The thinking behind Sheffield United's interest in Watford's Ismael Kone

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
Six months ago, Ismael Kone was sitting in the departure lounge of an airport near Montreal waiting to receive the order to board a flight to England and complete his move to Sheffield United.

The call the midfielder was waiting for never came. But a fortnight or so later, one from Watford did. It set in motion the chain of events which this weekend sees the youngster, described by one commentator as the “most exciting talent” to come out of Canada “since Alphonso Davies pit his wits against the club which wanted to sign him but for a whole of reasons, some of which are only now becoming apparent, discovered they couldn’t.

Aged 20, Kone is expected to make his ninth appearance of the season for Slaven Bilic’s side when they face United at Bramall Lane this weekend after joining the Hertfordshire club during the January window. That switch ended Paul Heckingbottom’s hopes of eventually resurrecting a deal for a player he denied was viewed as a replacement for Sander Berge, but whose signature could only be processed back then if the Norway international was sold. On reflection, given that United had been competing in the Premier League only a year earlier, the proviso placed upon Heckingbottom’s negotiations with the youngster was possibly the first visible symptom of the financial problems which recently saw United placed under a transfer embargo.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Saturday’s contest, between the Championship’s second and seventh ranked teams, provides followers of Heckingbottom’s squad with their first chance to watch one of their manager’s summer targets in the flesh. The former Barnsley, Leeds and Hibernian chief confirmed earlier this term, before Watford stepped into the breach, that he would continue to monitor Kone’s progress with CF Montreal; the MLS franchise he represented before heading to Vicarage Road. But with his employers prohibited from processing professional registrations and Kone named in The Canuck’s recent World Cup squad, it quickly became apparent that would be futile exercise.

“He’s someone you guys (the media) all know about and we spoke to him in the summer,” Heckingbottom said before the tournament in Qatar. “We were looking to do something but financially we could on;y do it if we sold players. I didn’t want to sell but I knew there was a possibility.”

Despite rubbishing suggestions that Kone would have filled the hole left by Berge had he left for Club Brugge - “You don’t replace players who have been in the Champions League for that kind of money” - it is inevitable that comparisons between the two men are being drawn ahead of what threatens to be a pivotal round of fixtures in the race for promotion. Like Berge, who cost £22m when he left Genk, Kone is unusually tall for someone in his position and also spent time at the Luminus Arena before being hired by Montreal. And, like Berge, Kone’s strength is powering forward with the ball.

Ismaël Koné of Watford arrives at Bramall Lane this weekend: Richard Heathcote/Getty ImagesIsmaël Koné of Watford arrives at Bramall Lane this weekend: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
Ismaël Koné of Watford arrives at Bramall Lane this weekend: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

But there are differences too. Berge is less prone to surrendering possession whereas Kone covers more ground, despite still learning to use his bulk to maximum effect, which makes him more effective at helping to repel opposition attacks. Even though Berge, until United’s assistant manager Stuart McCall first noticed his attacking potential, was frequently deployed in a holding role.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

“His career has really taken off,” Bilic said, outlining the thinking behind Watford’s move for Kone. “He only made his professional debut six months ago in the MLS, now he has played at the World Cup finals. I watched him in games at the World Cup and I had watched him before that also. It is a great signing and I am sure he will help us now and also in the future.”

That, the future, explains Heckingbottom’s interest in Kone. Despite stressing he had no desire to leave United when the market reopened last month, Berge is about to enter the final year of his agreement with United and there are suspicions he could be tempted to pursue a career elsewhere when that expires. With Tommy Doyle and James McAtee acquired on loan from Manchester City, who are scheduled to recall them at the end of the present campaign, that leaves Oliver Norwood, Ben Osborn and John Fleck as the only experienced and permanently contracted members of United’s engine room. At 28-years-of-age, Osborn is the youngest of that trio. And all three of them, together with Ismaila Coulibaly, are set to become free agents following May’s game against Birmingham City. The terms of the punishment imposed on United by the English Football League, once it became apparent they had failed to keep up with their repayments on a number of previously negotiated deals, also bans them from extending these without receiving permission from the governing body.

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom wanted to sign the now Watford midfielder: Simon Bellis / SportimageSheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom wanted to sign the now Watford midfielder: Simon Bellis / Sportimage
Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom wanted to sign the now Watford midfielder: Simon Bellis / Sportimage

By his own admission, Heckingbottom is “a planner” - someone who likes to preempt problems and take care of the future as well as the here and now. With defeats at the hands of Millwall and Middlesbrough cutting United’s lead over Michael Carrick’s third placed side to four points, although his men do enjoy a game in hand, plotting the downfall of opponents who travel north unbeaten in four outings is Heckingbottom’s priority right now. But, whichever division United find themselves competing in this time next year, his recruitment department are already assessing potential new signings for the 2023/24 season and beyond.

If Kone excels against United on Saturday afternoon, it will be a source of intense frustration for Heckingbottom and his coaching staff.