Deep inside the bowels of the Steelphalt Academy, nailed high on one of its whitewashed walls, is a notice Chris Wilder believes perfectly sums-up Sheffield United’s philosophy in the transfer market and reminds all those who pass it why the club must live within its means.
‘We’ve got a sign up here saying ‘progression, not perfection.’ You’ve just got to keep on moving forward. Listen, the top and bottom of it is that good players are good players and they seem to gel quicker, they get what the manager wants.”
United have unveiled 10 new faces since cruising to promotion last season, including two on deadline day. Ben Heneghan and Clayton Donaldson might be at opposite ends of the career spectrum but, having both arrived for relatively modest amounts, are poster boys for a recruitment strategy based on intelligence rather than extravagant investment.
“The way we act, the way we deal in the transfer market, we are a progression,” Wilder, conceding United can not financially compete with many of their Championship rivals, said. “Obviously we had a fantastic season last year but we are into a totally different environment now. There are millions being pumped in at some places. We have to evolve and get the character of the group right.”
Prioritising personality over pound notes has prompted some commentators to question whether sufficient funding was made available to Wilder and his staff following the club’s promotion from League One. Although the 49-year-old would undoubtedly benefit, he insisted co-owners Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdul Aziz are right to adopt a more prudent approach as United adjust to life back in the Championship following six seasons away.
“We don’t want to be having a firesale or having points deducted,” he said. “We don’t want to be closing down parts of the club. Look at the teams who were involved in relegation on the last day from the Championship; they all had issues. For every big investor, there’s a disaster. For every Manchester City, there’s a Leeds. For every Chelsea, there’s a Portsmouth. We don’t want to do boom and bust. But I know Kevin is ambitious.”
“You can’t be in a position where one minute you’re close to getting in the Premier League and then the next you’ve got no money and are going out of the Championship,” Wilder continued. “But it does happen. You can’t put the history of the club at risk. That’s why owners have got the responsibility they have.”
United’s most expensive purchase of the recent window is understood to have cost £700,000; considerably lower than the £15m Wolverhampton Wanderers spent to acquire Porto midfielder Ruben Neves. Although Wilder can only dream of being able to spend such an amount, he does enjoy one advantage over Nuno Espirito Santo, his counterpart at Molineux: complete control over incoming transfers. Twenty-six have been completed since Wilder’s appointment 16 months ago and nearly 75 per cent of the present first team squad were purchased on his watch.
United are preparing for Saturday’s visit to Sunderland fifth in the table and, unlike big-spenders Aston Villa and Norwich City, delivering plenty of bang for their buck.
Tracing two recent promotions to the top-flight, Wilder said: “Look at Bournemouth. I’d rather go the Bournemouth or Burnley way rather than boom and bust. Bournemouth have invested but they’ve brought players through the divisions with them and young players they can get going. I think they’re two terrific clubs.”
“If you look at our team, asset-wise, we are probably in the best position we’ve been in for a long time,” Wilder added. “If we had to have a fire-sale, which we won’t, we’d get bigger numbers than for quite a while. I like the Bournemouth model. Harry Arter was in the Conference and they’ve added the little bit of quality to go with it. Burnley have done the same.”