Sheffield United's next big challenge

For the past two months, even when it became apparent that barring a cataclysmic collapse in form Sheffield United will not be going down, Chris Wilder has been performing a game of verbal cat and mouse with those intent on discovering his new targets for the season.

Wednesday, 19th February 2020, 5:00 pm

The manager never mentions Europe, barring the odd joke about maybe visiting Benidorm or Marbella. Instead he insists safety, reaching the magical 40 point mark regarded as a guarantee is survival, is United’s only aim.

With United entering Saturday’s game against Brighton and Hove Albion only one shy of that total, Wilder could soon be forced to employ different tactics in the battle to avoid discussing their prospects of a top five or six finish only a season after being promoted.

During United’s trip to Dubai, where they spent the Premier League’s winter break, he began laying the groundwork during a discussion about his next recruitment drive.

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“We’re not the favourites to go down in this position,” Wilder, whose side are sixth, said. “So we have that comfort to try and plan for this summer and beyond.”

United’s spending during last month’s window reflected their growing confidence. Wilder, who acknowledged there was “apprehension” about United’s prospects at the beginning of the campaign, was handed the funding to complete deals for Panos Retsos, Richairo Zivkovic, Jack Robinson, Jack Rodwell and Sander Berge.

Speaking before the latter’s arrival in a £22m deal from Genk, Wilder insisted he would have encouraged the board to adopt a more conservative approach had relegation been a possibility. But after winning 10 and drawing nine of their opening 26 matches, owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud sanctioned another spending spree after United lavished around £50m on fresh talent as they prepared for top-flight football.

With the many of those signed being in their early Twenties, Wilder is convinced this radical departure from United’s previously prudent strategy does not put their financial position at risk.

Sheffield United are flying high in the Premier League table ahead of Saturday's game against Brighton and Hove Albion at Bramall Lane: Danny Lawson/PA Wire.

Long-serving players such as John Fleck and Jack O’Connell have soared in value since joining United when they were still in League One.

Revealing this helped shape his shopping list following United’s promotion from the Championship, Wilder said: “If the club was relegated, we would still be in a healthy position.

“Even last summer we had to be realistic because we were favourites to go down. We signed players we thought could get us back up at the first time of asking if we needed that, because that's what all relegated clubs are looking to do.

“But we have got assets in there as well. If Oli McBurnie absolutely rips it up in the Premier League but we go down, these are sensible deals as well – we wouldn't want to lose all our players but I can see now why they might want to stay in the Premier League as well and I would never be negative towards that attitude, even though I'd love them to stop.”

Sheffield United are sixth in the Premier League table: Simon Bellis/Sportimage
Chris Wilder has twice led Sheffield United to promotion: Simon Bellis/Sportimage