Sander Berge's Sheffield United situation could define next season and beyond - James Shield

Saying goodbye, a proper goodbye rather than au revoir, is never easy.
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James Shield: Sheffield United should tell Norway's coach to mind his own busine...

Even when you know, despite the hurt, pain and upset, it’s the right thing to do.

Although their plan of action in this summer’s transfer market is finally beginning to take shape, with Ciaran Clark following Anel Ahmedhodzic and Tommy Doyle through the entrance door earlier this week, I suspect a high-profile sale will be the piece of business which ultimately decides if it will be viewed as a success. Not to mention, assuming the player in question does depart before the deadline, reveal how equipped the club actually is to achieve its ambitions or if it is simply relying on luck and the expertise of Paul Heckingbottom and his coaching staff to catapult them back into the Premier League after last season’s near miss.

Sander Berge during pre-season training with Sheffield UnitedSander Berge during pre-season training with Sheffield United
Sander Berge during pre-season training with Sheffield United

The exit evidence

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Sander Berge, the United midfielder, wants to leave Bramall Lane. I can say that with confidence, despite not discussing things with the Norwegian, because if he didn’t then he’d instruct his agent to stop touting him all around Europe. Werder Bremen, who recently signed his ex-team mate Oliver Burke, were reportedly one of the first teams approached to bite although Heckingbottom later denied this.

One suspects, because they seem pretty relaxed about the whole situation, United won’t be distraught to see him go. Disappointed, yes - because even though questions still remain about both Berge’s physicality and stamina, he’s still a supremely talented individual.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James ShieldThe Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

The odds of anyone meeting his supposed £35m release clause, however, appear pretty slim. Which is why United have let it be known, albeit privately rather than publicly, they are ready to accept “a return” on their initial £22m investment.

So it makes sense to do business if an acceptable offer materialises. Why? Because deep down Berge doesn’t really want to compete in the Championship. And, after acknowledging the majority of their business is likely to focus on free agents and loans, United could probably do with the money. The reasons for this, having spent two of the last three years in the top-flight, will probably be the subject of a future column.

The way it is

Sheffield United midfielder Sander Berge's future at Bramall Lane remains uncertainSheffield United midfielder Sander Berge's future at Bramall Lane remains uncertain
Sheffield United midfielder Sander Berge's future at Bramall Lane remains uncertain
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Footballers come and footballers go. That’s the way the game works these days.

Berge, who scored during Tuesday’s warm-up fixture against Lincoln City, is obviously keen to depart. Still, when he eventually does, I’m sure it will be with a heavy heart. He’s made friends, close friends, both on the pitch and off it. Despite the disappointments of being relegated from the Premier League and losing a play-off semi-final, Berge has also savoured plenty of memorable moments here too.

If his exit is confirmed this summer, the money United raise must be used to tackle a serious issue within their squad.

Defender Anel Ahmedhodzic is Paul Heckingbottom's only permanent signing so far this summer: ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/AFP via Getty ImagesDefender Anel Ahmedhodzic is Paul Heckingbottom's only permanent signing so far this summer: ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/AFP via Getty Images
Defender Anel Ahmedhodzic is Paul Heckingbottom's only permanent signing so far this summer: ROMAIN PERROCHEAU/AFP via Getty Images

The big issue

All three of the acquisitions Heckingbottom has completed so far this summer are quality individuals who, on paper at least, add value and ability to the group. Ahmedhodzic brings presence and experience, despite being only 23 years of age, to its defence. Doyle, an intelligent and technically accomplished midfielder, is highly thought of at his parent club Manchester City and demonstrated why during a spell on loan with Cardiff City recently. Clark, Ahmedhodzic’s fellow centre-half, oozes experience and, like Doyle, relies on brain rather than brawn.

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The only trouble is the latter two are only there on a temporary basis. Although there’s a possibility Clark and Doyle could eventually be purchased - in the latter’s case, if United win promotion - that isn’t going to stop Heckingbottom being peppered with questions about whether they will be recalled or not during the build-up to the Christmas period.

With 11 contracted players also set to see their deals expire next summer, including goalkeeper Wes Foderingham, John Fleck and Oliver Norwood, that won’t only prove intensely irritating for the manager. It might also become a big distraction at a pivotal stage of the campaign. Morgan Gibbs-White, now back at Wolverhampton Wanderers and being courted by some of the most venerable names in the business following a hugely successful stint with United last term, came mighty close to leaving midway through last term.

United need Doyle and Clark to perform at their maximum. And if they do, then speculation will inevitably follow.

Loans make sense, particularly in the present climate. But let’s not pretend, as some folk seem intent on doing, that there aren’t downsides.

The potential problem

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As well as bringing uncertainty and relaxing the control Heckingbottom has over United’s medium and long-term future, another is how the sight of big earners being parachuted into the group resonates with those on permanent arrangements who have just seen their wages cut for a second time since PL status was surrendered.

The announcement, by one of United’s most senior figures, that they have the wherewithal to contribute £70,000 a week towards someone’s salary was rightly welcomed. That can hire an awful lot of talent. But I can’t help wondering how it went down with those who helped United reach the highest level under Heckingbottom’s predecessor Chris Wilder, now of Middlesbrough? Might they not feel slightly aggrieved about the fact funds are being channelled elsewhere at a time when their own earnings are diminishing? Not if United do make good on that idea and the guy in question excels. But if they don’t, it becomes a risky strategy.

Clearly, we all hope Berge stays. But if he does head for pastures new, then whatever cash United recoup must primarily be used to allow Heckingbottom to make more permanent signings and address the contract situation; staggering expiry dates and ensuring a position is reached on whether or not to take up ‘options’ much quicker.

If not, then it is inevitable red flags begin to be hoisted.

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So far so good for United. But there is still plenty of work, and much of it unglamourous, to do yet.