Senior figures at Sheffield United need to sort out their political differences fast or risk falling behind in the transfer market
The sight of Celtic and Tottenham Hotspur surging past Sheffield United in the race for Kyle Joseph’s services underlines the importance of resolving the political wrangling behind the scenes which threatens to undermine not only the club’s preparations for next season, but also much of the progress it has made since Chris Wilder’s appointment five years ago.
In August, before circumstances conspired to hole United’s push for Premier League survival below the waterline, Joseph appeared destined to complete a move to South Yorkshire after officials acting on Wilder’s behalf began negotiating a deal for the teenage centre-forward with their counterparts at the DW Stadium.
Using their interest in Antonee Robinson as a smokescreen to disguise the second part of the agreement they hoped to strike with Joseph’s employers - something which would later come back to haunt them when the defender joined Fulham instead - Wilder and his head of recruitment Paul Mitchell have continued to monitor the youngster’s progress in Greater Manchester.
But a combination of factors have left them behind the former Scottish Premiership champions and Jose Mourinho’s side in the queue of teams interested in luring Joseph away from the DW Stadium. They include results over the past six months, which see United enter Sunday’s game against Leicester City 12 points adrift of Premier League safety with only 10 matches remaining on their schedule, and most notably the differences between Wilder and a board of directors who appear intent on wrestling greater control over transfer policy following owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s recent admission that he has been disappointed by the contribution of some recent new arrivals. As well as throwing Wilder’s future into doubt, the battle for authority and influence has left United unable to progress their plans for a summer makeover of a squad which seems destined for relegation from the top-flight.
Aged 19 and having established his reputation in the English Football League, Joseph should have been the quintessential Wilder signing. United, promoted twice under the 53-year-old’s stewardship, fuelled their rise from the third to the first tier of the domestic pyramid by hoovering up unfashionable names and then unlocking their potential.
Although Wilder and his coaching staff acknowledged a more nuanced approach was required following last season’s ninth placed finish, persuading players with a proven track record of success at the highest level proved difficult given the constraints on United’s wage bill. The ability to pay lavish salaries, not big fees, is now a more accurate measure of a club’s financial muscle.
But they recognised the EFL, and other lower divisions across Europe, remained their most fertile grounds for harvesting fresh talent. Prince Abdullah and his associates seem to share that opinion, launching the United World project which earlier this week saw Ligue 2 outfit Chateauroux join Beerschot, Kerala United, Al-Hilal United and of course United beneath its umbrella.
Despite accepting that Joseph would view Parkhead or north London as more glamorous destinations, Wilder felt United’s ability to offer him regular action could be decisive if they resurrected their interest.
However, until the uncertainty surrounding his position is resolved, it will be difficult to reach any major decisions regarding personnel; in this instance allowing the likes of Celtic and Spurs to exploit the confusion.