Is this part of a new plan? James Shield's Sheffield United Column
The media's obsession with Premier League football means they receive very little credit. If, when combined with the cloying PR turned-out by its members, any at all.
But those of us who appreciate there is life beyond the top-flight know Sheffield United, whether you agree with the reasoning behind them or not, are adept at conjuring pioneering ideas. Older students at the Steelphalt Academy have been completing work experience placements for several seasons now. Their younger counterparts were handed a programme of creative ‘play sessions’ long before one national newspaper credited Old Trafford’s coaching staff with this supposedly trailblazing scheme. And, with varying degrees of success, United established a network of sister clubs over a decade ago involving Chengdu Blades, Ferencvaros and White Star Woluwe. Manchester City, it might surprise some, were not the first to build such global links.
So, although his motivations remain sketchy, confirmation that Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has invested in Beerschot Wilrijk is worthy of attention. The Belgians, who compete in the Proximus League, a division below the likes of RSC Anderlecht and their arch-rivals Club Brugge KV, are known for producing home-grown players with the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Thomas Vermaelen progressing through their system. Radja Nainggolan is another graduate.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of this development, however, is Jan Van Winckel’s appointment to Beerschot’s board. The former Marseille assistant manager and technical director of the Saudi Arabia Football Federation holds the same position at Bramall Lane, where Prince Abdullah’s business partner Kevin McCabe yesterday acknowledged talks are taking place about transferring control to his fellow co-owner.
Van Winckel, a trusted advisor of the Prince, stated his brief at Beerschot is to: “together with the management board and the technical staff analysis, to see how we can further professionalize.” Youth, he acknowledged, is “central” to the project.
This obviously impacts upon United. It might be a stand alone venture. Perhaps it represents the first step in a Prince Abdullah inspired plan to give United a route into European markets. (Something he referenced in an interview with this newspaper not so long ago).
Although there were sporting benefits, as Matthew Lowton will testify, United gained more from their now defunct links in China, Belgium and Hungary in a business sense. If Beerschot is an attempt to rebuild this framework, it must somehow be proofed against the possible implications of Brexit.