Sheffield United: The possibility in the transfer market The Blades should continue to explore

First, an admission: This isn’t my idea.

Thursday, 24th March 2022, 5:00 pm

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Which probably explains why it sounds like a good one. Actually, make that a very good one. So well done to the friend who suggested it. If you think so too, he deserves all the credit.

The pal in question, who for reasons you might be able to guess boasts in-depth and extensive knowledge of Russian Premier League football, sent me a text message earlier this week containing a proposal for Sheffield United.

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First, before explaining exactly what his idea is, some context. Paul Heckingbottom’s squad, as we know, has been savaged by injuries in recent months. And defenders, with Chris Basham, Charlie Goode, Ben Davies and George Baldock all missing last Saturday’s game against Barnsley, are particularly thin on the ground at Bramall Lane right now. Fortunately the latter, who as Heckingbottom later revealed had volunteered to take part in the fixture, appears to be recovered from the knee injury which interrupted his campaign. But, it’s still fair to say, United can ill-afford to lose any more members of their rearguard during the final eight matches of the Championship season. Especially, following an impressive sequence of results, they are chasing promotion.

That probably explains why Andre Wisdom was invited to train with Heckingbottom’s side last week. The former Liverpool centre-half, most recently of Derby County, had previously been working-out with Birmingham City before returning to his native Yorkshire. Speaking after the meeting with Poya Asbaghi’s side, which saw United enter the international break ranked fifth in the table, Heckingbottom appeared to downplay suggestions Wisdom is about to be offered a contract. But would he have pitched up here if the 44-year-old was tripping over defensive players? Almost certainly not.

Anyway, enough of all that. Back to what my mate got in touch to suggest. Before Filip Uremovic, the Croatia centre-half, checked in from Rubin Kazan.

Over the past month or so, most of the world has watched events unfold in Ukraine with upset and dismay. Russia’s invasion of the country - or for some readers in Moscow, its military exercise - is causing pain to families on both sides of the divide. One can only hope that peace breaks out soon. Both in that part of eastern Europe and also all the other conflict zones across the world.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom is short of defenders following an injury crisis at Bramall Lane: Andrew Yates / Sportimage

In the meantime, the Russian Football Union’s membership of UEFA and FIFA has been suspended with overseas players involved in its domestic competitions being informed they can cancel their contracts without fear of reprisals from the governing bodies.

This, Roman (not his real name) reminded, could open up several lines of enquiry United could explore. “Hörður Björgvin Magnússon, at CSKA Moscow,” would be perfect for them,” he ventured.

“He knows the division, after playing for Bristol City, and has a quality CV.” Magnússon, of course, has been capped 36 times by Iceland and represented them at the 2018 World Cup; staged, coincidentally, in Russia. However, Uremovic’s decision to strike a short-term deal with United has ended any possibility of pursuing him.

Other teams in England’s second tier are already alert to the possibilities the RFU’s predicament has created. Stoke City, United’s first opponents following the pause in the domestic schedule, are reportedly monitoring Daniel Farke after the former Norwich City manager resigned from his job at Krasnodar following the outbreak of hostilities.

A Russian flag waves next to one of the Kremlin towers in Moscow: ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images

With their fitness issues hopefully easing, United might not need anyone new. But whether it be with a view to this term or beyond, it would surely be sensible to scan the RPL and see if there’s anyone who fancies a move to England.

There’s a caveat, however. People locked into agreements with teams from Russia and Ukraine can only temporarily break their deals.

“Players and coaches will be considered out of contract until 30 June 2022,” FIFA confirmed in a statement. “And will therefore be at liberty to sign a contract with another club without consequences of any kind.”

FIFPRO, the world players’ union, wants to go further, even though youngsters attached to Ukranian clubs and who are fleeing the fighting have been granted access to the European transfer market.

A Ukraine flag

Labelling the measures imposed by officials in Zurich as too “timid”, their spokesperson responded: “The decision…to allow foreign players to only suspend their contracts and thus only temporarily leave Russian clubs…it will be hard (for them) to find employment for the remainder of the season with uncertainty looming over them, and within a few weeks they will be in a very difficult situation once again.”

They’re right. And FIFPRO’s comments should also mute any criticism that clubs using this mechanism are exploiting what is a human and diplomatic tragedy. Refugees escaping war or persecution are entitled to try and find employment. And footballers, the vast majority of whom don’t actually command gargantuan salaries, are employees. Businesses in the retail sector wouldn’t be chastised for hiring someone forced to leave their home or their homeland. Those operating in football shouldn’t either, despite the fact they are often used as political footballs by those in power either seeking to deflect attention from their own failings or curry favour with the masses. Social media ‘commentators’ - who believe that publishing a couple of Tweets is akin to joining the International Brigades - can be guilty of doing the same thing too.

Providing they are properly assessed beforehand - scouting systems can be expensive, but nowhere near as costly as recruiting unsuitable players - then why shouldn’t United consider bringing in someone currently working in Ukraine or Russia? It’s not being exploitative. It’s simply offering a hand, with mutual benefits attached. (And let’s not forget, although in this instance it is utterly wrong, mutual benefit is what lets governments across the world pick and choose which despots they get into bed with and those they kick out without being properly called to account).

Personally, I think ‘Roman’ is on to something. United clearly do too.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield