Sheffield United set for decision on Ismaila Coulibaly's future amid work permit saga

Ismaila Coulibaly, the enigmatic Malian midfielder, will return to Sheffield United this summer before a decision is taken on the next stage of his career, The Star understands.

Monday, 20th June 2022, 2:09 pm
Updated Monday, 20th June 2022, 2:09 pm

The 21-year-old is on loan at Beerschot, United’s sister club in Belgium, from Bramall Lane, having signed for the Blades from Sarpsborg 08 in 2020.

The midfielder’s time in Belgium has been a mixed bag, with a good first campaign which reportedly attracted interest from elsewhere in Europe followed by a season of struggle which saw changes of manager and injury as Beerschot were relegated.

Why are United looking to bring him back?

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It’s all down to the complex and complicated matter of work permits, really. After Brexit, the whole criteria players have to fulfil, in order to gain the necessary permissions to live and work in England changed and football adapted a not-so-straightforward system of points to determine if a player qualifies or not.

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One of the considerations is the level that the player operates at. Currently, Coulibaly is still considered as a top-level player in Belgium but if he played a minute for Beerschot in the second tier, he would lose his eligibility for a work-permit – and United wouldn’t be able to bring him to England even if they wanted to.

So what’s the plan now?

Ismaila Coulibaly trains with Sheffield United: Sportimage

According to sources in Belgium, Coulibaly has reported for pre-season training with Beerschot while the finer details of his work permit are ironed out.

But the plan is understood to be to get the young man over to Sheffield for pre-season, where he will be assessed by boss Paul Heckingbottom and his coaching staff.

From there, there would appear to be two real options, with sending him back to Belgium not really making much sense. Either he remains with United, or is loaned – or sold – elsewhere.

Beerschot's Isamaila Cheikh Coulibaly and Anderlecht's Albert Sambi Lokonga fight for the ball: JOHAN EYCKENS/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

What’s he like again?

Those who have seen Coulibaly in action, at his best, report promising-sounding things. A powerful midfielder with a good engine and an eye for goal, capable of playing the ‘box-to-box’ role that used to be known as ‘a midfielder’.

His signing was the first real indication of how the United World premise would operate, and the player himself has built up somewhat mythical status amongst Unitedites – most of whom will have never seen him kick a ball.

Heckingbottom and his staff have had that luxury, with Coulibaly flown over to Sheffield last season to train with United during an international break. Although Heckingbottom was non-committal about Coulibaly’s prospects, a more definitive decision will have to be made this summer – one way or the other.

What has been said?

“He’s a good lad and he was really keen to be here,” Heckingbottom said, after inviting Coulibaly to Shirecliffe to train last season.

“It was a three-year loan with Beerschot but we need to decide what to do now.

“With coming here, he knows how hard we work and how hard he’s got to keep working if he wants to get into our team.

“We’ll see what happens, we’ll decide what’s best to do. Not only for us but also for Ismaila himself, because he seems a really good lad. We’ll have a think about what that is.”