What needs to be done and what doesn't: The big decisions Sheffield United must take as they begin life without Chris Wilder
On the face of it, Sunday’s FA Cup quarter-final against Chelsea represents Sheffield United’s last chance to ensure a season which has seen them lose not only countless Premier League games but also a hugely successful manager ends in something other than relegation and disappointment.
But, with the club now standing at a crossroads following Chris Wilder’s departure last week, the most significant challenge on the agenda at Bramall Lane, the one which will define not only how this campaign is remembered but also those beyond, can be found off the pitch where HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and members of his inner circle must make the choices which ensure the 53-year-old’s achievements during 58 months in charge have laid the foundations for another successful period. Get them wrong and even those who have taken the owner’s side during one of English football’s most bitter divorces will acknowledge things have the potential to go horribly wrong.
After highlighting the issues caretaker Paul Heckingbottom must address during his first week at the helm on Wednesday, The Star now identifies some of those facing United’s board of directors as they enter the post-Wilder era.
ENTER INTO A PEACE PACT
Whether you love him, loathe him or are utterly indifferent, it is impossible to argue that Wilder had become more than just a manager during his time at the helm. After grabbing United by the scruff of the neck, shaking them out of the coma they had slipped into and then guiding them from the third to the first tier of the domestic game before last term’s challenge for Europe, a cult of personality had also developed around him. For huge sections of a support base energised by the sight of ‘one of their own’ making such an impact, Wilder was United by the time his departure was made official on Saturday night. No blame is attached. No criticism intended or indeed implied. This situation came about because he was damn good at his job. But it also guaranteed, whenever he left, United would find themselves in a dangerous predicament. As Wilder himself reminded countless times, no one should be bigger than United. However, in the eyes of some, he was. The two men at the centre of the dispute which reached a head last weekend are both surrounded by fiercely loyal allies. A line in the sand must be drawn to prevent proxy warfare breaking out. Because that would do neither any good.
DECIDE A STRUCTURE
If United’s hierarchy want to install a director of football, that is perfectly within their rights. If they want a greater say over incoming transfers then, so long as they are signing the cheques and not passing the costs onto someone else, then likewise. Wilder, having chosen to not so cryptically refer to himself as “head coach” towards the end of his reign, clearly felt he was working under one already. ‘Not so,’ counter sources behind the scenes. Whatever the truth of the situation, it wouldn’t have developed in the first place if there were clear lines of demarcation concerning authority and an established chain or command. This opaque structure almost certainly developed by accident, as new owners with new ideas tried to work with someone who had been appointed on very different terms. Going forward, it must be completely transparent and non-negotiable. And if it is, they will achieve greater value for money in the transfer market.
DON’T COMPROMISE WITH CANDIDATES
Whoever takes charge on a permanent basis has very big boots to fill. But there should also be no shortage of excellent candidates to choose from when the selection process begins in earnest. United just be open and honest with applicants about what will happen this summer to prevent any misunderstandings down the line. If players are to be sold, then tell them. Likewise, if a DoF is to be appointed, he should be the one who draws-up the shortlist and then identifies the person whose name is presented to Prince Abdullah for ratification. If an outstanding individual name emerges but they have reservations about how United plan to organise themselves or feel they owe their position to the owner rather than the DoF or technical director, then move on. Because otherwise, things won’t work. United’s hierarchy must be honest with themselves when they reflect on their role in what has been a messy break up, and learn the lessons. A quick appointment would also be preferable, to make the most of the summer window.
INVEST IN THE RIGHT THINGS
For far too long now, going back long before Wilder even arrived. United have not ‘owned’ enough of their infrastructure. When the manager changed, everything changed with him. Trotsky would have loved it. But permanent revolution, or near permanent revolution, is seldom beneficial for football clubs. The United World project, a network of teams in Belgium, India, France, Dubai and of course South Yorkshire, is intriguing and potentially beneficial. But it only stands a chance of working if the team at the top - which is hopefully United - is in the best possible shape. Not only in terms of training ground, academy and facilities. But also the first team squad.
SHOW STRENGTH AND PATIENCE
Clubs say all the right things in times of turmoil, such as when they are heading for relegation. They always insist no star names will leave and that, providing the balance sheet isn’t a complete car crash, that they are under no pressure to sell. But everyone knows players will depart United this summer. It is inevitable. Whoever replaces Wilder will inherit a squad set-up to play a certain way, with no genuine wingers on the books meaning an overhaul is required if they have a different tactical template. After spending the best part of five years doing things wedded to one system, the early phases of transition might not run smoothly.