Owner Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s eroding confidence in Chris Wilder’s recruitment was certainly a big factor in the breakdown of trust which sees the Blades looking for a new manager as they prepare, inevitably, to swap divisions.
Last summer Wilder was conscious of reducing the average age of his squad, to freshen up as well as strengthen a group containing players who had helped carry the club on a remarkable journey from League One. Ignore reserve goalkeeper Wes Foderingham and the average age of recruits was not much over 21.
But it is not fair to say all have failed, or that those who have not succeeded never will.
In hindsight, signings were made for the future when more was needed for the present. Wilder would say with the budget he was given, it had to be that way. He could also point to the success of some of those he missed out on – Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins and Matty Cash and West Ham United loanee Jesse Lingard – as proof his eye for a player is keen.
When transfers were being used behind the scenes as a stick with which to beat the then-manager, Aaron Ramsdale would have been part of the ammunition. Lately he has emerged as one of the Blades’ best players.
The 22-year-old’s problem was he was replacing Dean Henderson, one of the best goalkeeper’s in last season’s Premier League. For the man writing the cheques, £18m was a hefty amount to spend on a goalkeeper, but it is not the going rate for a top-of-the-range model in the world’s richest domestic league.
Ramsdale, who started at Bramall Lane before leaving for Bournemouth, is a good shot-stopper but cannot match the presence or confidence of the youngster who returned to Manchester United at the end of two season-long loans demanding to be their No 1 and now looks to be getting his way.
Ramsdale made two fine saves on his Premier League debut for the Blades, tipping one shot over the bar, another onto the post, but inbetween time uncertain footwork saw him concede a goal which ought to have been within his reach, and the goals you let in are often the moments that are remembered. The Blades never recovered from going 2-0 down to Wolverhampton Wanderers and it would be January before their season finally got going.
There have been other uncertain moments too, a few at Stamford Bridge in November, but as the season has gone on, Ramsdale has been audibly more assertive. When he returned to Chelsea for last month’s FA Cup quarter-final, it sounded like the defence had a coach organising them from behind the goal.
Interim manager Paul Heckingbottom has also noted a desire for the England Under-21 international to improve on the side of the game some people seem to think is more important than keeping the ball out of the net.
“I actually think he’s been excellent for the last few months now, he seems to have really grown into the position and taken a lot of responsibility and we know what a good goalkeeper he is, we’ve all seen it before,” says Heckingbottom. “He’s very young for a goalkeeper but with a mature head on his shoulders.
“(Against Leeds United) his decisions from goal-kicks – when to play or kick it long – were really good and it’s something he’s keen to do and we’re keen to use.”
It says something about Ramsdale that the more lost his team’s cause is becoming – 15 points from Premier League safety with only eight games to do something about it – the more his strength of character is coming out.
“He’s a strong boy with a great personality,” says Heckingbottom admiringly. “We know he’s a good player, we know he’s got talent, everybody can see that. You’re not going to be a footballer and not get criticised. It’s a skill to be able to deal with that and ignore that when it’s unjust or work through it if it’s just.”
The hope is that by dropping down a division others can prove they have been written off too soon as well.
If Ramsdale was a bit of an early-season scapegoat, Rhian Brewster was the posterboy for the Blades’ poor spending. The club record signing centre-forward is still to score for them but even if they want to it seems unlikely they will be able to sell him this summer without a huge loss, so having scored 10 Championship goals in a half-season loan at Swansea City in 2019-20, the hope must be that a return to a familiar division gets his confidence going and he can follow the path of those who have taken a step back in their career to return stronger.
Before Brewster, Oli McBurnie had a productive time at Swansea. Wing-backs Jayden Bogle – who has shown Premier League promise – and Max Lowe caught Wilder’s eye in the second tier.
There are certainly no guarantees it will work like that, but Ramsdale’s season is a reminder not to jump to conclusions too early.
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