After a quiet spell since Chris Wilder renewed his contract at Sheffield United, the signing of Dean Henderson on loan from Manchester United was recently confirmed. United’s first signing looks to be a proficient goalkeeper who will battle with Simon Moore for a starting berth, but this announcement offered no hints as to whether the ownership struggle between Prince Abdullah and Kevin McCabe was any closer to a resolution. This conflict does not seem to be affecting Wilder’s work in the transfer market, but there is still a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the club, with the choice between the steady and secure or the potential injection of millions being the subject of much debate.
On the one hand, it is clear to see why some United fans view Prince Abdullah’s takeover attempt with a degree of scepticism. Foreign owners of a myriad of football clubs have drawn the ire of their respective fans, with Vincent Tan’s efforts to change the colour of Cardiff City’s kit and Assem Allam’s desire to rename Hull City being two particularly pertinent examples. Should Prince Abdullah be handed the reigns at Sheffield United, there are legitimate fears amongst fans that the identity of the club might be warped. In Kevin McCabe, United have an owner who, it appears, would understand the anger and disillusionment that would follow any changes that mirror those at Hull and Cardiff, and as such he would steer away from potentially divisive ventures. Prince Abdullah, whose understanding of the club and its proud identity is most probably inferior to McCabe’s, may well prioritise financial interests over United’s history and heritage. The Prince may well have deep pockets, but the quite startling possibility of Sheffield United being dissolved, diluted and distorted into something that is unrecognisable is more than enough to convince some fans that the safer option, which would be to remain under McCabe’s ownership, is the right option.
Despite the many examples of poor stewardship from foreign owners that serve as a warning to Sheffield United, there is another truth that must be taken into consideration. United finished 10th after promotion from League 1 in 2016-17, a very respectable effort from a newly promoted club. Having secured their place in the second tier and challenged for the playoffs for the majority of the season, the management are undoubtedly looking upwards for the 2018-19 campaign, with a more sustained and hopefully more successful promotion push being the aim. In order for this progression to be achieved and for the club to harbour realistic ambitions of promotion to the Premier League, as well as having a fighting chance of remaining at that level, more investment is needed. McCabe has kept the club afloat, which is especially impressive given the six years spent in League 1 and the subsequent effects on ticket sales and other financial areas. His work in ensuring that United did not experience more serious financial difficulties is commendable, but McCabe seems unlikely to finance the £8-£10 million transfers that have become increasingly commonplace in the second tier. Wilder has drawn the very best out of his players and enabled the club to compete with rivals who have budgets that dwarf his own, but the manner in which the 2017-18 season sizzled out rather unspectacularly for United suggests that the squad is in need of an injection of quality to compliment that which is already present.
McCabe and Prince Abdullah did agree to an increased transfer budget while their power struggle continues, but it remains to be seen whether or not this budget will be sufficient enough for Wilder to acquire the talent he feels is necessary. It is possible that, in order for United to cement themselves as one of the top teams in the Championship, there may well have to be something of a gamble in terms of ownership. The allure of Prince Abdullah’s financial clout is hard to ignore, and when you look back at how Wolves wielded their newfound wealth to aid their title triumph, you cannot help but envision something similar unfolding at Bramall Lane, with Prince Abdullah financing the kinds of multi-million-pound transfers that are currently beyond the club. Given how well the team performed despite the economic gulf between United and the likes of Wolves, Villa and Wednesday, there is every chance that this success against the odds might be replicated. However, if the fans want the chances of success to be bolstered further, it may be time to embrace this hierarchical change and see whether Prince Abdullah can be the catalyst for a return to the Premier League.
Ultimately, I remain undecided in terms of which party I would prefer to assume control of the club. In a world of exorbitant transfer fees, the prospect of an owner that might allow us to rub shoulders with the Championship’s wealthiest clubs and tempt a different calibre of player to Bramall Lane is undoubtedly exciting. In spite of this, there is always the worry that the club might have to sell its soul to access such riches, as well as concerns regarding the sustainability of big spending and potential financial issues in the future. One part of me thinks that change should not be resisted, and another part of me questions whether Prince Abdullah’s takeover might be the precursor to a period of turbulence for the club, having abandoned the steadiness offered by McCabe. There are positives and negatives attached to both scenarios, and one can only hope that whatever the outcome of the negotiations, it is in the best interests of both the club and its supporters.
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