The behind-the-scenes tensions that led Sheffield United to one of their darkest days
Tensions have been building behind the scenes at Sheffield United for some time now, resulting in today's seismic news that Chris Wilder's remarkable tenure as Sheffield United boss is close to an end.
As The Star revealed this morning, an announcement formally confirming that the manager is leaving Bramall Lane after five years at the helm of his boyhood club, could be made later today.
United was set to face the media after lunchtime, to preview Sunday's trip to Leicester City. One of Wilder's players was also scheduled to face questions from the Press, via Zoom, this morning - but when those series of interviews were cancelled at short notice, suspicions were aroused that big news was brewing.
In some ways, this is not a surprise. Tensions have been mounting behind the scenes for some time now, despite Blades owner Prince Abdullah's public backing for his manager in a radio interview earlier this season.
United will travel to Leicester this weekend bottom of the Premier League table after a disappointing season thus far. But for many, the white flag was raised in January when two loan signings - which were promised by the Prince in that same radio interview - did not materialise. The owner later appeared to question Wilder's recruitment policy when he explained the decision.
There has been frustration, too, that planned upgrades to United's Shirecliffe training base have been delayed. United, according to a press release they put out themselves, were set to "kick-off 2021 with a sparkling, state-of-the-art first team training centre".
Issues of recruitment and other future plans have boiled away behind the scenes at Bramall Lane, against the backdrop of a season that has seen United - shorn of fans, some of their best players and almost all belief and confidence - struggle.
Things came to a head after Wilder's pre-match press conference ahead of the Aston Villa game, which saw him offer no guarantees that he would be United manager next season. As things stand, he won't even see out the end of this one.
“We always plan short, medium and long term,” Wilder said, pointedly. “But that plan is determined by other people than me. I’ve not had those conversations. I think they should be, but they’re not happening.”
In recent weeks, in his dealings with the media, references to "the plan" were used increasingly frequently. That plan was to keep United's best players when relegation is confirmed, resist the temptation to engage in a fire-sale, and come back stronger, preferably winning promotion at the first attempt.
The success Wilder has enjoyed since taking over at Bramall Lane is all the more remarkable considering it has been achieved against a seemingly never-ending backdrop of political infighting behind the scenes.
Perhaps Wilder simpy grew tired of swimming against the tide, making silk purses out of countless sows' ears. Maybe the United hierarchy want to go in a different direction.
The reasons will become clearer in the coming days and weeks. But whatever they are, they won't disguise the fact that this is a dark, dark day for Sheffield United