It took 75 days in the end; agonising days as Sheffield United reeled from a messy managerial divorce and the reality of relegation, anxious ones as supporters and staff yearned for closure and clarity.
Even on the eve of their Premier League farewell, interim boss Paul Heckingbottom had repeated his call for a “quick decision” after a season that that had sapped minds as well as bodies at Bramall Lane.
But amid the clamour, the man tasked with securing a permanent successor to Chris Wilder was calm. Four days after bowing out with a 1-0 win over Burnley, Slavisa Jokanovic’s return to English football was confirmed, sealed over lunch in Dubai with the club’s owner Prince Abdullah.
It was a protracted pursuit but a worthwhile one for a promotion specialist, believes the club’s chief executive, Stephen Bettis.
“At times, I think the supporters were wondering, ‘What are they doing? Why aren’t they making an announcement?’ but in the background, we were all working hard,” Bettis tells Sky Sports over a video call in an exclusive interview following the Serb’s appointment.
“The impact that Chris had, they’re big shoes to fill, there’s no doubt about that. We didn’t want to make a rushed decision.
“The key thing for us was to get someone in straight after the season finished so that we could get preparing for next season, so that the new manager had time to work with the players and be involved in recruitment to ensure we’re hitting the ground running.
“It took time but I think we’ve shown our intent, our ambition to come straight back up.”
Jokanovic, who will work the final weeks of his contract at Al-Gharafa in Qatar before plotting a repeat of his Championship trick with Watford and Fulham, was “always in the running,” according to Bettis, though a five-man shortlist for the job – formulated from “20 to 30 good candidates on paper” – also included Heckingbottom.
The club’s U23 boss had stepped into the breach following Wilder’s acrimonious exit in March and Bettis admits the club considered an internal solution: “Paul taking charge for the remainder of the season was always our first choice – to give us time to recruit the right man but also to give Paul the opportunity to see how he got on.”
Despite a 5-0 pummelling by Leicester in his first game in temporary charge, players punch-drunk shorn of their leader, Heckingbottom would finish a long ill-fated campaign with three wins from the club’s final six games.
He would play counsellor as well as caretaker, providing stability and a glimpse of the future, but only an appointment with clout could really stand a chance of replacing the revered former boss whose fingerprints in every corner of the club propelled it to the Premier League.
Only a man with promotion pedigree would act in the eyes of many supporters as a marker of legitimacy and credibility for the Prince Abdullah regime. Only a fresh start was likely to help the healing process and reset the mood.
“You need a strong character after Chris,” Bettis, who helped appoint Wilder back in 2016 and was persuaded by him to return in 2018 after a brief hiatus, admits. “Slav’s definitely that and I think he’ll show it when he gets here and starts working with the players.
“His track record with Fulham and Watford shows he can get clubs out of the Championship, which is absolutely our desire for next season, he’s very confident in his own abilities, and when you really start getting into the detail of his philosophy; the way he plays, the way he wants to incorporate young players, that was a big plus for us.”
The Jokanovic way certainly left an impression on Bramall Lane on a November night in 2017 when his Fulham side edged a nine-goal epic that left shattered players from both sides prone on the turf.
There will be appetite for more of the same in an attacking sense after an impotent campaign that yielded just 20 goals. Supporters can expect possession-based, counter-pressing football – “Press after loss, press after loss,” was how midfielder Kevin McDonald once summed it up at Craven Cottage – and, according to the man himself during a short club interview that drew delight on social media: aggressivity.
But there is unlikely to be a revolution in the red half of the city just yet.
Bettis indicates that Jokanovic will seek to retain, if adapt, the unique 3-5-2 system deployed by his predecessor.
“A lot of how Slav wants to play and work aligns with our current squad. We’ve tried to incorporate Chris’s style of football as a club – it’s pointless the academy playing a completely different way – and we’ve tried to ensure a culture and football philosophy going forward. We think there’s a lot of synergy with Slav.
“It’s evolution over revolution. I just don’t think revolutions work in the short-term in football.
“If you blow it up, clear out all your key players and totally change the team’s philosophy and identity, it takes two, three, four years to come to fruition. You don’t get that luxury in football, especially in our position where we’ve been relegated and we have the desire to go straight back.
“We have to put faith in a lot of the players who have served us so well. You look at certain clubs who get relegated from the Premier League and half of the squad immediately wants to leave. Obviously, everyone wants to play top-tier football but a lot of our players have come through the journey and know what it takes to get out of the Championship. I think that will stand us in really good stead.”
Jokanovic will start at Sheffield United on July 1 but work is already happening in earnest behind the scenes. Sky Sports understands plans are underway to make two Spanish appointments to his backroom staff, while the Serb is understood to have taken part last week in a three-hour video call to firm up summer recruitment, with the loan market a focus.
It’s evolution over revolution. If you blow it up, clear out all your key players and totally change the team’s philosophy and identity, it takes two, three, four years to come to fruition. We have the desire to go straight back.
Bettis, through his accountant’s eye, admits there will be “a level of balancing the books – there’s got to be, we’ve been relegated from the Premier League.” But there is enough optimism amid the numbers for him to insist there remains in the boardroom “100 per cent commitment to keeping the core squad”.
Despite the ravages of coronavirus on balance sheets, United posted a profit of £17.5m. Relegation clauses will mean wage cuts, Sky Sports understands, of up to 50 per cent. The significant drop in broadcast income will be cushioned by an initial parachute payment of around £42m. Jokanovic, Bettis confirms, will have resources in the forthcoming window.
“That’s what parachute payments are there for, to help with that hangover. All of our players have relegation clauses in their contracts. That puts us in a stronger position financially.
“We don’t want any of our players to leave, simple as that. We just want to strengthen. There has to be sustainability, it’s not boom or bust. But Slav does have the ability to bring players in this window and he knows that.
“We’ve successfully used the loan market at times with the likes of Dean Henderson and Ethan Ampadu and we’ll look at utilising that as well.
“One of the real positives over the last few years is the relationships we’ve made with other Premier League clubs. I think we’re tried and trusted in terms in terms of duty of care and opportunity to develop; I think clubs will be open to giving some of their players to us next season.”
There will be a shift towards a more collaborative approach to recruitment.
Wilder’s recruitment chief, Paul Mitchell, has been retained and will work closely with head of football administration, Carl Shieber and Jan Van Winckel, club director and long-term football advisor to Prince Abdullah. Wilder is understood to have increasingly felt his remit squeezed in a more continental model but Bettis insists the new manager will still have “the final say”.
“Talking to Slavisa, at other clubs, he’s not had much involvement in recruitment and we don’t want that. We want him involved but we want our voices to be heard.
“I think Slav will find he’ll have a lot more involvement here than he has had at times previously. He’s not pushing for that – I think he would have accepted it if we’d have wanted to bring in a director of football and been fine with it but we don’t; we want to work with the people we’ve got. Paul is key and we want Slav’s input and knowledge.
“Slav might tell us – as an example – we want a left-back with these attributes. Paul will go away and find maybe five players he thinks meet the criteria. Then we’ll all sit and analyse those. We want to work in a way where we highlight two or three options but Slav, ultimately, will have the final say on which one we go for.”
The hope is that Jokanovic, who handed first-team debuts at Fulham to Harvey Elliott and Ryan Sessegnon at 15 and 16 respectively, will further help a new crop of promising academy youngsters realise their potential.
Antwoine Hackford, Iliman Ndiaye, Daniel Jebbison and Femi Seriki have all made first-team debuts since the turn of the year for a club that has nurtured a cluster of stars hoping for Euro 2020 success with England this summer. Jebbison, a memorable matchwinner at Everton, and wing-back Seriki were part of the side that finished as Professional Development League North champions and are two of five teenagers to recently sign their first professional contracts.
“It’s key for us as well that we incorporate our academy players,” Bettis says. “We’ve not had as many players as we’d like breaking through but I think the latter part of the season has really opened the door.
“Everyone knows the history of our academy and it’s reignited our love for it; we’ve seen the potential there. It’s made everyone excited again about it.
“I think we’ve got four or five at least who we really think can break through and make an impact. If they’re good enough, let’s play them. If they don’t break through, they don’t, but it’s about a pathway and that’s totally a part of Slav’s thinking for the future.”
Everyone knows the history of our academy, We’ve seen the potential there. It’s made everyone excited again. I think we’ve got four or five at least who we really think can break through and make an impact.
An academy restructure instigated by Wilder in 2019 with Jack Lester’s arrival and Heckingbottom’s the following summer is bearing fruit but Bettis concedes that the club is still playing catch-up, their Cat 2 academy status leaving them vulnerable to predators in far flashier habitats than the working men’s club repurposed as a training ground. Wilder had detailed his drive to improve infrastructure in a Sky Sports interview back in 2019 but lamented a lack of progress.
“The issue with Cat 2 is that we can get players taken from us by Cat 1 and it’s really frustrating at times,” Bettis says. “We know we need to be Cat 1 to compete. But you need a certain level of facilities – we need more pitches – and we’re struggling to incorporate that into the land we have at Shirecliffe.
“[Cat 1] is in the plans but I think it’s going to be a couple of years at least before we get to the point where we have it. But the feeling we have got over the last few months has encouraged our owner even more.”
Sky Sports understands the club has agreed a deal to buy two plots of green belt land at a former RAF base, Norton Aerodrome, but is still waiting on the green light to acquire an adjoining area owned by Sheffield City Council, with demolition work on that site having been delayed by the pandemic.
Strategic investment to develop players and a long-term mindset has never felt more vital in the hapless fight for so many clubs without benevolent billionaires, swimming against the financial tide.
“I think Prince Abdullah has always been clear in terms of the way he wants to try and do this,” Bettis responds when asked whether direct investment is likely to be sought in the future.
“It’s always to try and be sustainable and do it from internal resources. I don’t think there should be responsibility just on an owner to throw hundreds of millions at it. It doesn’t always work. Our model is to run the club as a sustainable business and I don’t think at times that’s hurt us.”
He points to a net spend over more than £50m in last summer’s transfer window, the club’s coffers boosted by their striking ninth-placed finish in 2019/20, and believes there has been a cultural change at the club since his permanent appointment in 2016 following an advisory spell.
A relatively modest wage-turnover ratio at around 54 per cent prompted respected football finance blogger Swiss Ramble to suggest “arguably the club played it too safe” in a verdict on their most recent accounts, while Wilder is understood to have wanted to push the wage structure for proven performers over potential.
But Bettis believes the club is acting shrewdly in an uncertain climate.
“When I came in, the club was being run more like a charity than a business. I think we’ve changed the outside view of us in the last five years. Chris was a big part of that too; he never wanted to overpay players and agents. Am I ashamed that we get good deals done and we don’t throw money away? No, I’m proud of it actually.
“There are horror stories of teams paying £70k, 80k a week in the Championship. I’m a boring accountant! That’s a recipe for disaster! We’re trying to put the club in a good financial position and because we’ve done that we’re in a place now where we’re not saying it’s a firesale.
“We’re saying we want to keep our players, we want to keep our core squad, bring in a manager with pedigree – and that doesn’t come cheap. I’m happy with what we’ve done.”
The Premier League, he admits, “is almost a closed shop now. The ‘Big Six’ are in another stratosphere… then you’ve got the next bunch – Everton, Leicester, probably West Ham at times – and then you’ve got the rest, who would settle for 17th every season.”
Brutal reality has prompted creative thinking, notably through the United World umbrella company of clubs owned by Prince Abdullah. The pyramid set-up, with Sheffield United at its apex, includes Belgian top-flight side Beerschot, Dubai’s Al Hilal United, Kerala United from India and, most recently, French Ligue 2 side Chateauroux. Bettis says the project takes inspiration from Manchester City’s City Football Group “but obviously on a smaller level and on a smaller budget”.
Sheffield United supporters, some of whom will recall previous owner Kevin McCabe’s unsuccessful attempts to build a portfolio, will judge its success on the pitch – while Sander Berge’s arrival was aided by United World links, administrative hurdles are still to be cleared for Galatasaray and AC Milan target Ismaila Coulibaly to land at Bramall Lane – but Bettis stresses operational and commercial advantages for now.
“United World is still in its infancy but I see it as nothing but a positive. There’s a pyramid in the sense that none of the clubs are at a level where they’re competing with each other. That creates the ability to feed clubs above and develop clubs below; it’s a model for me that will bring benefits in the long-term.
“Each club has their own scouting and recruitment departments but we work together so it’s improving our network. Off the pitch, too, we can do better deals commercially where we’ll give a sponsor the opportunity to hit five football clubs in five different parts of the world, all with one deal.”
Back in Sheffield, the fortunes of the flagship will need to stay in sharp focus.
A quarter of sides relegated from the Premier League have bounced straight back, usually from familiar foundations. United’s midfield is ripe for refreshing but young players who struggled in the Premier League like Rhian Brewster have Championship pedigree. Jack O’Connell, whose injury absence was so sorely felt last season, and John Egan are core components in front of goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, whose signing seemed ever smarter as the season went on.
“I don’t think there’s a magic formula but I think we’re in a really strong position in terms of the strength and depth of our squad and the experience of promotion that the new manager brings. And starting well; that might come back to bite me but I think it’s so important. Getting supporters back in the stadium will be a massive positive, too. I hope they can get behind us.”
Bettis admits “a level of sadness that the chapter is over” when he thinks about the premature departure of a manager with whom he worked for so long, so closely, but the task in hand requires pragmatism and fresh optimism now.
“We had such an amazing journey during Chris’s time, such success, until this season and the back-end of last season where results didn’t go our way. You can put that down to a number of things that were out of our control; I think Covid had a huge impact.
“But the football club has to look forward now; now there’s a fire and a desire in me to get us back to the Premier League, hoping the new manager will help that come to fruition.”
It took time to signpost the direction but in calling for Jokanovic, Bettis and the boardroom have set Sheffield United on a clearer course.
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