Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud likes to relax by playing Fantasy Premier League but recently admitted his online team includes “not one Sheffield United player”. Given the prince owns the club, this admission further emphasises the on-pitch travails of a side already relegated to the Championship and endeavouring to persuade Slavisa Jokanovic to take over at Bramall Lane.
Whoever is in charge of next season’s second-tier programme, United will not even have the consolation of derbies with Sheffield Wednesday as their great rivals have also suffered a painful fall, dropping into League One. This time last year, Sheffield United were preparing for Project Restart and Blades fans dared to dream that the trademark steel-grey gilet invariably worn on match days by their manager, Chris Wilder, would shortly be paraded in European technical areas. In reality they failed to qualify for the Europa League and instead headed for a relegation battle for which Wilder’s star, £23.5m close-season attacking signing from Liverpool, Rhian Brewster, proved ill-equipped. If it did not help that the ruptured cruciate ligament suffered by Jack O’Connell, the hugely influential left-sided component of the team’s much-lauded overlapping centre-back system, exposed Wilder’s lack of alternative tactical plans, too many other players also lost form and focus.
Significantly, the greatest impact Lys Mousset has made in recent months has seen the once gamechanging striker charged with driving without due care and attention after his £300,000 Lamborghini was involved in a collision with parked vehicles.
By March, when Wilder was sacked and United placed in Paul Heckingbottom’s interim care, Bramall Lane employees appeared resigned to relegation but, across the city, an air of denial lingered in the Hillsborough air. Indeed, as recently as November, Wednesday’s Thai owner, Dejphon Chansiri, told journalists that automatic promotion remained eminently feasible. At the time Wednesday were bottom of the Championship. Although a 12-point deduction for breaches of the English Football League’s profit and sustainability rules had been reduced to six on appeal, survival already seemed the name of the game.
Six months on, the four-times champions of England and three-times FA Cup winners have been relegated to the third tier for the third time this century. It has left Chansiri looking more deluded fantasist than wild optimist.
The Wednesday owner’s decision to make himself the club’s de facto chairman, chief executive and director of football appears to have created an unhealthy absence of checks, balances and challenging counter-arguments in Hillsborough’s corridors of power. Small wonder the SWFC Supporters’ Trust is demanding the appointment of a proper board of directors.
The biggest and most self-destructive error on the part of an owner who in recent years has poured considerable sums of his own money into Wednesday, was selling Hillsborough to himself and then leasing it back to the club. It was an attempt to exploit EFL financial rules but Chansiri’s failure to complete the deal within the necessary timescale meant he could not benefit from a creative accounting loophole relating to permissible losses previously exploited by Championship rivals.
The ensuing points deduction hurt and managerial churn only exacerbated Wednesday’s woes. Tony Pulis replaced Garry Monk in November but he lasted only 10 weeks and Neil Thompson’s caretaker interregnum concluded with a damaging run of four straight defeats. Darren Moore’s welcome installation in early March proved fractionally too late to allow the former West Brom manager to oversee a great escape, although things might have been different had Moore not missed seven matches due to Covid and its complications.
He has only recently recovered from pneumonia and blood clots in his lungs that left him in “extreme discomfort” but Moore still appears to have won key hearts and minds in a hitherto underachieving dressing room. Supposedly leading players including Adam Reach, Tom Lees, Barry Bannan and Kieron Westwood failed to reflect their true ability on the pitch this season but, in mitigation, wages were sometimes paid late, most recently in March and April, and 13 senior professionals are out of contract this summer. It seems the core of the squad which reached the 2016 and 2017 play-offs is set for dismantling.
In an apology to fans Bannan shouldered collective blame for a campaign in which Wednesday surrendered a potential 29 points through failing to defend winning positions. “We had the chance to get out of it and we didn’t,” said the captain. “Now we need to become stronger – as men and players.
“No doubt there will be a lot of change this summer and I think a reshuffle is needed. But it’s a massive boost to have Darren Moore and his staff here, they’re second to none.”
Jokanovic has previously led Fulham and Watford into the Premier League but, at Bramall Lane, the Serb would almost certainly have to work with a majority of the existing players while possibly selling the coveted midfielder Sander Berge and defender John Egan.
“There’s going to be minimal changes,” cautions Heckingbottom. “It’s going to be about making the most of the group that were successful here before.” Not to mention offering Prince Abdullah the chance to select some Sheffield United players in the 2022-23 edition of Fantasy Premier League.