The story - and the shenanigans - behind Sheffield United's record breaking move for Sander Berge
Earlier this week, when discussions with Genk designed to secure Sander Berge’s release were making painfully slow progress, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder still remained confident he would eventually get his man.
Supporters feared the worst. Journalists speculated about potential stumbling blocks. But Wilder had received a message, via one of the backchannels now so common in football, that the midfielder’s heart was set on a move to Bramall Lane.
The information he received turned out to be correct and this evening, following five days of toing, froing and intense negotiating, Berge was unveiled as the most expensive ever player in United’s history.
“Sander is someone we have known about for quite a while now,” Wilder said, after the 21-year-old had posed for the obligatory pictures and social media videos which now accompany every new signing. “We have tracked him over a sustained period of time.
“He was a player we highlighted as someone who could come in and really improve us and we are thrilled he has agreed to come here.”
United’s interest in Berge, one of the most coveted youngsters in Europe, can be traced back to last summer when, after securing promotion to the Premier League, Wilder was told he might be available.
The tip-off came from Jan van Winckel, the Belgian coach and now United board member given his relationship with owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.
Despite spending long periods of his career in the Middle East, van Winckel remains well connected back home in Europe.
Wilder already knew about Berge but suspected, as proved to be the case, that Genk’s involvement in the Champions League meant they would refuse to do business at that point in time. Still, armed with the information Van Winckel had collated, Wilder and his head of recruitment Paul Mitchell set about updating their dossier on the Norway international.
Although Napoli also made a series of overtures, United’s persistence and determination to eventually acquire his services made an impression on the player.
“It was interesting,” Berge admitted, following Wilder’s first approach. “But at the time, the right decision was to stay.”
Although Genk finished bottom of Group E, Berge’s performances during their ties against Liverpool marked him out as a footballer of supreme pedigree.
After a series of behind closed doors meetings, to plot their strategy and targets during this month’s transfer window, United made contact with Genk again on Sunday evening. That set in motion the chain of events which could see Berge make his debut for the club at Crystal Palace on Saturday afternoon.
Given the complexity of modern day contracts, something Wilder alluded to at his latest pre-match media briefing, United have concluded their discussions with the Jupiler League outfit relatively quickly.
But talks with officials at the Luminus Arena, where Berge has been based since leaving Valerenga in January 2017, did not always run smoothly The Star has learned.
After initially being led to believe an £18m offer would be enough to acquire Berge’s services - they are thought to have eventually compromised on around £4m more - United were then informed by Genk they wanted £27m. The talks were further complicated by a demand, later dropped in the face of staunch resistance from Wilder, that Berge’s former employers would only sanction his departure if he was immediately loaned back for the rest of the campaign.
With Berge’s first club - Norwegian third tier side Asker - entitled to 12 per cent of any future transfer fee, United accepted Genk would try and drive up his asking price by creating an auction.
But they were able to stand firm thanks, in no small part, to another communique received from someone close to Berge. It revealed, when it was delivered on Tuesday night, that both he and his representative had decided to only do business with United. Still, in order the increase the pressure on Genk, Wilder let it be known he was tracking two alternative options. Berge, though, remained his focus.
“When we sat down with Sander, it was clear he was really excited about coming here, that was great to see,” Wilder said. “I think this shows how far we have come in a short space of time, that we are now attracting the likes of Sander.”
In their third tier themselves when Wilder was appointed four years ago, United will travel to Selhurst Park eighth in the table and eyeing a place in next season’s Europa League.
The arrival of Berge, with Richairo Zivkovic and Panagiotis Retsos expected to follow, represented Wilder’s first concerted move into the overseas market after previously focusing on British and Irish talent.
It also underlines the the strides they have made in recent months, having been dismissed by some commentators as certainties for relegation at the beginning of the campaign.
The investment United have made in Berge, who has accepted a four-and-a-half year contract, surpasses the initial £18m they paid for Oli McBurnie in July, although a further £2m is understood to be payable when, as it surely will be soon, top-flight status next term is confirmed.
“The board have really backed us in this window to bring players in of the quality of Sander,” Wilder, who has also captured Jack Rodwell and Jack Robinson, said. “He fits the bill in so many ways.
“He’s a Norwegian international who has played 20 times for his country. He’s also played Champions League football and we’re delighted he has decided to come to Bramall Lane.”