Sheffield United: We are about to discover all we need to know about this project

This isn’t a sneaky jab to the ribs, although no doubt some will try and portray it as that.

Thursday, 4th November 2021, 6:38 pm

Simply a statement of fact: Sheffield United’s activity during the January transfer window will tell us plenty about the club’s aims and ambitions and its ability to try and achieve them.

Well, rather than ‘plenty’, make that pretty much everything. Why? Because we are about to find out, barring a series of catastrophic collapses at the top end of the Championship, how invested its hierarchy are - both professionally and financially - in the Slavisa Jokanovic project. Although I use the ‘P’ word reluctantly because, as events elsewhere have shown us over the past few weeks, there’s probably no such thing in football anymore. English football anyway, as those who have paid for the privilege to be custodians of our clubs are allowed to get away with the same knee jerk reactions, time and time again, we used to sneer at their Italian and Spanish counterparts for taking.

United, who drew with Nottingham Forest on Tuesday after losing to Blackpool 72 hours earlier, have not got off to the most spectacular of starts this season. Jokanovic admits it. So do the players who came under his command four months ago, with Ben Osborn admitting the sight of them sitting 17th in the table ahead of Tuesday’s trip to the City Ground made him feel nauseous.

Sign up to our Sheffield United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Now in 16th ahead of this weekend’s game against Blackburn Rovers, United must choose to twist or stick when the market reopens. Twelve months ago they did the latter, after the board of directors listened to Jokanovic’s predecessor Chris Wilder call for reinforcements as he attempted to give his squad even the slimmest of chances of surviving in the Premier League and then chose - as was their right - to cop a deaf ‘un. They calculated that relegation, which was officially confirmed a month after Wilder’s departure in March, was already certain. So any money made available from United’s solidarity and broadcasting rights payments was, the way the hierarchy saw it, inevitably going to be wasted. The thinking behind the decision to eventually draft-in one of the targets Wilder had identified and met - centre-half Ben Davies - when top-flight status had been surrendered is probably worthy of a column on its own. But again, those holding the purse strings were perfectly entitled to do what they wanted and when. Even if Wilder, whose relationship with his employers suffered irreparable damage as a result, struggled to fathom the logic.

Two thirds of a year on, with his side six points behind the top six and another 10 off the top two, is now also asking for permission to bolster the options at his disposal. And like Wilder, despite being cut from very different cloth, the Serb is unlikely to be impressed if his request is ignored. The guys in charge of United aren’t daft. They know that as well as anyone. Which is why, in the absence of any detailed and verifiable information about income streams and the Covid-19 pandemic’s effect on the Bramall Lane balance sheet, their response will be telling. (Despite the traffic, the easily surmountable gap between Jokanovic’s men and the play-offs should colour their thinking).

Read More

Read More
Analysis: Introducing Kerala United, the latest addition to the Sheffield United...

Either way, as I’ve been banging on incessantly since the summer, United must outline exactly what their strategic vision is. We can take a guess, thanks to the establishment of a network of sister clubs in Belgium, India, France and Dubai with probably more to follow. But coaching staff and, yes, supporters need to understand the exact nuts and bolts.

Sheffield United's Ben Osborn admitted earlier this week that he doesn't like looking at the Championship table right now: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

When Paul Heckingbottom’s spell in caretaker charge was coming to an end - now back in his old role at the academy, the former Barnsley, Sunderland and Scarborough stepped down from the helm with his reputation enhanced - he told journalists that United needed to design a blueprint for future success and then stick to it. Something similar to Norwich City, he insisted. Which might not seem like the best example now, as Daniel Farke’s side look to continue yo-yoing between the divisions. But you get the point.

Would Heckingbottom have raised this issue if a plan existed? Almost certainly not. Or, if it did, he was clearly unaware. Okay, it was clearly a chaotic period in United’s history. So, despite being the very opposite of ideal, you can probably forgive them if that was the case. We’ve all let things get on top of us at times. Taken our eye off the ball at the precise moment we shouldn’t. But there is no excuse now. Not least because Joanovic is trying to effect a culture change as well as deliver results.

Some people alarmed by United’s position will argue that his desire to introduce a new way of doing things is the cause of the problem. It will inevitably have caused upheaval, yes. But talk of club’s having their own DNA is nonsense. It’s one of those cringeworthy buzzwords which are becoming more and more common as PR and corporate types take over the game. Liverpool used to have their bootroom. But where is it now? Jurgen Klopp dismantled it and, after experiencing a few issues himself, is now doing very well thank you. Barcelona have been in existence for 121 years. But the Barcelona we know now, and which their president is now trying to revive, wasn’t created until 1988 when Johan Cruyff returned.

Sheffield United manager Slavisa Jokanovic has made it clear he wants to sign players during the January transfer window: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

Watford, where Jokanovic delivered the first of his two promotions in this country, were - still are - chaotic. But they have a modus operandi, despite the carnage. Fulham, the site of his second, meddled. They also invested; heavily but, more importantly, intelligently.

No one genuinely expects United to match their spending. But we are about to discover if they believe in themselves and what they believe themselves to be.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
Former Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder left Bramall Lane in March: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Enda Stevens and Died Spence during Tuesday's Championship fixture between Sheffield United and Nottingham Forest: Simon Bellis / Sportimage