NOBODY really expected Sheffield United to mount a serious challenge for promotion to the Premier League this season, but the Blades are sitting at the top of the Championship table and have confounded the tipsters’ predictions in the opening months of the season.
When the bookmakers’ priced their odds for the 2018-19 campaign, United were 8-1 to win the title, which placed them roughly in mid-table. They finished 10thin 2017-18, their first season back in the Championship after six years in League One. After 15 games, they are two points ahead of Yorkshire rivals Leeds United and opponents are praising Chris Wilder’s team for the quality of their football.
After Sheffield United had beaten Wigan Athletic 4-2 at Bramall Lane, Wigan manager Paul Cook described them as the top side in the Championship: “They are, for me, the outstanding team in the division. Other teams may have better individuals, but they are the best team…they work so hard for each other.”
Wilder, in his third season at Bramall Lane, admits his side are not “big hitters” but he is already looking to the January transfer window when he hopes the club will back him in a bid to strengthen his squad to sustain any promotion bid.
He may need that extra push, for the Championship is shaping-up to be an exciting, close-run contest even at this early stage of the season. Just four points separate the top six and there’s a cluster of clubs that could easily force their way into the reckoning with a couple of victories. Likewise, it is so tightly-packed that two defeats could force Sheffield United out of the leader-pack.
Wilder hasn’t been helped by the behind-the-scenes squabble between the club’s owners. In fact, the uncertainty created by in-house fighting almost forced him to leave his job.
Since 2013, Sheffield United has been owned by Kevin McCabe (representing Sheffield United Ltd) and Prince Abdullah Bin Mosaad Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia. Both parties own 50% apiece. This partnership has not worked as planned although it continues to prop-up the club, which is operating at a loss.
McCabe offered to buy the Prince’s 50% for £ 5 at the back end of 2017 but in a curious game of cat and mouse, the Prince served his intention to buy McCabe’s stake for the same price, which would trigger a clause that meant he would be obliged (as 75% owner) to buy the club properties owned by McCabe at the market rate. The Prince parked 80% of his stake in a new company, Up the Blades 2018, which meant he could take full control without breaking the 75% barrier, thus avoiding the obligation to purchase assets currently on a long lease to McCabe.
Realising what had taken place, McCabe refused to sign off the shares in his possession and then the Prince launched legal proceedings against him. As these got underway, Sheffield United’s officials told the court a cash injection of some £ 10 million was needed (£ 2.5m to remain solvent and £ 7.5m for transfer and wages) from the owners. Part of the required funding came from the sale of promising striker David Brooks for £ 11.5 million to Bournemouth, £ 4 of which was paid up-front.
Sheffield United is a club that has struggled to pay its way in recent times. The Championship, generally, is a division that lives beyond its means – Deloitte’s review of football finance revealed that the wage-to-income ratio for the Championship in 2016-17 was 99% with the average wage bill coming in at just under £ 30m. Operating losses among the 24 clubs in 2016-17 totalled £ 288m, while aggregate net debt climbed by 33% to £ 1.8 billion.
Although the 2017-18 season’s financials are yet to be released, the last set of accounts showed that Sheffield United, in their 2016-17 promotion campaign, reduced operating losses as income rose by some 7.5%. This was also helped by a reduced wage bill, which fell by 11.5%.
Crowds at Bramall Lane have been stable over the past few years, although they are currently a shade lower than the past two seasons. United average 24,500 at present, although gates will probably rise if the promotion campaign gathers momentum. They currently have the upper hand in Sheffield, where Wednesday’s gates are just below the Blades.
Despite the transfer of Brooks to Bournemouth, Chris Wilder’s squad was boosted by free transfer signings, loan deals and some bargains. But on the evidence of the opening few months, he may have picked-up some gems.
Goalkeeper Dean Henderson is on loan from Manchester United and was considered to be the best keeper in League One while on loan at Shrewsbury. He was named in the PFA team of the year for the division for 2017-18. Oliver Norwood in central midfield is on a loan from Brighton with a view to a permanent deal in January 2019. David McGoldrick, a “free” who was with Ipswich Town last season, has scored five goals already in the Championship.
The big money signing, at £ 4 million, was defender John Egan, who became Sheffield United’s record signing when he rejoined the club from Brentford.
One of the surprises this season, however, has been the form of 32 year-old Billy Sharp, the club skipper who has turned prolific in the Championship, netting 10 goals in 11 appearances, including a hat-trick against Wigan.
United started the season ominously, though, losing their first two games against Swansea and Middlesbrough, but their home form has been good and despite losing three games on their travels, they’ve also won four times.
The next handful of games will provide some indication of Sheffield United’s staying power. They’ve got a trip to Nottingham Forest (November 3), a home derby with Wednesday (November 9) and the visit of Leeds United to Bramall Lane (December 1). By that time, Chris Wilder will know where he needs to bolster his squad in the New Year.
Regardless of the outcome, it is genuinely heart-warming for people who remember the days of Scullion, Hockey, Woodward and Currie, to see Sheffield United back in contention. They are one of football’s grand old names and there’s many people who would welcome them back into the Premier for the first time since 2007. It’s also nice to see that Tony Currie, a magnificent player in his prime, has been made a board member.