Sheffield United: New front opens in the battle to keep Norway's Sander Berge
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But speaking as the midfielder prepares to begin pre-season training at Bramall Lane, after being granted extra time off following the recent round of Nations League games, Paul Heckingbottom has no plans to discuss the situation with a footballer he admitted earlier this week can help United regain Premier League status.
“I had a chat with Sander at the end of last term,” Heckingbottom confirmed. “So we’ve done that. We only need to talk about football now. For me, he knows what I think of him. And we know how good he is and how good he can be. If we’re looking at what a promotion looks like then, yes, definitely I see him as being a part of that side.”
Heckingbottom was speaking to three different audiences when he addressed Berge’s position at United yesterday afternoon: The assembled audience of journalists, who had ostensibly gathered to discuss the publication of the 2022/23 schedule, his board of directors and of course the £22m signing himself. Keen to avoid speculation about Berge’s future becoming a distraction, particularly as he attempts to focus on in-coming transfers, Heckingbottom acknowledged there is “nothing” he “can do” if someone chooses to meet the £35m release clause contained within the 24-year-old’s contract.
But after pointedly reminding Berge that United’s coaching staff have helped make him a better player than the one which arrived in England midday through their 2019/20 campaign, it was the comments Heckingbottom appeared to direct towards United’s hierarchy which formed the most intriguing part of his address. Suggestions they could be prepared to accept a bid which offers them a return on their investment, rather than hold out for the full amount Berge’s suitors know will trigger his exit, Heckingbottom reminded that successful sides don’t voluntarily do anything which “weakens” their position.
“You’re always judged on results,” he said. “Whether you are a manager, a coach, a player or a CEO or owner. That’s what it always boils down to. Results.”
Together with every other member of United’s squad, Berge’s wages were reduced following last month’s defeat by Nottingham Forest in the play-off semi-finals. Still one of its highest earners, having become the most expensive purchase in United’s history when he left Genk, that salary cut is also likely to have strengthened Berge’s resolve to engineer a move.
Aware his employers are not in a position to compete financially with Leeds and others who have been credited with an interest in acquiring his services, Heckingbottom’s pitch to Berge revolves around the improvements he, together with assistant Stuart McCall and Jack Lester, have made to his game.
Having initially struggled to justify his fee, Berge’s fortunes were transformed when United deployed him in a more advanced role following Heckingbottom’s appointment in November. Berge netted five times in his final 12 domestic outings last season.
“He’s never been known as a goalscorer but he can get even better at it,” Heckingbottom said. “His shots from distance we can improve on. He’s got one hell of a strike on him.”