Perhaps history will view January 2020 as the month Sheffield United changed.
Buoyed by an impressive return to the Premier League, manager Chris Wilder was determined to kick on, and in his first transfer window since wresting complete control from Kevin McCabe, Prince Abdullah backed him with cash.
How Wilder spent it was instructive. He broke the Blades’ transfer record four times in the summer, but the fifth, in late January, felt monumental because he left his comfort zone to shop abroad for proven talent.
In the summer, midfielder Sander Berge politely declined to join, preferring to stay at Champions League-bound Genk, but when it became clear in the winter he might rethink, the Prince and chief executive Stephen Bettis looked down the back of the sofa and found £22m. Panagiotis Retsos and Richairo Zivkovic followed, on loan from Bayer Leverkusen and Chanchung Yatai respectively, to give a window which started with the bread-and-butter signings of Jacks Rodwell and Robinson a more cosmopolitan look.
Wilder often speaks about “position-specific” recruitment and in addition to Berge’s midfield quality and another forward option, he wanted cover for his overlapping centre-backs. Few play as Chris Basham and Jack O’Connell, do – not even Retsos, Robinson and Rodwell – so the Blades turned to data.
“Bash and Jack O’Connell are vital parts of the team and quite unique,” says Wilder. “It’s a hybrid between a big full-back and a ball-playing centre-half.
That doesn’t make the final decision but the background work is key. There’s always a subjective and an objective view.Chris Wilder
“They’ve got to have qualities, and these are the things we’re looking at from the software we’ve got which covers all players in Europe – minutes, age, interceptions, defending, aerial duels, completion of passes, the areas of the pitch they get into. A lot of clubs have a number of scouts in different countries but we go about it a different way. We use software, video analysis, (database) Wyscout and other forms of watching players.
“Jack (O’Connell), Basham, Panos (Retsos) and Jack Robinson have played in a two, so they can do that position pretty comfortably. It’s quite hard to pick them players up but there are enough out there we feel will do that job.”
Number-crunching is all well and good, but there is still no substitute for a trained pair of eyes. “I didn’t manage to get out to China but I knew a lot about Richairo,” says Wilder. “Everybody has been seen and we’re a real tight recruitment group, we trust each other implicitly. Paul (Mitchell, the head of recruitment), myself and Alan (Knill, Wilder’s assistant) head it up and if it’s a goalkeeping situation Darren (Ward, the goalkeeping coach) will.
“We knew about Sander, but Jan Aage (Fjortoft, the former Blades striker), who came to visit us last month, is very influential in Norwegian football and we know a lot of people in the game here and abroad. That doesn’t make the final decision but the background work is key. There’s always a subjective and an objective view. We’ve watched Sander personally four or five times and have watched clips and games right the way through.
“I get as much pleasure from a free transfer as the big ones because you’ve got to at least try to get most right. I think our record has been excellent, from sales as well. Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Che Adams and Brooksy (David Brooks), it was difficult to stand in their way, but I’d like to think those boys now wouldn’t be looking to play elsewhere.”
That is where the Blades, fifth in the Premier League, have really changed.
“There’s no way we would have attracted the boys we have this January if we hadn’t progressed as we have. I understand in the summer why there might have been a reluctance from Sander, his agent and his family but now, because of our performances and the consistency and quality of our results, that’s changed.”
As with most clubs, the recruitment process never really stops. Wilder, Bettis and Prince Abdullah are this week plotting the next window.
“You have back-up plans,” argues Wilder. “Injuries happen, people might come in for our players. There’s targets and you don’t always get your first choice. Sander has always been our No 1.
“We’d like to sign young players as well and maybe that comes down the line. We have signed some in January but young, experienced players.
“Can we establish ourselves as a Premier League club and build up that pot of money as well? That impacts on who you can get, facilities and whatever.
“Everybody’s enjoying what’s happening and good things are happening off the pitch as well.”