Four days ago, eagle-eyed visitors to a secluded Mayfair hotel will have noticed two men sat in the corner of its lobby.
Kevin McCabe and HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud chose both the location for their meeting, a neutral venue fat away from the emotionally charged atmosphere of Bramall Lane, and the points on its agenda with extreme care.
The mood was tense. After all, its outcome would shape the short and medium term future of Sheffield United. But, with some of the Saudi royal’s most trusted advisors also in attendance, the Championship club’s co-owners discussed subjects including the breakdown of their partnership, the reasons behind the dispute and why each is battling for sole control.
The most pressing item, however, was Chris Wilder who a fortnight earlier had intimated he could be forced to consider his position unless the dispute was resolved. Although Prince Abdullah and McCabe see eye to eye on little these days, especially when it comes to how United should be run, they share plenty in common when it comes to a manager who has transformed the team’s fortunes since being appointed 24 months ago. With one promotion and unlikely play-off challenge already in the bag, seeing the 50-year-old depart, possibly for Sunderland, would provoke a furore among supporters and potentially wreck all the good work which has been achieved in recent seasons. So a bridging agreement was brokered. One which presented Wilder with an improved contract and, even more importantly, a signal about how much he can spend in this summer’s transfer market.
With the former expected to be ratified soon, Wilder and his coaching staff appear satisfied with the outcome. It ends the uncertainty surrounding his future, protects United’s position and, crucially, provides him with a much better chance of strengthening a squad which, with a few key adjustments, he believes can earn a shot at top-flight football next term. There will inevitably be interest in the amount McCabe and Prince Abdullah have made available. But, as the past two seasons have shown, clarity is more influential than pounds, shillings and pence. Yes, Wilder would love to splash the cash. However, devising a strategy to maximise a budget is arguably his greatest strength. And that requires direction and guidance from behind the scenes.
Although little tangible progress is believed to have been made on who will eventually take charge of United, suggestions Wilder is set to accept their offer of a new deal suggests some was made. And, given Prince Abdullah and McCabe are known to have different ideas about governance, he senses the odds are on a desirable outcome for him, his assistant Alan Knill, head of sports science Matt Prestridge and recruitment guru Paul Mitchell.
Wilder has skilfully avoided outlining exactly what that is. But a few clues have been laid, including the thinly-veiled threat he will not tolerate any interference in first team affairs or a change of transfer policy.
Serious differences still exist between McCabe and Prince Abdullah, which must be ironed-out. The latter launched his grab for power in January in response to a process triggered by one of McCabe’s companies: Sheffield United Limited. That was an offer to buy the 50 per cent shareholding Prince Abdullah was gifted in 2013, upon receipt of certain financial guarantees. The agreement they signed contained a clause requiring, “in certain circumstances”, the transfer of United’s various property interests including the stadium, junior development centre and Steelphalt Academy training complex.
Although officials waited until February to disclose Prince Abdullah’s takeover attempt, the first signs all was not well in the boardroom had surfaced before Christmas when there was a series of appointments and re-appointments to the boards of the football club and its parent company Blades Leisure Limited (BLL).
McCabe, who had stepped down as a director of BLL in August 2017, returned alongside United’s former chief executive Stephen Bettis. Yusuf Giansiracusa, described by Prince Abdullah as his “personal lawyer” and a “dear friend”, remained on BLL’s board while Jan Van Winckel, a Belgian who has worked for the Saudi Arabian Football Federation, was appointed as a director of BLL and the football club. He is another close associate of Prince Abdullah with the two working closely together during the latter’s time as Saudi Arabia’s General President of Youth Welfare.
Despite the impasse, it became clear Wilder was receiving some of the information he required to prepare for the 2018/19 campaign following the publication of United’s retained and released list seven days ago.