Sheffield United: United World chief explains its vision and attempts to bust some myths

A little over three weeks ago, as the dust was still settling on Sheffield United’s defeat in the Championship play-offs and Beerschot’s relegation from Belgium’s top tier, representatives of both clubs travelled to France for a meeting at Chateauroux’s training complex.

Sunday, 19th June 2022, 3:00 pm

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Deliberately informal, no binding decisions were taken. Those present at the get-together spent more time bonding than discussing the finer points of football. But the person responsible for convening it, Abdullah Alghmadi, believes the 48 hours they enjoyed with their fellow United World members could prove to be a pivotal moment in the organisation’s development.

“We had, three weeks ago at the end of May, a training meeting,” Alghamdi, UW’s chief executive, told The Star. “We exchanged knowledge and ideas. We had around 25 people at Chateauroux and they were there for two days.

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Abdullah Alghamdi, the chief executive of United World which effectively owns Sheffield United

“We used their expertise. It was team building, Now they know who people are. They get along.

“We want to try and motivate it but we will not force it. Football people are really nice. We want to motivate collaboration.”

The idea

Established by United owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to oversee his portfolio of sporting interests, UW is viewed with suspicion by supporters of some teams beneath its umbrella. The benefits for Al-Hilal United, Kerala United and the event’s hosts are obvious, providing them with a profile and opportunities they would otherwise be denied. But at Bramall Lane and the Olympisch Stadion, the homes of its most famous affiliates, folk are sceptical.

Sheffield United were beaten in the play-off semi-finals last season: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Speaking in Parma last week, where UW officials had gathered to celebrate their new kit deal with Italian manufacturers Errea, Alghamdi attempted to address some of their concerns. As well as confirming the agreement is the first of several UW wide contracts he hopes to broker over the coming months, he used a lunchtime briefing with journalists to try and reprofile the organisation’s image - explaining United manager Paul Heckingbottom’s appointment in November was in line with its principles and that the 44-year-old, who came agonisingly close to winning promotion, is helping to shape UW’s policy and strategy: “I’ll answer in a very pragmatic way, if Sheffield United doesn’t get any benefit from us, then it won’t experience any harm either.”

Nurturing home grown talent and developing coaches, Alghamdi insisted, are two core pillars of the UW manifesto.

“If you want to make the club more self-sustainable long term, you need to produce from within,” Alghamdi said. “If you don’t produce in the academy then you get expensive players who are not going to be of long term value because of their age. You are just collecting players, You flash money and one day that vanishes.”

The chief executives of Beershot, Chateauroux and Sheffield United with Errea's vice-president (left) and Alghamdi (right)

“Coaches, we view in the same way,” he added. “We treat Hecky, Jack (Lester) and Stuart (McCall) his assistants, as part of the plan. One may leave in the future, this is the business of football. But we want them to implement their plans and of course stay. They drive it.”

The doubt

Although United’s involvement in UW has been thrown into doubt by Henry Mauriss’ proposed takeover - the American businessman’s £115m offer does not extend to their associates in Antwerp, Chateauroux, Dubai and India - Alghamdi is pressing ahead with his work from its headquarters in Geneva.

One project he is working on, despite insisting United will not be forced to take part or abide by its findings, is the construction of a central recruitment database. Scouts from United, Beerschot and Chateauroux, together with their counterparts at Kerala and AHU, will continue to work independently on individual signings. But the information they gather, with Alghamdi’s encouragement, is now being drip fed into a central knowledge pool. Although there are thought to have been teething issues, a software programme to facilitate the process is understood to have been purchased recently.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and his assistant Stuart McCall: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

With United purchasing Ismaila Coulibaly from Sarpsborg two years ago before placing him on loan with Beerschot and the Malian’s team mate Stipe Radic being linked with a switch to South Yorkshire, Alghamdi was asked if UW’s grand vision was to eventually see players transferring between its members as their careers progress.

“That’s ideal but not a must,” he replied. “There’s no obligation. If there’s a person at Beerschot, say, we can propose but the people at Sheffield United said ‘No, he is not good enough.’ So we didn’t do it. That’s fine. We bring them together to exchange ideas.”

Attempting to allay fears that Heckingbottom will be bound by UW’s rulings, Alghamdi, previously chief financial officer of Saudi Arabia’s Olympic committee, revealed Prince Abdullah admitted Prince Abdullah had “disagreed” with the signings some of the 44-year-old’s predecessors had made but “allowed them to happen”.

Stressing “no” director dividends are taken at UW level, he insisted that any new investors invited to come on board will be “rewarded” when they leave rather than allowed to influence sporting policy at United.

“We don’t take dividends from our clubs. In football it can be hard to be profitable. Not so much elsewhere.”

The different sports

With that in mind, UW is branching into other disciplines. Residential academies in Switzerland, France and the UAE will soon be supplemented by a similar centre in the Saudi capital Riyadh whilst a partnership is being developed with a centre in Brazil. UW also has an interest in baseball while swimming is also viewed as a source of future income.

“We’re partners in minor baseball league in Detroit,” Alghamdi said. “We learn so much commercially from them. They have about 250 sponsors. All of them put something into the competition.”

“We’re hopefully entering swimming,” he added. “We have a concept, another very small idea with a residential element. That could be beneficial for everyone involved.”