SHEFFIELD United’s promotion hopes will have less to do with who they sign and more about who they keep, writes Alan Biggs.
That That prevailing view gained the first concrete evidence in a sound first day win at Oldham that gives new manager Danny Wilson the perfect platform for his Bramall Lane bow against Brentford on Saturday.
Just look who underpinned the Boundary Park triumph. Yes, old faithfuls Nick Montgomery and Stephen Quinn were right at the heart of it while veteran Richard Cresswell, pictured, now leading the line as another high earner, grabbed the killer second goal.
Oh, and the first came from teenage centre half Harry Maguire, a symbol of the young talent the Blades must look to retain in future if they are to reclaim their true status.
And so, with a team showing a nice blend of experience and youth, it’s reasonable to suppose that Wilson will lead the expected promotion challenge - providing he can keep most of it intact.
That, of course, is largely beyond his control. He can’t legislate for the desperation induced by other teams’ early results and the sudden urge that might prompt Leeds, for instance, to dive in for Montgomery or Quinn, or both.
Bids for the likes of Maguire, notwithstanding their contract status, can’t be fireproofed, either. And it all means Wilson’s ambitions are in the melting pot over the next three critical weeks.
The events, often chaotic, leading up to the closure of the transfer window at the end of August will have a huge bearing on where United go from here.
To say it could be a make or break period is not overstating the case. On the one hand, it has never been more true to say that every player has his price - and not just at Bramall Lane.
If decent offers are made for Montgomery or Quinn - and more importantly, their current contracts are matched - then there is little doubt they will go.
That would be as much in fairness to two loyal servants playing below their station as making the necessary reduction in the Lane wage bill.
On the other hand, suppose United gamble on keeping their best players, knowing that the ultimate prize would be worth far more?
More easily said than done, of course. It is not “they”, it is “he.” Kevin McCabe is again personally footing the cost of heavy wage burdens and cannot be blamed for wanting to cut his losses. Rather, it’s just as well the chairman is there to take the strain.
But if he knew now that promotion would result from battening down the hatches then his heart would most definitely rule his head.
The longer the likes of Montgomery and Quinn stick around, and the more encouraging the results, the greater will be the temptation on their part to stick around with a club that, ideally, neither wants to leave.
Wilson has referred to those two as “standing out like sore thumbs” in terms of quality, attitude and influence on the younger players. There is no way United could replace them like for like - although former Burnley midfielder Kevin McDonald, among those waiting in the wings, has definite creative quality.
Of one other thing there is no doubt; with that duo at the centre of the team, alongside another seasoned campaigner in Michael Doyle and with the creative Lee Williamson to deploy, United have a midfield that is the envy of most, if not all, of League One.
Throw in Cresswell’s potential for heightened effectiveness at the lower level, providing he can stay fit at 33, and it is hard to imagine United will lack for expertise.
Wilson has improved most areas with a smattering of signings - importantly including a pacy, powerful winger in Nathaniel Mendez-Laing, loaned from Wolves.
Certainly, too, the emotional outcry that followed the one-time Sheffield Wednesday manager’s appointment has died down sufficiently for Wilson to anticipate a cordial welcome this weekend. Momentum is in his favour after Tuesday’s penalty edge-out of Hartlepool in the Carling Cup.
But the next 20 odd days will have more bearing than any amount of detailed planning.