It came as no surprise when, after being asked for a number, Chris Wilder offered a ball park figure instead.
No manager is in the business of revealing how much they can spend in the transfer market. Especially one who, by his own admission, must be creative rather than relying on cold, hard cash.
But having acknowledged Sheffield United are still unable to outbid most of the Championship’s leading teams, Wilder insisted they are still in a stronger position than many clubs with supposedly deeper pockets. Which, given his repeated references to firesales and sanctions, suggests Bramall Lane’s coaching staff will attempt to exploit their rival’s perilous finances over the coming weeks.
“We might not have the most,” Wilder admitted. “Still, I think we’re much better placed than the six or seven teams who are operating under an embargo because they’ve either not organised themselves properly or spent silly amounts they really don’t have.
“We might do things in a slightly different way here. We might have to be creative in who and how we bring people in. But I believe we’ve shown we can do that in the past and, given the excellent work my staff do here behind the scenes, we can show it again.”
Wilder’s reward for nearly delivering a top six finish on a bottom six budget last season was an increase in funding from owners HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe. Nevertheless, as he explained during a break in training at the Steelphalt Academy last week, the amount at his disposal remains considerably lower than those awarded to Nottingham Forest’s Aitor Karanka or Marcelo Bielsa; the pioneering Argentine now in charge of Leeds. But Wilder, as he held court on a sundrenched terrace overlooking the first team pitches, was in no mood to complain.
“We always try and be sensible,” he said. “Kevin and the Prince understand the mechanics of football, they’ve been in it for long enough, and they’ve given me what they can and I’ve thanked them for their help. There will always be clubs who can spend more than the others, that’s football. And although it helps, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything. I think we’ve shown, with good planning and intelligence, we can try to make up the gap between ourselves and some of the others in different ways. That’s what we’ll be trying to do.”
“Listen, we can’t go toe to toe with probably half of the clubs in the division when it comes to paying fees,” Wilder continued. “I’m not talking out of turn when I say that because that’s already known.
Arguably the biggest challenge facing Wilder this summer relates to what he wants to purchase; not the fact others have more money. With goalkeeper Dean Henderson arriving from Manchester United, one, preferably two, centre-forwards now top the 50-year-old’s wishlist. Neil Warnock, his predecessor at Bramall Lane, once explained why buying the right striker is so difficult in a competitive market. Saves, tackles or passes rarely make headlines. But no one, not even in non-league football, scores on the quiet.
“Fortunately, we’ve already got two really good ones here,” Wilder insisted, referring to Billy Sharp and Leon Clarke. “They can perform and deliver at this level, they showed that last time out. But ideally we want four (centre-forwards) here capable of doing the same thing. It’s a difficult market but we’ve put ourselves in a better position, definitely.”
Henderson, described by Wilder as the “best pound for pound goalkeeper” in the English Football League last season, is unlikely to be the only player United sign on loan before the end of August. Although the difficulties being experienced by the likes of Aston Villa and Derby County could reveal new avenues to explore, Wilder, his assistant Alan Knill and head of recruitment Paul Mitchell have identified the temporary transfer market as a potentially rewarding source of new talent. Mitchell’s analysis of contractual situations and performance trajectories beyond the confines of Bramall Lane provides a further layer of knowledge.
“We like to plan,” Wilder, who is known to be monitoring Southampton’s Sam Gallagher, said. “That’s the way we like to work and it’s one that’s produced so far.
“Yes, I know ultimately it’s about the short term because you’ve got to get results. I’m not daft. But if you can put things in place for the medium and the long term as well, then as far as I’m concerned it gives you a better change of sustained success. I think, pretty much while we’ve been here, we’ve shown that can be done.”
Wilder, who led United to the League One title before masterminding last season’s unlikely play-off push, has shown himself to be a shrewd operator in the transfer market since being appointed in 2016. Midfielders Mark Duffy and John Fleck were both signed on free transfers while Clarke, the scorer of 19 Championship goals, cost around £150,000.
Wilder will use that track record as leverage to secure the lion’s share of the initial £12m downpayment AFC Bournemouth are set to hand over for David Brooks. Wilder, who sanctioned the youngster’s release after being informed he wanted to join the Premier League club, is scheduled to hold talks with Prince Abdullah and McCabe next week. It remains unclear if United’s ownership situation - both men launched takeover bids earlier this year - will impact upon how much of Brooks’ fee is released or used to fund day-to-day operations at Bramall Lane.
“Whatever the final calculation, Wilder reminded, United still find themselves in a more stable position than some.
“I think we’ve done well in the market,” he said. “They (McCabe and Prince Abdullah) know how you’ve got to progress and move forward. They know we want to keep on improving and pushing in the right direction and they understand how you’ve got to do that. After all, it’s what everybody here wants.”