The words oozed pride, passion and defiance.
But the tone in which they were delivered, combined with the downbeat demeanour, provided a glimpse into Chris Wilder’s confused and conflicted mind.
When Sheffield United’s manager faced the media following Sunday’s victory over Bristol City, he should have found himself charting progress, discussing signings and reflecting upon the club’s highest league finish in eight seasons.
Instead, worryingly for those supporters who had made their way to Ashton Gate and the thousands listening at home, parts of his interview sounded more like a valedictory address than a roadmap for the future.
There were no fresh revelations. Nothing new to report on Bramall Lane’s warring co-owners. But those who witnessed Wilder’s body language, listened to him talk in the past tense before eventually correcting himself, knew he feared this could be his final press conference in charge of the side he has followed since childhood.
“The season we’ve had, as a group, all credit has got to go to the players,” Wilder said. “I thank the staff as well because they’ve been brilliant with Alan and I.”
Wilder and his assistant Alan Knill, whose name was also chanted by United’s away following during both halves of the game, have enjoyed remarkable success since arriving at Bramall Lane two years ago. With promotion from League One achieved at the first time of asking, the two men ensured a squad with no household names or big money signings mounted a top six challenge last term.
But with HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and Kevin McCabe both fighting for sole control of United’s parent company Blades Leisure Limited (BLL), Wilder’s frustration at the resulting impasse has been evident for weeks. Just over a fortnight ago, when play-off qualification became a mathematical impossibility, it prompted him to publicly complain about a lack of “harmony”, “direction” and “clarity” before wondering aloud if it is worth carrying on.
Aware of his standing on the terraces and a lifelong United fan, Wilder’s outburst came straight from the heart. But it was strategic too. A carefully calculated ploy designed to bring matters to a head. Unfortunately, with Prince Abdullah and McCabe so far unable to settle their differences and the battle potentially destined for the courts, the swift resolution he craves appears unlikely. Which threatens to leave him at a crossroads with an awkward and potentially career defining decision to make. Walk-out the door now, even if it is under extreme duress, and there are no guarantees Wilder will ever return to lead United. No matter what some folk have been suggesting in recent weeks. Football, as Arsene Wenger, Roberto Di Matteo and Jose Mourinho can all testify, moves on very quickly. Irrespective of however many doubles, FA Cups or Champions League titles you have won.
Wilder grasps this. Which is why, despite his attachments to United, he insisted people could not blame him for wondering whether or not his future lies elsewhere. After a respectable playing career, he will be financially comfortable. But, having not banked the riches professionals do now, Wilder does need to work. A reputation for delivering positive results, even in the most testing of circumstances, must be protected at all costs.
Despite being painted in some quarters as a tactic to secure greater funding, Wilder’s comments are actually anything but. Of course, he would appreciate more to spend. But, beyond the need for information to construct some sort of transfer plan, there is a philosophical aspect to his manoeuvring too. Although it was largely ignored, the critical part of his interview following the defeat by Preston North End was a comment about how he wants United to build and proceed. Interference from above or a dramatic change of policy will not be welcomed. Nor, piecing together the clues from previous interviews, the imposition of a markedly different approach.
“I think I know how to drive us forward,” Wilder said. “I want to continue in the same way because I think it’s right. We’ve seen that this season and especially last year.”
One of the reasons why the relationship between Prince Abdullah and McCabe has deteriorated so rapidly is because the differences also exist in the boardroom. Yes, there have been disagreements about investment. McCabe, speaking at a event in the city earlier this year, has admitted as much publicly. But the two men, who went into partnership in September 2013, also possess different ideas about how United should conduct their business. Which, the mechanics of their agreement aside, has seen both sides adopt increasingly entrenched positions since it broke down. It must be hoped this week’s meeting between the pair leads to a breakthrough,
McCabe, who effectively gifted Prince Abdullah half of BLL in return for certain financial guarantees, is more of a traditionalist after effectively dismantling United’s network of overseas sister-clubs which included Ferencvaros, White Star Woluwe and Chengdu Blades. Prince Abdullah, who has acquired a stake in KFCO Beerschot Wilrijk, appears keen to explore this route again. Particularly after recommending Jan Van Winckel, previously assistant manager of the Belgians, to United’s board of directors. With no obvious background in business but a long history in the game, the 44-year-old has clearly been hired to provide footballing expertise and advice.
Wilder, speaking after their win over Lee Johnson’s side had seen United’s secure 10th place, admitted their failure to qualify for the play-offs was “disappointing” before insisting nothing should distract from his team’s latest accomplishment.
“We’ve finished above some huge clubs,” he said. “We’ve come within touching distance of some huge clubs that people told us we had no right to be anywhere near. These lads have given everything, absolutely everything, and they deserve an immense amount of credit. They’ve proved it’s no fluke.”
Wilder’s prefence is to remain in situ and mastermind another push for promotion next term. But if he does not receive any information, any definitive budget or the outcome he desires, the chances of United improving are slim to none. And Slim might even leave town.
When the first shots were fired in the battle for control of Sheffield United, cold hard cash appeared to have caused the dispute.
But three months after the Championship club announced Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud were in “discussions regarding the transfer of ownership and control” to the latter, it is clear the the two also differ on how the club should be run.
Still, unless one decides to withdraw from the race or they resurrect their partnership, money will ultimately decide the outcome.
As The Star first revealed, the agreement which saw Prince Abdullah handed 50 per cent of the club in August 2013 requires whoever owns United to also purchase its property interests before completing a takeover. These include Bramall Lane’s freehold and also leaseholds covering sites such as the Steelphalt Academy training complex, Copthorne Hotel and junior development centre at Crookes.
A source close to Prince Abdullah told this newspaper towards the end of last season that the Saudi royal was committed to acquiring these holdings but explained his immediate priority was “achieving promotion.”
Although the progress of those negotiations remains confidential, it is clear an understanding has yet to be reached.
McCabe, who gifted Prince Abdullah his shares in return for various financial guarantees, controls his stake in United’s parent company Blades Leisure Limited (BLL) via a company called Sheffield United Limited (SUL). According to the statement which confirmed talks between the pair were taking place, UTB LLL, a company controlled by Prince Abdullah, “served a notice exercising an option” to buy out SUL’s holding in BLL on January 26. With this move coming “in response to a process” commenced by SUL, it became clear a ‘Texas shoot-out’ had occurred. This is a mechanism, commonly inserted into joint-ventures, as a deadlock provision.
However, the first signs the alliance between McCabe and Prince Abdullah was on stony ground came towards the end of last year when there were a series of appointments and re-appointments to the board of BLL.
McCabe, who had stepped down as a director in August 2017, returned alongside United’s former chief executive Stephen Bettis. Yusuf Giansiracusa, described by Prince Abdullah as his “personal lawyer” and a “dear friend”, remained on BLL’s board while Jan Van Winckel, a Belgian who has worked for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, was appointed as a director of BLL and the football club. Tareq Hawasli, whose occupation is listed as an investment advisor, also sits on both.
THE MAIN PLAYERS:
Kevin McCabe: Born in Sheffield, the property developer became a United director in 1995 and club chairman three years later.
HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud: A member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family, he acquired a 50 per cent stake in United five years ago.
Yusuf Giansiracusa: Prince Abdullah’s personal lawyer, he sits on the boards of Sheffield United FC and its parent company Blades Leisure Limited.
Jan Van Winckel: The Belgian, who served as Marcelo Bielsa’s assistant at Olympique de Marseille, holds a senior position at the Saudi Arabian Football Federation.
Tareq Hawasli: Co-founded Darin Partners, a private equity firm focusing on real estate and director of both SUFC and BLL.
Chris Wilder: Sheffield United’s first team manager, he has called for “harmony”, “clarity” and “direction” at the club.
August 2013: Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah sign an agreement which sees the latter pay £1 for a 50 per cent stake in Sheffield United in return for various financial guarantees. These see him fund the club’s footballing operations for three seasons while the last two have been jointly funded with McCabe.
May 2016: Chris Wilder is appointed as United manager.
April 2017: United, who go on to lift the League One title and reach 100 points, secure promotion to the Championship.
January 2018: McCabe and Prince Abdullah begin talks about the transfer of ownership to the latter, subject to various conditions being met.
February 2018: United release an official statement, confirming the negotiations are taking place. Prince Abdullah agrees to invest in Beerschot.
April 2018: Wilder calls for the situation to be resolved, warning it could hamper the United’s ability to make further progress on the pitch.
May 2018: McCabe and Prince Abdullah arrange a meeting, which could also be attended by their respective representatives, to discuss the matter face-to-face.