Whenever someone signs a new contract, Chris Wilder always tells one of his favourite football stories.
It may be apocryphal. The words he uses can change.
But no one listening, often for the umpteenth time, doubts either the importance of the tale or the message Sheffield United’s manager is trying to convey.
“I know this guy,” he usually begins, “Who was on the bus home after the final game of the season and pretty much all his players were at the end of their deals. Lads were walking down to the front and asking what was happening. Asking if they were going to be staying or going.
“The whole thing was chaotic and, when I heard about it, I always thought how I’d never want to be in a situation like that.”
Wilder has enjoyed countless opportunities to polish his narrative skills since taking charge at Bramall Lane. Indeed, besides a promotion and then top six challenge, improving United’s housekeeping has been arguably his greatest achievement of the past two seasons.
Rather than dicing with disaster by leaving negotiations until the last possible moment, Wilder’s arrival has seen the Championship club become proactive rather than reactive by rewarding good work with enhanced deals.
It is a policy which, despite inevitably increasing salary costs, allows coaching staff to make concrete plans and has protected United’s investment in some of their most valuable assets.
“All the players are under contract,” Wilder confirmed after committing his own future to the club last week .
“That’s a good position to be in. In a period of the calendar when a lot of other clubs are renegotiating with people, we’ve got everybody tied-up.
“That means we can focus on trying to improve and bringing the right players in. It’s a good position to be in.”
An analysis of United’s squad reveals how the strategy’s inflationary effect upon their wage bill is counterbalanced by the soaring value of its members.
John Fleck, Jack O’Connell and Leon Clarke are all worth significantly more now than when they first arrived at the beginning of Wilder’s reign. David Brooks, a graduate of the Steelphalt Academy, would command in excess of £10m if he left this summer.
It would be much, much less if United, who have no plans to let him depart, had not handed him a long-term deal following his call-up by Wales. In recent years, Kevin McDonald and Harry Maguire have all departed for relatively modest sums because they had entered the closing stages of their agreements.
However, as Wilder has explained, the thinking behind United’s decision to change how they do contracts is philosophical as well as financial.
“This is a great club and I’ve always thought it should be the one with the power,” he said. “Players are vitally important, other than the fans they are the most important people at a club, and I’ve always made it clear I would never force anyone to stay if they aren’t happy.
“But, at the same time and after watching from afar, I’ve always thought the power needed to come back to the club. Hopefully, that’s what we’ve been able to do.”
Of course, there is still work to be done. Although United possess the ability to extend his deal by a further 12 months, goalkeeper Simon Moore is set to become a free agent at the end of next season and will be invited to sign a new contract. Chris Basham, Billy Sharp and Paul Coutts are among the next wave of players approaching the end of their terms and, with the latter now recovered from a serious leg injury, are also expected to hold discussions with United’s hierarchy in the near future.
As the contractual project develops, Wilder, together with co-owners HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe, could also choose to stagger both the timing of their talks and length of agreements offered.
The vast majority of United’s players will see their present deals expire in 2020.
Although some changes of personnel are inevitable, Wilder and his board of directors will not want to be overwhelmed by an avalanche of negotiations next summer.
“Obviously, in this business, we all know we have to try and take care of the ‘here and now’,” he said.
“But I’m a planner and, with the staff, I like to also try and take care of the medium and the long term as well. I think that’s important because that enables you to have a vision and an idea of how you can get to where you want to be.”
REPORTED CONTRACT LENGTHS:
Simon Moore: June 2019
Jake Eastwood: June 2020
Chris Basham: June 2019
Richard Stearman: June 2020
Jack O’Connell: June 2022
George Baldock: June 2020
Kieron Freeman: June 2020
Daniel Lafferty: June 2019
Enda Stevens: June 2020
Jake Wright: June 2019
John Fleck: June 2021
Paul Coutts: June 2019
Mark Duffy: June 2020
Lee Evans: June 2021
Ryan Leonard: June 2021
Ricky Holmes: June 2020
John Lundstram: June 2020
Leon Clarke: June 2020
Billy Sharp: June 2019
David Brooks: June 2021
Ched Evans: June 2020
Chris Wilder: June 2021
AVERAGE TIME ON CONTRACTS REMAINING: 24.5 months
PLAYERS ENTERING FINAL YEAR OF DEALS: 5
PLAYERS WITH CONTRACTS BEYOND MANAGER: 1
MOST VALUABLE ASSETS BY POSITION:
Simon Moore (Goalkeeper): One year remaining on his present deal but Sheffield United, who can extend that by a further 12 months, have expressed a desire to offer him another.
Jack O’Connell (Defence): Signed a new long-term contract at Bramall Lane last season and is now tied to the club for another four years.
John Fleck (Midfield): Another who recently accepted an improved and extended contract, thought to include an extension clause, after initially agreeing a three year deal after leaving Coventry City
David Brooks (Forward): Despite being courted by a number of Premier League clubs, the Wales international agreed a new four year contract at Bramall Lane last season.
PAST CASE STUDIES:
Dominic Calvert-Lewin: The youngster had two years remaining on his deal when Everton signed him for around £1.5m 21 months ago. Now established in the Premier League club’s first team squad, the Steelphalt Academy graduate admitted it had been impossible to turn down a transfer to the top-flight.
Verdict: With the benefit of hindsight, was undersold. But it seemed a good piece of business at the time.
Che Adams: Had entered the final two years of his contract with Sheffield United when Birmingham City signed the former Ilkeston forward in August 2016. City paid around £2m to acquire his services, with the fee enhanced because the youngster’s deal also contained a 12 month extension clause.
Harry Maguire: Like Adams, the Steelphalt Academy graduate had a year remaining on his present deal when he joined Hull City in a move reportedly worth £2.5m in July 2014. United had offered him an improved deal before the switch but, crucially, it remained unsigned before his switch to East Yorkshire.
Kevin McDonald: Was the kingpin of Sheffield United’s midfield when he joined Wolverhampton Wanderers in August 2013. Although the Black Country club triggered a £750,000 release clause in his contract, United’s negotiating position was compromised by the fact he had entered the final 12 months of his deal.