At the beginning of the season, when Chris Wilder surveyed the Championship’s financial landscape, it was clear Sheffield United needed to discover a niche.
In the event, after recognising they might struggle to attract established second-tier talent, he carved his own. United, their manager decided, would focus on identifying players who had either yet to fulfil their potential or were ready, after impressing in the lower reaches, to make the step-up. It was a policy which saw the likes of Enda Stevens and George Baldock arrive at Bramall Lane. Many veterans of the club’s League One triumph were also retained. With two of those, Leon Clarke and John Fleck, continuing to excel this term, Wilder has suggested his days of digging through the transfer market for undiscovered gems might not be over. Especially after Clarke, United’s leading goalscorer this term, was named in the PFA’s divisional team of the year following a prolific eight months.
“For Leon, there’s Enda Stevens who hasn’t played in the Championship really,” Wilder said. “There’s John Fleck. There’s Jack O’Connell.
“For us to be within touching distance of teams like Middlesbrough, for us to be above some of the names we are, is superb really. It’s no fluke. The lads have shown they deserve to be here and what can be done.”
Wilder has been petitioning United’s co-owners to loosen the purse strings this summer. After delivering big results on a modest budget, the 50-year-old believes high-calibre targets are required to further drive up performance levels within his squad. However, barring the arrival of a billionaire in the boardroom or Fosun-style takeover, Wilder’s eye for a bargain will remain Bramall Lane’s most potent weapon. Even if greater resources are placed at his disposal, even if HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe can resolve their differences and release a significant raft of funds, United have little hope of competing with teams in receipt of a Premier League parachute payment. Or, 11th in the table ahead of Saturday’s game against Preston North End, the likes of Newcastle and Everton if they miraculously beat the odds by reaching the play-offs and then gain promotion.
A study by the CIES Football Observatory suggests Wilder is right to seek a small handful of quality additions rather than perform a major overhaul of United’s playing staff. The body, based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, has discovered a strong correlation between successful clubs and squad stability. It also reports how over-speculating on the transfer market: “Often brings about a vicious circle of instability and poor results.”
“The players we have got will benefit, come what may, from the experiences we’ve had this year,” Wilder said. “They’ll improve.”