The things Sheffield United simply must do now after being relegated from the Premier League
It shouldn’t take too long for the dust to settle. Although it only became official on Saturday, Sheffield United have known they were going down for months.
Even if they had beaten Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux last weekend, the result would only have delayed the inevitable. Entering the game nineteen points adrift of safety with only seven remaining, there was simply no realistic way of avoiding a return to the Championship.
Although the remainder of the season will be excruciating for the players, the timing of United’s demise represents an opportunity in the boardroom. While Paul Heckingbottom and his team attempt to restore some pride during six otherwise meaningless games, Bramall Lane’s hierarchy now have an extended period to plan for next term.
If they use the time wisely, knowing that while others can make plans they can’t actually action them until the Premier League’s other relegation slots are decided, the next four weeks could prove to be a pivotal moment in how the race for an immediate return to the top-flight unfolds.
The only trouble is, in order to properly exploit the only advantage their miserable results this term bring, United must get their own house in order first. Beginning, of course, with deciding the identity of their next manager. However, as The Star’s James Shield explains, there are also a number of other issues the club must address in order to maximise its chances of regaining its top-flight status at the first attempt.
As Heckingbottom revealed following United’s defeat by Wolves, which mathematically sealed their fate, key “decisions” are already being taken about the identity of Chris Wilder’s permanent successor. Placed in caretaker charge when the 53-year-old’s exit was announced last month, after a series of disagreements behind the scenes, Heckingbottom finds himself in the awkward position of being asked to guide United through one of the most critical periods in their recent history without enjoying any real authority.
Although the timing might have taken some by surprise, most people recognised it was highly unlikely that Wilder would still be at the helm when the 2021/22 campaign begins in August. Which makes it even more surprising that United have seemingly yet to decide who will take the reins.
Given the mood in the dressing room right now, someone with presence and personality, as well as an in-depth knowledge of the English Football League, would clearly be preferable.
Knowing the identity of Wilder’s successor could help to persuade some of those players who might see their futures elsewhere to remain in South Yorkshire rather than seek employment elsewhere.
Changes to how United do their business are clearly afoot. HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud admitted as much during a recent interview designed to provide his take on the reasons behind Wilder’s demise - stating he wanted a more consensual rather than purely manager-led approach towards recruitment.
Rather than being opaque, and subject to change whenever it suits, United must establish how they are going to go about the business of trying to gain promotion and then adhere religiously to the plan. Why? Because it will prevent whoever takes charge from becoming confused about exactly what their remit is. Whoever is to blame for what happened to Wilder, whether one side was responsible or it should be shared, we can all agree on one thing: He clearly felt unsure about what exactly United’s mechanism for doing business was before severing his ties with the club.
THE LINES OF COMMUNICATION
After spending more than a year locked out of grounds and forced to watch their team surrender PL status from afar, United supporters can be forgiven for feeling a little bit divorced from the club right now. Restoring the relationship between the team and the terraces was probably Wilder’s greatest achievement during nearly five years at the helm; more important than either of the two promotions he achieved. Ensuring United’s following remains similarly invested is going to be crucial going forward. Appointing the right manager or head coach is obviously going to help that process. But so is outlining a clear vision about how the club plans to approach the task of returning to the Premier League.
THE BRUTAL TRUTH
Nobody likes to be the bearer of bad news. Although they should be on a much firmer financial footing now than in 2016, when they had just finished mid-table in League One, losing access to the revenues elite level status brings will obviously present challenges for United. When they present their blueprint, the hierarchy must level with fans. If players are to be sold, say so. If the purse strings are about to be tightened, admit it. You see so many clubs get themselves into a mess because they tell supporters what they think they want to hear and then do something else entirely. If fans truly are the lifeblood of football, they deserve to be levelled with. They’re intelligent people and have experienced enough to know when the wool is being pulled over their eyes. For example, if Wilder’s successor is going to be working under a director of football - even if the person involved is not awarded that particular title - just say so. It’s fine.
Some members of the squad, and probably ones United would rather keep, are going to leave this summer. Some of their promising youngsters will attract interest too, as English football’s powerhouses look to bolster their under-23 sides post-Brexit. They need to be awarded competitive contracts, the likes of Rhys Norrington-Davies must be integrated when he completes a loan spell with Stoke City and alternative options for senior players set to depart identified. United can not afford to be caught by surprise during the closing stages of the forthcoming window.