Way back in May, when Sheffield United were still celebrating promotion and the players were parading around town on an open top bus, Chris Wilder promised things were about to change.
Not just on the pitch, where the club had regained its seat at the English Football League’s top table, but off it too.
Earlier this week, when David Brooks committed his long-term future to Bramall Lane, Wilder believes we saw the start of that process.
“We always knew it would be easy to keep hold of younger players - be stronger with them - if we got into the division. We have certainly done that in this instance.”
Brooks’ decision to agree a new contract with United is significant, not because it means he will definitely remain in South Yorkshire for the next five seasons, but because the player himself instigated talks. All manner of clauses are likely to have been inserted into the paperwork which the 20-year-old, surrounded by television cameras and journalists, signed on Tuesday night. But, as Wilder emphasised on numerous occasions during the ensuing interviews, Brooks had made it clear he wanted to stay. The implication being, after returning to the Championship, that United are once again a club where youngsters can build rather than simply launch their careers. Something which, the manager insinuated without naming any names, has not always been the case.
“Tell me a club and manager in League One, when a Premier League club comes knocking, and the player and agent wants to go, it’s difficult to keep hold of those players,” Wilder said. “I am not chucking the club under the bus, by any means, I am an employee, but I think they see what we are trying to do.”
United supporters have grown used to seeing home-grown talent leave in recent seasons. Although the vast majority of those departures were a direct consequence of spending six years in League One, Wilder acknowledged those tasked with organising the team’s affairs now accept the timing of some sales were a mistake. Seven Steelphalt Academy graduates, including England internationals Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker, are now plying their trade with top-flight clubs. Four of those, including Matthew Lowton and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, left when United were a third-tier side. With Walker commanding a £50m fee when he moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Manchester City earlier this summer, together they are worth a combined total £80m. The full-back, effectively a make-weight in the deal which also took Kyle Naughton to White Hart Lane in 2009, was clearly undersold. With the benefit of hindsight, Calvert-Lewin and Aaron Ramsdale, who cost £1m and £800,000 after joining Everton and AFC Bournemouth respectively, probably fall into the same bracket. United will argue mitigating circumstances, including the need to raise finance for their own recruitment programmes, the players’ wishes and demands of FFP. Which is why Brooks’ decision to negotiate fresh terms was so important. If United reach the top-flight, he will almost certainly stay. If Brooks’ progress outstrips their own then, at the very least, they can do business on their terms. United’s bargaining power, Wilder explained, has returned.
“I said at the start of the year, the power has to come back to the football club. As soon as we stepped into the Championship environment, and where we are going, things change pretty quickly.”
Brooks, whose performances this season culminated in his recent call-up by Wales, is now one of the most sought-after young players outside the top-flight. Everton, despite their public and, more tellingly, private denials, were linked with the attacker during the last transfer window while Liverpool and Newcastle are now reportedly considering bids. Despite those claims it was Spurs, whose interest has slipped largely under the radar, who The Star understands came closest to submitting a concrete offer earlier this year.
“Sometimes players don’t want to be here, agents don’t want the players to be here, and you are in a no-win position,” Wilder said. “Then you have to get the best possible deal for the football club. Sometimes, if the players don’t want to be here, I am going to put a gun to their head. But Brooksy wanted to be here, he made that clear to his agent.”
Wilder was in ebullient mood when he sat down with the media earlier this week. Third in the Championship table ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Reading and only two points behind leaders Wolves, United are now being talked about as genuine promotion contenders after winning six of their previous eight games. Last weekend’s win over Ipswich Town was revealing because it was achieved without Paul Coutts; cited by Wilder as “maybe our most influential player.” The midfielder has now completed his suspension but United could be without wing-backs Kieron Freeman and George Baldock due to injury, although the latter returned to training yesterday.
Wilder, reflecting on Reading’s slow start to the campaign after losing the play-off final earlier this year, said: “We’ve got to recognise this is a team with big strengths. We are talking about a team that was a penalty kick away from getting into the Premier League last season. I never looked at the fixture list last season and thought ‘that’s three points there, a point there’ and so on. I won’t be doing it this season either.”