It is the question every supporter would love to be able to answer and, given Sheffield United’s progress over the course of the past 99 games, the overwhelming majority of their staff and directors too.
Unfortunately, given football’s increasingly capricious nature, even Nostradamus might struggle to confirm exactly how long Chris Wilder will stay at Bramall Lane. But, after attending his 100th pre-match media conference since being appointed 23 months ago, I feel pretty comfortable hazarding a guess. Given that he supports, has played for and now manages his hometown club, Wilder wants to remain in situ for a bloody long time yet. Nevertheless, given that loyalty should never be mistaken for obeisance, one feels the need to issue a caveat. The powers-that-be and people who control the purse strings must demonstrate, tangibly, they can match his ambition in order to fulfil his wish.
Good friends, (and Wilder has undoubtedly been a good friend to United), are never afraid to offer suggestions or constructively criticise. The 50-year-old, who made an oblique reference to the tug-of-war between co-owners Kevin McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud on Monday, evidently has some frustrations with the resources at his disposal. The situation needs addressing although, in the interests of balance, Wilder must also appreciate that no job, not even your dream one, comes without problems. Antonio Conte, Roberto Di Matteo and even Sir Alex Ferguson will testify to that. Likewise, the politicking has happened largely by accident rather than design.
The most obvious and quickest way of satisfying Wilder’s craving to lead United into the Premier League is to make more funding available during the summer transfer window. Coaching staff must accept that, unless there is a change in the boardroom, which often comes at great cost, they will never be able to compete financially with the likes of Aston Villa or Wolves. Nor should they try. But, given United’s recent success in the transfer market, a little extra could lead to huge gains without the need to gamble with the club’s soul, stability or identity by selling-out to an oligarch, sheikh or shadowy billionaire from some faraway land.
Major changes to the squad are not required because the likes of John Fleck, Jack O’Connell and even Leon Clarke will continue to improve. Access routes into senior competition from the Steelphalt Academy must be improved and protected because developing your own players is always preferable to recruiting from elsewhere.
But by finding a little extra, even if it means asking Wilder to compromise in other areas, could pave the way for United to broker the type of deal which saw Tammy Abraham join Bristol City on loan last season.
That is not a criticism of Clarke, Billy Sharp or even Clayton Donaldson, who have all performed well this term. But temporarily recruiting someone on the cusp of a top-flight team’s squad would increase competition, provide proper cover in event of a drop in form and help ensure the number of chances United miss is greatly diminished. With parachute payments and reckless spending serving to drive up prices, the loan market, providing it is used sparingly, is the most realistic way of bridging the fiscal gap and driving up standards on the pitch. Not to mention ensuring Wilder does not have to effectively motivate himself through, what everybody hopes, will be another century at the helm.