Sheffield United striker Rhian Brewster finds himself at the heart of a political war and fighting a personal battle
Five months ago, when Rhian Brewster first burst through the doors of Bramall Lane, he was clutching the type of references usually acquired by established Premier League footballers rather than ones at the beginning of their senior careers.
“A natural born goalscorer,” was Jurgen Klopp’s description, lamenting his departure from Liverpool. “He’s a top, top talent,” gushed former team mate Jordan Henderson, sounding even more impressed than the German by Brewster’s progress at Anfield.
Although the duo meant well, their comments created the impression United had signed the finished article. Combined with the timing of his arrival, and the fact Chris Wilder’s side were clearly short of firepower entering the new season, the pressure quickly mounted on Brewster’s 20-year-old shoulders. Nearly 30 weeks later, and with the youngster entering Saturday’s game against Southampton still waiting to open his account for the club, one can imagine it has become almost intolerable.
Although it will do nothing to ease the tension Brewster must be feeling whenever he steps onto the pitch, the England under-21 international is also at the heart of the politicking off it which, it became clear this week, has cast a shadow over Wilder’s own future. Speaking to the media before Wednesday’s win over Aston Villa, the United manager made it abundantly clear - without explicitly saying so - that his position could become untenable if the board of directors do not endorse the blueprint he has devised to deliver another promotion when relegation is mathematically confirmed. With only 11 matches of their season remaining, United finished their meeting with Dean Smith’s men 12 points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table.
“I don’t know,” Wilder had responded, when asked if he will remain at the helm next term. “Head down and onto the Villa game. Then what will be will be. I want to stay, definitely. If we stick to the plan.”
The details of that strategy revolve around retaining the best players at his disposal and supplementing them with some handpicked new faces. Wilder had hoped to begin that process in January, bringing in a midfielder and a defender to provide cover for the injured Jack O’Connell. But United’s hierarchy, after consulting with owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, prohibited him from doing so. Insisting he wants Wilder to continue despite United’s disappointing results of late, the Saudi Arabian nevertheless confirmed that concerns about their recent track record in the transfer market had influenced his decision.
The investment United made in Brewster, and its subsequent returns, is likely to have been at the forefront of Prince Abdullah’s mind during those discussions. Although pretty unremarkable when compared to others across the division, the businessman and his colleagues have provided Wilder with considerable financial backing by United’s own standards since seizing control in the autumn of 2019. Acquired at a cost of £23.5m, Brewster is the most expensive of the eight figure deals they have sanctioned, with four other players brought in for £10m or more.
Although their ability to do so is thanks to Wilder’s own achievements at the helm - something he was quick to remind them following last weekend’s meeting with Brester’s former employers - Prince Abdullah and his cohorts are bound to be perplexed why someone recruited at such expense has not featured more. The striker, whose resume also includes a spell in Chelsea’s academy, made only his eighth league start for United when Villa visited South Yorkshire. As the jockeying for position and influence continues behind the scenes, as both Prince Abdullah and Wilder look to impose their authority, it could be that the greatest emblem of the latter’s success is also his greatest weakness in this power struggle.
“We made a presentation about him to the board and they ticked it off,” Wilder said, perhaps in an effort to cover his position during Tuesday’s pre-match media conference. “On reflection, we’ll all learn and move forward and be better for it.”
Wilder will claim, by using Brewster so sparingly, that he has protected the striker from the worst of the scrutiny United have been subjected to during their slide down the rankings. It is an argument not without its merits, given that his rapidly diminishing reserves of self-belief are likely to have drained still further had he been asked to shoulder the burden of spearheading an attack which struggles to pick apart the country’s best defences.
Wilder’s admission that Brewster is likely to feature more during the remainder of the campaign, and repeated references to his exploits during a spell on loan in the Championship last season, suggest coaching staff view their handling of him as part of a long-term development programme. A mentally fresh Brewster, carrying no emotional baggage, will undoubtedly prove a huge asset in the second tier next term.
But Brewster also holds the key to restoring Prince Abdullah’s confidence in Wilder’s ability to pick the right players and negotiate the right price. Questioning the judgement of someone who has defied the sporting and the financial odds since taking charge might be unfair.
After inheriting a squad which had just finished mid-table in League One, Wilder led United to the pinnacle of the domestic game only three seasons later. But that is the reality of the situation; one made even more awkward by the fact you can sympathise with those on both sides of a dispute which is clearly the source of much friction behind the scenes.
Although it will only intensify the spotlight he is under, Brewster can help solve some of the problems blighting United if he is given an opportunity to impress, and duly takes it, between now and the end of May.
The most extravagant purchase in United’s history, Brewster finds himself in the unenviable position of being the person most capable of helping Wilder and Prince Abdullah rescue their relationship whilst trying to establish himself in new surroundings.