Revealed: Who took the decision to sell John Lundstram, how the midfielder can still stay at Bramall Lane and how his contract situation will influence Sheffield United's selections against Manchester City
Being asked to help draft an exit strategy for a player who, until he rejected the club’s latest contract offer, was one of the first names on Sheffield United’s team sheet every week is hardly the ideal way to prepare for a game against a Manchester City team crowned Premier League champions in two of the last three seasons.
But that is the situation Chris Wilder has found himself placed in ahead of Saturday’s meeting with Pep Guardiola’s side, after confirming John Lundstram can leave Bramall Lane when the transfer window reopens in January following the breakdown in negotiations between the club, the midfielder and his agent.
After The Star reported earlier this week that United had begun the process of inviting bids for Lundstram’s services given his failure to accept what was last month described as a “take it or leave it” offer, it was inevitable the subject of the 26-year-old’s future would be raised during a pre-match media conference supposedly designed to discuss how Wilder planned to combat the threat posed by a squad containing some of the most expensive and talented names in world football right now.
The fact he addressed the matter with such candour, praising Lundstram’s character but questioning the wisdom of his decision not to put pen to paper on a deal which would make him “one of the four or five best paid” professionals on United’s books, was not surprising given Wilder’s reputation for frankness and honesty. But the fact he chose to do so only 48 hours before such an important game, resisting the temptation to wait until after the final whistle, revealed the depth of his exasperation with both Lundstram’s refusal to agree terms and reasons for doing so. After spending the best part of 12 months sat around the negotiating table, having heard supporters begin to question the Liverpudlian’s commitment, Wilder clearly feels this is a boil which now needs lancing - for the good of everyone concerned.
With Lundstram set to become a free agent in the summer, and given the tenor of their talks with his representative, United have resolved to try and recoup some of their investment in him by selling him before his present agreement expires.
“It just came to a situation when the football club needed to make a decision,” Wilder said, acknowledging he is responsible for the course of action United have taken, rather than having his hand forced by financial considerations. “Do we bow down to the demands of the player and his agent? No. I’ve always had that ability and control as a manager to decide what we do. I think we deserve that decision, to see if we can get back some of that money.”
“He obviously feels either we’re not giving him the money he’s worth or there’s a club waiting for him on a free transfer,” Wilder added.
Given Lundstram’s refusal to comment publicly himself, United have framed the debate about his actions as being purely about salary, although Wilder did admit it is possible the former England under-20 international already has a move lined-up. If so, that could frustrate United’s efforts to find a buyer for a player now thought to be worth around 10 times the £700,000 they paid Oxford to sign him three years ago. Lundstram’s representatives are also responsible for overseeing the career of Chelsea’s Ross Barkley, now on loan at Aston Villa, who allowed his contract to run down at Everton before completing a cut-price switch to Stamford Bridge midway through the 2017/18 campaign.
Given that he is still on the same terms and conditions he agreed after leaving the Kassam Stadium, albeit having received a substantial pay rise following United’s promotion to the top-flight, Lundstram could already have forgone around £500,000 in potential earnings by refusing to accept the proposal he was presented with midway through last term.
“John is an unassuming guy, for the life of me, I don’t see how it benefits him being out of contract,” Wilder continued. “But that’s his choice, I should imagine the majority of professional footballers, to take that chance, it’s a brave decision of his. If something happened to him, obviously we don’t want that to be the case, but if it did? If he came to me and said I want to take your offer, and be one of the top four or five best paid players at your football club, I’d be delighted.”
Wilder’s most pressing concern, given the pace of recent developments, is deciding whether or not to select Lundstram against City, who travel to South Yorkshire in chequered form on the domestic front but boosted by Tuesday’s Champions League rout of Marseille. Despite expressing concerns about Lundstram’s ability to approach every challenge or tackle with “100 per cent” commitment - something United will require if they are to secure their first win of the new season following a run of five defeats and a draw - Wilder’s hand could be forced by an injury to John Fleck, which will keep the Scot out of action for around another month. Intriguingly, perhaps providing a clue about his intentions, Wilder outlined United’s alternative midfield options, which include Oliver Norwood and former City player Jack Rodwell. Thinking longer term, United have already started identifying replacements for Lundstram, with Reading’s John Swift among their targets.
“If John does go, we’ve got Ethan (Ampadu), Norwood, Fleck, Sander (Berge) and Rodwell. We’ll look at it. We might move that money elsewhere, we’ll have a look at that.
“We’ve got running midfield players on our list, as we have all the way through. There’s still eight or nine weeks before the window opens, so you don’t know what happens to the players who are in now.”
Despite his obvious frustration with how the saga has played out, Wilder sought to shield Lundstram from some of the criticism which will inevitably come his way from United’s fan base. Reminding how Lundstram was one of United’s most effective performers at the beginning of last term, before fatigue appeared to creep in as Christmas approached and Berge’s arrival in a £22m deal from Genk limited his opportunities, Wilder stressed he would still “love” the player to stay.
“We won’t wash our hands of him, his attitude has been decent and speaking to him over this period, he understands there’s no downside to doing well. But there is that built in doubt about can he give 100 per cent when he feels his future isn’t here? Personally, I wouldn’t be comfortable with that.
“I don’t feel let down. He earned the right to play in the Premier League and he earned the right to put in really good performances last season. I’m too old to start feeling personal about it.”