Sheffield United's secret weapon in the race for Richairo Zivkovic
The path which led Sheffield United to Richairo Zivkovic’s door was, manager Chris Wilder alluded on Thursday, littered with obstacles, hurdles and potential stumbling blocks.
The player always wanted to come. His club, Changchun Yatai, had also confirmed they were minded to finalise the deal; not least when it emerged the Chinese Football Association, in wake of the coronavirus outbreak, were preparing to indefinitely suspend the new domestic campaign.
But as United had discovered during negotiations with Sander Berge, who earlier this week became Bramall Lane’s record transfer signing, their days of identifying a player and then racing through the paperwork are over. It is, Wilder admitted as he traced his squad’s rapid rise through the divisions, a symptom of the company they are now keeping after climbing from the third to the first tier in only three seasons.
“It gets more complicated through the money that’s involved,” he said. “That’s the top and bottom of it because everyone is trying to get the best deal.
“The percentage of a sell-on clause, for example, isn’t just £500 anymore. It can be quite a tidy amount.
“Then there’s buy-out clauses, release clauses, relegation clauses and other performance bonuses. Relocation expenses too. When I started out at Halifax, I wasn’t paying relocation fees. It was a case of ‘ this is where the ground is, be there for 10am.’ It might take 10 minutes for someone to get there or even four hours. If that was the case, then you’d just tell them to set-off a bit earlier.”
Although Zivkovic has joined on loan - he will remain in South Yorkshire until the summer - the discussions which eventually led to his arrival were complicated by two factors. First, there was the time difference, with Changchun, the capital of Jilin Province in the North-East of the country, eight hours ahead of GMT. And then, of course, came the language barrier.
Fortunately for United, where head of recruitment Paul Mitchell had spent months tracking the centre-forward’s progress, they had a secret weapon at their disposal: Carl Shieber, the club’s head of football administration and a Chinese Studies graduate. An alumnus of Sheffield University, he speaks fluent Mandarin.
Although Wilder was not referring to Zivkovic in particular, Shieber’s linguistic skills will have undoubtedly helped speed United’s progress through their talks with officials at the Changchun Stadium, where the 23-year-old has been based since last February.
“A load of things come into it (doing business) now,” he said. “The amount of agents involved in deals, agents who try to hijack deals and such like. That’s what happens when a lot of money floats around.
“You have to stay true to your principles and go with the market. But on my watch, nothing is going to happen like you have seen with a lot of clubs in the Championship, where they’re in deep financial trouble because they’ve overspent.”
Showreels of Zivkovic highlight why Wilder, whose side face Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park tomorrow, was so keen to acquire his services. Boasting searing pace, the former Ajax youngster’s presence will ensure opposition defences do not get any peace when Lys Mousset, another speed merchant, is not on the pitch.
Having spent three years with the Amsterdam giants, Zivkovic also possesses experience of performing in high-pressure situations. Together with Berge, who represented Genk in the Champions League this term, that could prove invaluable as United, now eighth in the table, also attempt to qualify for Europe.
“We’re trying to improve the club, from window to window, with the funds we have,” Wilder said. “We’ve always done that and funds have been made available.
“We’ve not over-spent and we’ve accrued money, which has given us the chance to invest, whether that’s a big money signing last summer like Oli McBurnie or ones that will improve us like Robbo (Jack Robinson) and Ben (Osborn).
“There comes a time, which we have done, when we’ve dealt with the finances. But we won’t put anything at risk.
“That’s not the way I want to do things or have ever done things. We try and keep an eye on all the bases.
“I think we’re planners and we don’t do things just for the sake of it because that’s when mistakes get made. We don’t bring lads in because we feel that we have to do something.
“All of the boys we’re bringing in are ones that we’ve looked at properly and followed. We’ve done our homework on them.”
A former Netherlands under-21 international, Zivkovic, who has scored 16 times in less than 30 appearances for Yatai, will compete with McBurnie, Mousset, David McGoldrick and Billy Sharp for a place in United’s attack.
“People will recognise we do sometimes go left field with our signings,” Wilder said. “But we’ve worked very hard on this one because we had to.
“We’ve kept tabs on Richairo for a while and tracked his progress. He’ll be unpredictable to other teams but we know what we’re getting and he wants to make the most of the opportunity.
“We’ve known about him for a long time, even before he went out to China.”
“Hopefully things go well enough for this to turn into a permanent move,” Wilder added. “This is the signing of another young player with an eye for the future.”