Barely had the celebratory confetti been swept from the Wembley turf after Sheffield United’s Play-Off Final defeat last month, and transfer speculation was rife around Bramall Lane.
After a season containing more ups and downs than the Pepsi Max Big One at Blackpool, United ultimately experienced disappointment yet again in the Coca-Cola Big One – the Championship Play-Off Final against Burley. Wade Elliot’s stunning early strike, curled high into Paddy Kenny’s top right hand corner, broke red and white hearts and condemned them to another season in English football’s second tier.
The 1-0 defeat was a bitter pill to swallow in the corridors of power of Bramall Lane for United’s moneymen, too. Next season will be the first Kevin Blackwell will work without the undoubted aid of Premier League parachute payments, and the United manager has already stated his intent to bring anything up to ten new faces to Sheffield.
Working under tight financial constraints is not an unknown situation for Blackwell, however, who was at the helm at Leeds United during their troubled times and also had a spell at cash-strapped Luton Town.
There can be no doubt that Blackwell’s purse strings will be tightened by his chairman, Kevin McCabe, and the possible full transfer of former loanee Arturo Lupoli from Fiorentina has been thrown into doubt after United officials revealed that his asking price could be too much to lure him away from the Stadio Artemio Franchi.
Italian Lupoli made the best possible start in a United shirt, scoring on his debut against bitter rivals Wednesday, but made only one more start as Blackwell preferred to utilise his talents from the substitutes bench. His two goals showed glimpses of the potential he has, but a horrible tackle from behind born out of frustration in the Play-Off Final marred his short United career.
If he is not to return to Bramall Lane, the differentiation between his first act for Sheffield United and his last will be of a great irony to supporters.
Clearly, some reinforcements are needed in United’s striker department after loanees Craig Beattie and Lupoli returned to their respective parent clubs, and Danny Webber was released from his contract.
Blackwell is therefore left with Darius Henderson, Jamie Ward and Billy Sharp as his only senior strikers at the club. The former is liable to succumb to either injury or suspension – both seen frequently in his first season at Bramall Lane, starting just 25 times – and the latter, although proven at lower levels, are still yet to consistently prove their worth in a Premier League-chasing team.
It is therefore somewhat baffling that one of Blackwell’s main striking transfer targets appears to be Jermaine Beckford – of League One Leeds United.
Beckford did net 34 times for United’s Yorkshire rivals in their own doomed Play-Off campaign, and his self-confidence is clearly not in doubt. After being placed on the Elland Road transfer list following his excessive wage demands, Beckford insisted he will only move to a top-end Championship club if a Premier League move did not materialise. Rumours that Blackwell will offer his former club £1.5m plus Sharp refuse to go away, but exchanging one profligate lower-league Alan Shearer-cum-top-league Diego Forlan for another not proven at this level could be an expensive gamble that neither Kevin is prepared to take.
It is well known, however, that McCabe has issued his manager with the brief to focus his recruitment policy on youngsters that will have a high resale value, and another reported target that fits these criteria is Ched Evans of Manchester City. At the time of writing United have had a £1.5m bid rejected by the Eastlands hierarchy, who are reportedly holding out for £3m for their academy graduate.
Still only 20, Evans is a regular in John Toshack’s senior Welsh squad and, perhaps crucially, is proven at Championship level after scoring ten goals on loan at Norwich City two seasons ago. With seemingly unlimited funds at his disposal Mark Hughes, Blackwell’s counterpart at the City of Manchester Stadium, is planning a series of bids for forward targets including Carlos Tevez and Roque Santa Cruz, and Evans is expected to be surplus to requirements.
One target that is reportedly in the bag is Lee Williamson, of Watford. Although not officially confirmed by either club reports suggest that the former Rotherham United midfielder will join United for £500,000, and may yet be joined by fellow Hornet John-Joe O’Toole, who also spent the last third of the season at Bramall Lane on loan.
As far as summer transfer activity goes, however, Blackwell’s toughest task may yet prove to be staving off the vultures circling over Bramall Lane eyeing up his most precious gems. Kyle Naughton in particular is expected to be the subject of numerous top-flight interest, with clubs including Manchester United thought to be considering testing United’s resolve and Matthew Kilgallon, one of the standout performers throughout the whole season, could be tempted by a Premier League move.
Certainly, the talented duo will harbour international aspirations of their own and will cast envious glances in the direction of Phil Jagielka, who left United after their Premier League relegation for Everton and has never looked back. Jagielka has been one of David Moyes’ most consistent performers following his £4m move, and has since made his full England debut and after scoring the penalty to take the Toffees to Wembley, only missed his first FA Cup Final thanks to a cruel injury.
If all this speculation was not enough to cloud Blackwell’s thinking as he attempts to relax on an exotic beach somewhere, he must also contend with other clubs trying to tempt not only his players away from Bramall Lane but his staff also. Assistant manager Sam Ellis was coveted by Stoke City before turning them down to continue an established partnership with Blackwell and Gary Speed is the subject of attention from Swansea City, who want the former Wales midfielder-cum-coach as a replacement for Wigan-bound Roberto Martinez.
Whether Blackwell will be able to resist the pound signs and keep hold of his prized assets, whilst bringing in the players capable of delivering Premier League football to Bramall Lane, remains to be seen but the former Leeds chief has been in the game long enough to expect such constant speculation before the season kicks off
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