January. The stakes are high but then so are the rewards. It’s not some propaganda game at Sheffield United in the approach to the mid-season window; it’s reality.
Which is why the manager, at least, has set the bar high on January recruitment – with, I believe, Jermain Defoe and Shane Long among potential targets under review. A simple choice really. Shoot for the stars with a launchpad firmly in place – or put foot to the floor on a tank that needs topping up, hoping to drag out the distance on fumes.
And thereby not only risking a fizzle-out but also – again – losing the club’s greatest asset other than its large, loyal fan base.
No-one should assume Chris Wilder will be around for another go next season. I suspect he sees this as an all-or-nothing second shot at lifting the Blades into the Premier League. Third attempts tend to be hit by burn-out. Recent history points, for instance, to Reading and a certain team across the city.
It would be hard, maybe impossible, for Wilder to recreate current conditions without a significant improvement in budget and a concerted drive from the top of the club.
He will know this. The interminable-looking legal battle for control between the club’s joint owners suggests that this season is the best, and maybe only, chance of the foreseeable future.
Let’s look at the choice Fulham made in the last January window. They shelled out a loan fee of around £600,000 for Aleksandar Mitrovic and whatever else in wages to bring the £60,000 a week Newcastle striker to Craven Cottage.
Mitrovic scored 12 goals in 20 games as Fulham completed a climb from the lower half to finish third and win promotion in the play-offs.
Wilder will certainly want something similar. Which is why this column understands Defoe and Long are among players on his radar in a quest for a proven, quality striker, knowing it will cost heavily in wages.
Bournemouth’s Defoe, a still sprightly 36, boasts 272 career goals and an impeccable team ethic. Long, 31, is similarly on the fringe of Premier League football at Southampton and with a powerful record at Championship level. It is circumstances rather than any individual lacking ambition that is holding the Blades back – and the feeling that the feud at the top is too deeply personal for swift resolution.
Thanks to Wilder’s managerial brilliance, United don’t require another raft of signings totalling £6m-£7m as per his budget last summer. They are short of perhaps two. These are for the top of the pitch, where it’s most expensive. Yes, United already have good strikers, Billy Sharp in particular.
But there is too big a load on Sharp, David McGoldrick and Leon Clarke and not enough artillery behind them.
There is also an over-reliance on Mark Duffy in the deeper-lying creative role that has become fundamental to United’s style. They have no-one to replicate that if he is injured or off form; another definite Wilder target area. Hopefully the joint owners can reach an investment compromise, as they did in the summer.
I believe Wilder ended up being allocated substantially less than half of the £11.5m received for David Brooks. It remains untouched, assuming it’s still available.
With £200m for the winning, and rewards far beyond, United’s owners owe themselves a shot at the big pot as much, if not more, than anyone else.