking back to his early days as a manager.
Its central character is a player, one of the 52-year-old’s many “pals” in the business, who was travelling back on the team bus following an end of season game. And during that journey, in language chosen to suit his audience at the time, Wilder describes how members of the squad, whose names remain a secret, were summoned one by one to the front to discover if they would shortly be made redundant.
“No good for them,” he always insists. “And no good for the club either. But that’s what can happen if you don’t plan ahead and try to take care of business.”
Wilder is fond of using anecdotes to help break the tension during his regular briefings with journalists. But this one in particular always goes down well because it reveals plenty about the approach, and the attention to detail, which has helped him resuscitate a club that had slipped into a coma before his appointment in the summer of 2016.
Senior figures at Bramall Lane had reason to be grateful for Wilder’s belief in the importance of strategic thinking when they convened for an emergency meeting in the boardroom this week. Ostensibly designed to discuss their response to the coronavirus crisis, which seven days ago forced the suspension of England’s leading four divisions, it also saw them mull over the countless other problems created by the postponements.
Thanks to Wilder’s policy of staggering their expiry dates, how to negotiate short-term deals with footballers whose contracts are up at the end of the season was not among them. Many of their rivals elsewhere in the Premier League did not enjoy the same luxury.
Eleven of United’s team are set to become free agents on June 30, when it is expected the 2019/20 fixtures will still yet to be completed because of the enforced break in competition.
Four of those are on loan, with only goalkeeper Dean Henderson and midfielder Mo Besic not tied to agreements which, should Wilder decide, contains a clause allowing United to make their moves permanent. Of the remaining seven, three - Phil Jagielka, Ravel Morrison and Jack Rodwell - were deliberately signed on a short-term basis while Leon Clarke, Kieron Freeman, Mark Duffy and forgotten-man Ricky Holmes were all made available for transfer during the January window. Clearly, although diplomacy prevents him from saying so, no member of this quartet features in his future plans having made a combined total of one substitute appearance at PL level since United’s promotion from the Championship 11 months ago.
Wilder explained how United decide which members of his squad should be offered new contracts - and then those negotiations should take place - before announcing John Fleck and Enda Stevens had recently both put pen to paper on new deals.
“It’s important good performances are rewarded,” he said, noting how Fleck has been a driving force behind United’s climb from the third to the first tier of English football under his stewardship. “That’s something I’ve always thought should happen, and not just in football, wherever possible.”
“I also wanted to bring the power back to the club, because that’s important too. And one part of that is ensuring you don’t have a whole host of people coming to the end of their contracts in one go.
“It makes it impossible to talk properly, because you’re spinning so many plates at once, and it also means you can’t develop as you’d like. Yes, in this game, you’ve got to take care of the short and the medium term. Because if you don’t, then there won’t be a long term. But looking long term, seeing how you want things to pan out and how players are likely to develop, is also vital.”
John Egan and Oliver Norwood were also offered seats around the negotiating table over the Christmas period, after helping United climb into European contention. John Lundstram is also exploring the possibility of signing a fresh contract, although Wilder has already confirmed United will exercise their right to extend his terms by a further year when the midfielder’s present deal runs out in around 13 weeks time.
Panos Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic, signed on loan from Bayer Leverkusen and Changchun Yatai respectively, are also subject to similar arrangements. United have come a long way from the days when Dean Hammond, acquired by Wilder’s immediate predecessor Nigel Adkins, invoked a clause entitling him to prolong his own stay in South Yorkshire despite being declared surplus to requirements following the former Southampton chief’s departure.
The situation has afforded United more time to focus on tackling issues caused by the spread of Covid-19, both on the pitch and behind the scenes where board members are studying the potential financial and legal implications of the enforced break in action ahead of a divisional summit meeting tomorrow.
Seventh in the table before PL members agreed to call a halt to matches - before being advised to follow this course of action by government officials - United have also reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, where they are scheduled to face Arsenal. Mikel Arteta, Wilder’s counterpart at the Emirates Stadium, was the first high-profile figure in English football to confirm he had been diagnosed with the virus.
“We want to be a well run club,” Wilder said. “In all aspects.”
When the deals expire: The contract status of every leading Sheffield United player.
June 30: Dean Henderson (L)*, Panos Retsos (L), Kieron Freeman, Phil Jagielka, Leon Clarke, Ricky Holmes, Mo Besic (L), Jack Rodwell, Richairo Zivkovic (L), Ravel Morrison, Mark Duffy.
June 2021: Simon Moore, Chris Basham, John Lundstram, Oliver Norwood, Billy Sharp, David McGoldrick.
June 2022: John Egan, Jack Robinson, George Baldock, Ben Osborn, Luke Freeman, Lys Mousset.
June 2023: Michael Verrips, Enda Stevens, John Fleck, Oli McBurnie, Callum Robinson.
June 2024: Sander Berge.
*(L) denotes loan.