The steps which have led Sheffield United back to Sander Berge's door
It was Jan van Winckel, the Belgian coach and one of HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s most trusted advisors, who first mooted the possibility.
Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, already knew about Sander Berge of course. But given the constraints of his budget and fact that promotion from the Championship had only just been secured, he suspected signing one of Europe’s most coveted young midfielders might prove a stretch too far for even someone of his ambition. In the end Wilder’s insticts proved correct – as they usually do – with neither the player’s club Genk nor Berge himself proving too keen on the idea of discussing a move at that point in time.
That, however, was last summer. And circumstances, both in South Yorkshire and at the Luminus Arena, have changed dramatically. Hannes Wolf’s side are now out of Europe, finishing bottom of Champions League Group E. Meanwhile United, written off as certainties for relegation at the beginning of the campaign, are now ranked eighth in the Premier League. Largely, it must be noted, thanks to the ability of Wilder and his head of recruitment Paul Mitchell to identify untapped potential in the transfer market.
Berge, capped 20 times by Norway, does not fit into that category. But it is no surprise, given United’s previous interest, that they have tempted Genk back to the negotiating table.
As The Star first revealed towards the end of last year, senior figures around Wilder were privately talking about the possibility of making another approach for Berge during the build-up to Christmas. Indeed, his name is understood to have been raised once again when the 52-year-old met Prince Abdullah and van Winckel in Dubai, following the Saudi Arabian’s High Court victory over former owner and co-owner Kevin McCabe.
Once again, there were suspicions that Berge might prove beyond United’s reach given the budget which had been placed at Wilder’s disposal. But the numbers he is now working with appear to have changed, as journalists close to the Jupiler League outfit report United are refusing to go away ahead of Friday’s deadline.
Which begs the question, why? The answer is multi-faceted, but part can almost certainly be traced back to September, when Mr Justice Fancourt handed control of United to Prince Abdullah, and earlier this month when McCabe was refused permission to appeal that ruling.
The new board will be understandably keen to make a statement of intent and, with the possibility of another legal wrangle now seemingly over, can do so without fear of eventually losing their investment. However it remains unclear if the extra money it would take to snare Berge has been raised internally or via an external source; should it eventually be required.
Berge, aged 21, has attracted admiring glances from many of the continent’s leading names since making his debut for Genk in January 2017.
Initially regarded as a defensively-minded player after arriving from Valerenga, he now also boasts enough athleticism to perform the ‘box to box’ role.
“Napoli are interested in Sander and it is a possibility,” Dimitri De Conde, Genk’s sporting director, said earlier this term before acknowledging they would prefer to sell at the end of the campaign.
“We also know Liverpool follow him carefully. (Jurgen) Klopp spoke to the boy after the (Champions League) game at Anfield, congratulating him on the performance.”
“Our intention is to hold on to Sander until the end of the season,” De Conde added. “But we can’t make any predictions.
“If the big clubs come knocking at our door, we will have to start negotiations. Just as the agent has to do.”
De Conde’s decision to speak so openly about Berge’s future was intriguing because, going against accepted industry practice, is confirmed Genk are resigned to losing their most prized asset. It was also a signal that De Conde’s employers are determined to drive up Berge’s price tag as high as possible, by attempting to lure his suitors into an auction.
Still, if he progresses as many commentators think he will, Berge’s value could also increase dramatically over the next few years.
The final say, as always, will rest with Wilder. But should United strike a deal for Berge, it will mark a departure from their previous policy of focusing primarily on British or Irish talent from the English Football League.