The big issue Sheffield United must address before appointing their next manager
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After Slavisa Jokanovic emerged as first choice among many supporters to become Sheffield United’s next manager, a number of other issues, at least one of which will impact directly upon the vacant position at Bramall Lane, are still yet to be addressed. Publicly anyway, with plenty of sometimes contradictory briefings being delivered in private but Steve Bettis still the only member of the club’s hierarchy to go on the record since Chris Wilder’s departure earlier this month.
"What Chris has done at this club will remain in history forever,” he said in a statement published on the internet when the dramatic news was announced. “It’s been a great achievement, getting us from League One to the Premier League and we had an amazing season last season, which surprised a lot of people and a number of other teams in the league.
"Chris will always have that, and it’s just been a great achievement all round.”
The most urgent item on United’s agenda, even more pressing than identifying Wilder’s eventual successor, must be resolving the uncertainty surrounding the structure of their coaching staff. Alan Knill, previously the 53-year-old’s assistant, is expected to reject an invitation to become director of football, technical director, sporting director or whatever title is in fashion these days, as part of a proposed overhaul of United’s operations behind the scenes.
If, as seems likely given his passion is working on the training pitch rather than a whiteboard, he declines the offer then will another candidate be approached?
The job, which grants whoever holds it the power to influence recruitment and therefore tactical strategy, is surely one of the most important on the payroll. And given that by creating the role United would effectively be searching for a head coach rather than a manager, it should be filled long before the starting gun is fired in the race to succeed Wilder. As The Star reported last week, United have already received “numerous” applications from people both in and out of work keen to outline their credentials.
Of course, Knill could yet accept owner Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s offer. If he does, then the former Wales international must be given the authority to draw up the short-list of possible head coaches which is presented to the Saudi Arabian and members of his inner circle for their consideration. If not, then United run the risk of walking straight into yet another political war - the type of which, given his obvious differences of opinion with Prince Abdullah, eventually saw them part company with Wilder.
Despite leaving his team at the bottom of the Premier League table and spiralling towards relegation, he remains a hugely popular figure among supporters after delivering two promotions and one challenge for European qualification during four-and-three quarter seasons in charge.
If Knill decides to leave, and then the idea of installing a technical figurehead is quietly ditched, some observers will accuse United of muddled thinking. Others, of using the proposal as a tool to politely sweep away the last vestiges of Wilder’s regime; suspecting all along that it would be rejected. Neither of those viewpoints would necessarily be true. But perception is important, and it would be foolish for those in charge of dictating policy to kid themselves that would not be the case.
If United do decide to appoint a manager, the selection process should be relatively quick, smooth and easy. Jason Tindall, previously of AFC Bournemouth and parachuted in to help caretaker Paul Heckingbottom following Wilder’s exit, reported directly to his board on the south coast. He could emerge as a contender if things go well under Heckingbottom, who seems content to return to the under-23’s at the end of the campaign, while others are bound to surface.
Jokanovic, who has not approached United or been approached by them despite some furious speculation, is used to working under a sporting director having done so at both Watford and Fulham before joining Al-Gharafa in Qatar. The Serb, whose contract there expires in the spring, would be welcomed by fans because of his CV and attractive playing style.
But his experiences at Craven Cottage, where a series of problems with data analyst Craig Kline eventually impeded the club’s progress, underline the importance of the relationship between a head coach and their director of football. Unless those in the boot room feel they owe their positions to the person in the technical department, they will circumnavigate each other at the first sign of trouble - running straight to the majority shareholder and, as a result, threatening to wreck a club’s attempts to develop a consistent tactical identity and working brief.
Of course, when partnerships such as this work well, they can prove invaluable. Particularly for sides in United’s position as they prepare for what, despite suggestions to the contrary, is likely to be a major rebuilding exercise over the summer when they return to the Championship.
Clarity of thought can prevent expensive mistakes being made in the transfer market, with United committing several since reaching the top-flight as they battled to find around some of the hurdles facing those seeking to establish themselves at the highest level without the luxury of a billionaire benefactor.
Either way, United must decide if they actually want a director of football - and if so appoint one - before naming Wilder’s replacement.