What Sheffield United really did in Dubai

There was precious little rest or relaxation. No opportunities, barring a trip into the desert with the club’s owner for a traditional barbeque lunch, to gasp at some of its awe-inspiring sights.

Wednesday, 19th February 2020, 5:00 pm

Sheffield United’s trip to Dubai was strictly business. Indeed, sandwiched in between the training sessions and practice matches arranged by his coaching staff, Chris Wilder could be found locked in talks with members of Bramall Lane’s hierarchy, about his recruitment strategy for both this summer and beyond.

But there was an important social reason behind United’s stay in the Middle East where, before returning to England over the weekend, they began preparing for Saturday’s game against Brighton and Hove Albion.

It represented a chance for three of their new signings to get to know their colleagues as people rather than simply footballers. And for their colleagues to learn about them.

Sign up to our Sheffield United newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

With establishing camaraderie a central tenet of his philosophy - something which has seen him mastermind four promotions with three different teams since becoming a manager - Wilder spent as much time observing how his squad interacted off the pitch as he did perform on it during their stay at a state-of-the-art complex on the outskirts of the city.

The information he gleaned not only encouraged him that Sander Berge, Panos Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic will be able to weave themselves into the fabric of a famously tight-knit dressing room, but will also be used to shape forthcoming recruitment drives should the latter two’s loans become permanent transfers at the end of the season.

Although the calibre of a player is the first thing Wilder considers when writing a shopping list, his belief in the importance of chemistry means he also studies a potential target’s personality. It was a process United went through before acquiring the trio during the final 48 hours of last month’s window.

But their recent visit to Dubai was the first opportunity to gauge the accuracy of that research. Because, unlike in England, Berge, Retsos and Zivkovic were living as well as working with the likes of Billy Sharp, Chris Basham and other senior United players.

Sheffield United spent part of the winter break in Dubai

Wilder touched on the importance of spending time away from South Yorkshire during United’s pre-season camp in Portugal, where after waving goodbye to the Championship, the foundations were laid for a remarkable sequence of results which sees them enter the clash with Albion ranked sixth in the table.

“We’ll be coming back in a much better place than we came out,” he said. “It’s been good in terms of fitness and also integration. It’s been great for helping everyone get to know each other all over again and for us to get across the messages that we want. Or to reinforce some of them.”

With Jack Rodwell and Jack Robinson arriving long before the window closed, Berge, Retsos and Zivkovic will arguably be the biggest beneficiaries of a journey Wilder would have preferred not to undertake. Despite acknowledging the psychological challenges of top-flight competition - “It’s more mentally tiring than anything because you can’t afford to switch off” - the 52-year-old insisted United’s experiences in the English Football League meant, from their perspective at least, the Premier League’s winter break was a novelty rather than a necessity.

Their game against AFC Bournemouth earlier this month was United’s 30th in all competitions since August. That compares to 33 at the same stage of last season and 36 during Wilder’s first campaign at the helm, which saw them lift the 2017 League One title.

After returning from Dubai (above), Sheffield United are now training at the Steelphalt Academy: Katsuhiko Tokunaga/Breitling via AP Images

Flying out on the back of a three match winning streak, United’s schedule in Dubai was designed to ensure Wilder’s side do not lose the momentum they have gathered following victories over Crystal Palace, Eddie Howe’s side and Millwall in the FA Cup.

Albion, who were beaten at the AMEX Stadium in December, had been set to join United in the Middle East before changing their plans amid fears about instability in the region. Sponsored and kitted out by American companies, the fact their owner Tony Bloom is Jewish was also cited as a reason by one report which claimed leading figures at Albion were concerned they could become a target for those angered by the assination of an Iranian general in a US led drone strike.

Controlled by HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, a member of Saudi Arabia’s royal family, United felt safe to travel ahead of their clash with opponents ranked 15th.

Sheffield United worked hard in Dubai