No Winter-s of discontent for Weir

Alan Bigg Telegraph Web Tile
Alan Bigg Telegraph Web Tile

It is a question I am not sure he is going to be able to answer categorically – but he does.

In so doing, Julian Winter, sitting across from me in the Bramall Lane boardroom, provides the most compelling evidence yet of Sheffield United’s commitment to what he calls “a change of culture.”

David Weir’s job as new Blades boss does NOT depend on him achieving a first-time promotion back to the Championship, much as a challenge is expected.

You might think it shouldn’t be necessary to state this. The former Everton, Glasgow Rangers and Scotland defender is a highly-prized acquisition on a three-year contract.

But the fact that Weir is the eighth man in six years (including caretakers) to have held the reins at the Lane makes it a valid question. Winter, as a returning chief executive working to a new brief from the club’s owners, doesn’t duck it.

“If we don’t achieve promotion this year we aren’t going to be looking to change the manager,” Winter emphatically tells this column. It’s part of a change of approach and a departure from the “benefactor model” that has seen the McCabe family pump in “tens of millions of pounds” with scant reward.

Instead of having the biggest budget in League One, as has been the case, Winter says United will be in the “top six or seven” this season. It’s looking workable for Weir as he tries to balance a transition phase with the understandable longing of his club and fans to reclaim a place in the higher echelons.

Winter, too, is having to find the happy medium as the Blades adjust to the demands of Salary Cost Protocol. “In order to work with people you have to be open with them,” he says, pointing to a commitment from both sides in his and the club’s relationship with Weir.

It includes a mutual understanding that pragmatism could dictate a sale if high offers are made for the likes of George Long and Harry Maguire. “That’s the reality,” says Winter. “David understands the club is getting into a platform of break-even and build from there.” In return, some allowances will be made on the speed of progress.

Winter admits: “In modern day football, the tenures of managers can be pretty ridiculous. It’s almost the nature of the beast and you can’t predict circumstances that may arise.

“What we’ve said to David is: ‘We want you to be here for a considerable time. We want you to deliver and lead this transition.’ He was the best candidate for the job and has jumped into it with both feet. We’re absolutely behind him.

“We’re being very open with him and we recognise that all this (reshaping the squad and bringing success) can’t happen immediately. It might take more time than you ideally want. It can take a bit of patience and it certainly takes determination, which David has etched all over his face.

“Yes, this is a results-based business but there is much more to it than that. There is an expectation here that we compete and are up there pushing for promotion. But there is also a realism.”

As Weir builds on the fruits of United’s academy with a raft of five youthful signings, Winter hopes that supporters will allow some latitude. “Every fan has a view, which is the beauty of football, but I’d like to think a significant number understand and adapt to the way we’re operating,” he adds. “I’m quite excited by it all.

“I’m sure a proportion would like more expensive, glamorous signings but the fact is we are in League One, clubs have to be more careful and we don’t want the difficulties of the past.”

That said, the six-figure purchase of free-scoring Falkirk striker Lyle Taylor was a pleasant surprise for many followers, even though relatively modest. Winter doesn’t rule out more of the same with United in “a certain market” for recognising players who can be developed where fees are “not astronomical.”

He and Weir believe Taylor and other recruits can “move with the club” in that they have the talent to progress to a higher level.

Meanwhile, across the city at Hillsborough: Jeremy Helan on a four-year contract... who saw that one coming?

Manager Dave Jones called it a “statement of intent” by Sheffield Wednesday. It wasn’t so much the investment of a fee (undisclosed, of course!) that raised eyebrows as the long-term commitment to the Manchester City winger. Not that he’s not worth it as a 21-year-old who showcased his talent on loan last season, but maybe it’s a sign of a shift away from the loan market.

Milan Mandaric indicated here towards the end of last season that he favoured permanent signings. Look across the city and four of United’s five recruits, including Lyle Taylor on a two-year deal with an option for a third, have been full transfers. In other words, investments for the future.

Okay, loans might kick in later. No-one wants to pick up the wages of other clubs’ players before the ball starts rolling. And who can predict the Premier League quality that might be unloaded? But as a trend, it’s good to see clubs trying to build for the future again and you can’t do that by throwing all the pieces up in the air every 12 months.

It’s amazing how many free agents of some repute are doing the rounds. Take Kamil Zayatte, on trial with Wednesday. The big Guinea defender cost Hull City £2.5m and played in the Premier League. He’s still only 28. Maybe the pendulum of power really is swinging from the players to the clubs.