Sheffield United: Transfer plans take shape ahead of huge play-off battle
Visitors to Paul Heckingbottom’s office at Sheffield United’s training ground will notice a large framed whiteboard hung on one of its walls.
Scribbled across it in marker pen, surrounded by club memos and personal mementoes, are the names of potential transfer targets recommended by Bramall Lane’s recruitment gurus. Preparing for next Sunday’s game against Fulham might be his priority, as United hope to ensure it isn’t their last of the season. But management, Heckingbottom acknowledges, is all about taking care of the future as well as the here and now.
“The main thing we’re looking at, the only thing many people here are looking at, is the match we’ve got coming up,” he says, as the race for play-off qualification reaches its climax. “But there’s never only one thing to do when you’re involved with the running of a football team. The thing is, and what you quickly learn in this business, is that it’s all about dividing your time up and recognising the things that are most important at any given moment. So, yes, although getting results on the pitch is the biggest thing right now, there’s also other things that need dealing with. Yes. of course we’re looking.”
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Despite being sixth in the Championship table following Friday’s win at Queens Park Rangers, United’s coaching staff do not have the luxury of focusing exclusively on picking apart Marco Silva’s tactical masterplan. With the transfer window scheduled to open in a little over one month’s time,the process of identifying possible acquisitions and holding talks with their representatives began several weeks ago. Made even more laborious by the uncertainty surrounding which division United will be competing in next term, Henry Mauriss’ proposed takeover of the club has added an extra layer of complexity to an already confusing situation. Particularly, with current owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud seemingly unwilling or unable to provide any firm financial projections until discussions with the American are concluded, given that Heckingbottom still doesn’t know exactly how much money he will have to spend. Or, with negotiations aimed at extending the contracts of several leading squad members entering a state of paralysis, all of the positions he might have to fill.
“We are always tracking people,” Heckingbottom continues, describing how United highlight players capable of bringing something to his squad. “We look to the future, over the short, medium and long term. There’s lists of names and then some of those change. The order of them might alter depending on something that might have happened or a situation that’s come about.”
“Sometimes, you’re looking at a particular person, not for now but maybe for a few years down the line,” he adds. “Because of things that you expect to develop here and because that’s when you think they might be ready.
“Not everyone matures at the same speed. So it’s a constant juggling act if you like. Names can get put on there and others might get struck off.
“We don’t want to get left behind. We want to be in a position where we can move quickly, which is why you have to try and stay a few steps ahead.”
Filip Uremovic, the Croatia international United hired on a short term basis when FIFA allowed him to suspend his contract with Rubin Kazan, is an example of how patience can be a virtue in the market. By Heckingbottom’s own admission, the centre-half had been monitored “for quite a while” by United but always remained out of their price range. However, when Russia invaded Ukraine and the world governing body allowed overseas players to flee Vladimir Putin’s regime, Uremovic accepted United’s invitation to taste English football.
With hopes fading that Jack O’Connell will make a return to first team action after spending more than a year-and-a-half attempting to recover from a knee issue, a vacancy is likely to appear at the heart of United’s rearguard this summer. If United go up - and officials in Zurich decide conditions are not favourable for Uremovic to rejoin Leonid Slutsky’s side - a permanent offer could be made to the 25-year-old and his representatives.
If not, and Uremovic is hauled back to Tartarstan, then another Croat, Beerschot’s Stipe Radic, is likely to enter United’s radar. Aged 21, work permit issues are almost certain to force Radic to wave goodbye to Beerschot following their relegation to Belgium’s second tier. United’s sister club also expect to lose Ismaila Coulibaly for exactly the same reason.
However, after observing him in training during the last international break, Heckingbottom sounded less than convinced he is ready to compete for a first team place in South Yorkshire just yet. Mauriss’ attempts to purchase HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s shareholding is not thought to extend to the entirety of the United World network either.
It is Heckingbottom’s job, with the help of his staff, to make sense of these moving parts.
“Regarding the takeover, in football you get used to ignoring stuff like that,” insists Heckingbottom. “We know, with everything that’s happening, that we have six or seven positions which might need filling. But we also want to know what we will be filling them with.
“The Prince is still the owner. Yusuf (Giansiracusa) is still the chairman. So that’s the basis I’m working on.
“With takeovers, there’s always change. That’s if one happens. It could be the budget or the dynamic at board level. There could be a change of staff. These are the things you have to deal with and make sure that you’re ready to act.”