The big challenge Sheffield United could be forced to overcome if they plump for Oostende's Alexander Blessin
It seems increasingly likely - although, as Chris Wilder’s rapid fall from favour reminds us, circumstances in football can quickly change - that Alexander Blessin will shortly be anointed as the board of directors’ preferred choice to become Sheffield United’s next manager.
Exploratory talks between them and the German’s representatives are thought to have already taken place. Slavisa Jokanivic, whose CV should make him an obvious contender for the role, is still to be approached. Off-the-record briefings, with helpful journalists and those perceived as being willing to slavishly toe the party line, have also been arranged to help sell Blessin to supporters. Many of whom, rightly or wrongly, are sceptical about the wisdom of appointing a gifted but callow head coach to a position which, given the challenges likely to be shortly facing the club, they believe requires a touch more experience.
United’s owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his two most influential advisors, Jan van Winckel and Yusef Giansiracusa, are nevertheless convinced of Blessin’s credentials and qualifications. However, there is still one significant hurdle to overcome before he can be installed as Wilder’s permanent successor.
Amid all the talk provoked by United’s approach for the former Vfb Stuttgart and Hoffenheim forward, who had led KV Oostende into the upper reaches of the Jupiler Pro League table, the small issue of post-Brexit employment directives has been lost among the noise. And a glance at the guidelines adopted by the Football Association and Premier League following the UK’s exit from the European Union, which place strict criteria on who does and who doesn’t qualify for a work permit, suggests United could face a challenge to persuade the authorities that Blessin meets them.
In order to receive the necessary GBE, or Governing Body Endorsement, anyone wishing to now take charge of an English top-flight club must have been working in a “Top League” for two consecutive years or three of the previous five. Those tasked with considering applications for a GBE also use a points tally, reflecting the standard of the competitions the individuals concerned are or have been employed in, to judge their suitability.
With Belgian’s leading division placed in Band Two, having only been hired by Oostende last summer, Blessin could struggle to be awarded his GBE. It has previously been noted that Marcelo Bielsa, whose Leeds side beat United on Saturday afternoon, and Manchester United’s Ole Gunnar Solskjaer would both have faced difficulty acquiring one had they been subject to the same legislation.
The same goes for Daniel Farke of Norwich City, who is set to lead them back to the PL at the first attempt after they were relegated last term.
Having helped to transform his present employer from relegation candidates into European contenders, Blessin clearly has many talents. The fact United have approached him also reveals much about the new structure and power base their hierarchy will impose following Wilder’s departure; an exit hastened, despite delivering two promotions in less than five seasons at the helm, by a series of disagreements about governance and strategy.
As The Star reported last week, the fact United quickly targeted Blessin confirms that van Winckel, previously technical director of the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, is set to become an increasingly high-profile figure in South Yorkshire. The Belgian, who graduated from the University of Leuven before entering the world of professional sport, purposefully stayed in the shadows following Prince Abdullah’s takeover in 2019 amid suggestions that his presence could prove a source of concern for Wilder. However, despite taking this diplomatic step, van Winkel has remained an influential figure behind the scenes throughout Prince Abdullah’s reign. Indeed, he is thought to have drafted the list of ‘potential’ signings it is claimed Wilder refused to action two transfer windows ago including Victor Osimhen, who subsequently joined Napoli in a deal which could rise to 80m euros and Thomas Soucek, thought to earn around £70,000 a week at West Ham.
The job description Blessin has been discussing, and which he is clearly happy to adhere to, would see van Winckel and Prince Abdullah adopt a much more hands-on approach to recruitment matters. Where possible, and again subject to the relevant legal permissions, they also want to become more global in their outlook.
Bottom of the table and preparing for Sunday’s game against Arsenal 15 points adrift of safety, Wilder’s replacement will be expected to oversee a makeover of the squad and then challenge for an immediate return to the PL when the 2021/22 campaign begins in August.
Giansiracusa, however, could have the most crucial part to play if United attempt to turn their courtship of Blessin into an official relationship.
A former youth team coach at RB Leipzig, the 47-year-old falls short of GBE requirements. But United could request that exemption panel considers his situation and try to convince them that Blessin is of “the highest calibre and able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in England.” Although these panels ceased earlier this term, there is a possibility they could be reinstated. Giansiracusa, a skilled lawyer, would almost certainly be in charge of building a compelling case for Blessin to be awarded a GBE if a work-around proved impossible.
Three of the four requirements, should he be chosen, are already fulfilled with United having no “existing manager” and Blessin being in possession of the necessary coaching qualifications and set to be given “ultimate (but not sole) responsibility and decision-making authority” for selection matters and first team affairs.