Heckingbottom urges Sheffield United to ignore transfer embargo ‘distraction’

Heckingbottom urges Sheffield United to ignore transfer embargo ‘distraction’

Rarely does a team moving 14 points clear of the chasing pack in the race for automatic promotion do so under a cloud.

That, though, is Sheffield United right now after rounding off a week that saw the club placed under a transfer embargo with a 1-0 victory over Hull City.

On Tuesday, the club was banned from signing players due to their failure to pay a scheduled instalment of a transfer fee on time. It is not yet clear how much money is involved but club officials are confident the matter will be resolved “next week” and the embargo lifted.

No explanation has been given for the non-payment but funds have been tight at Bramall Lane since the club was unable to plug the £40 million shortfall caused by relegation from the Premier League in 2021.

Prince Abdullah, the club’s owner since winning his power struggle with Kevin McCabe in the High Court, had to inject between £15-20 million last summer to ease similar cashflow problems, while the club’s parachute payments and the £24 million fee paid by Arsenal for Aaron Ramsdale two summers ago have long since been mortgaged.

It is not clear which transfer payment was missed but the last published accounts for the 2020-21 season reveal United still owed a little under £20m in transfer payments. These include outstanding sums in the deals that brought Sander Berge, Rhian Brewster and Oli McBurnie to Bramall Lane.

As with the vast majority of transfers in the wider game, United spread the cost of any fees across the length of a player’s contract — meaning there is a still a sizeable portion of the combined £60 million outlay on those three most expensive signings in the club’s history, plus wing-back duo Max Lowe and Jayden Bogle who joined for a combined £11 million from Derby County.

Paul Heckingbottom, fresh from leading his side to a tenth victory in a dozen Championship outings, admits the situation is far from ideal.

“The EFL have sanctioned us,” he said. “We are working hard to deal with it but I leave that to the powers-that-be to sort out. I’m not going to get involved.

“Firstly, there is nothing at all I can do about it. I haven’t got the money to sort this out! Secondly, it is only a distraction if we let it be a distraction. From November (2021 when he was appointed), we have had all sorts to deal with and we have done that. This is just another.

“I won’t let anything hinder us or stop us, that was the message to the boys.”

United being hit with EFL sanctions underlines why the on-going takeover by an as yet unknown party is regarded as being so crucial to United’s future.

Prince Abdullah accepted an offer for his stake in the club late last year, with the prospective new owners having paid a substantial deposit to the Saudi Arabia businessman as part of a bid that is now with the EFL.

Club insiders are confident this proposed sale will fare better than the £115 million offer from American businessman Henry Mauriss that was accepted last year only to collapse not long afterwards.

That the club is cash-strapped should not come as a surprise. There has only been one transfer fee paid since October, 2020 — the £3 million that brought Anel Ahmedhodzic to Bramall Lane last summer — while the number of first team contracts due to expire in June with no renewal offers yet on the table is well into double figures.

As The Athletic made clear in our Boxing Day preview for the upcoming transfer window, the chances of any additions in January were already slim to non-existent. Even Reda Khadra cutting short his loan from Brighton & Hove Albion — and the subsequent saving in wages — barely changed the situation.

Heckingbottom has stuck vehemently to the public line that he still wants a replacement. But, in reality, this always seemed unlikely due to United paying only a fraction of Khadra’s wages, meaning the United manager will have little to play with in the market even if the transfer embargo is lifted next week.

The ongoing saga over the club’s first team training pitch has been another indication of the financial strain. Heckingbottom agreed to dip into his playing budget for the season to install a new state-of-the-art surface, including undersoil heating and improved drainage, at United’s training ground. A review into the club’s spate of injuries last season had pointed a finger at its poor condition.

Around £1.8 million was spent on the new pitch, which was used for the first time by the players in October. However, a delay in connecting the under soil system on cost grounds meant it could only be used intermittently amid a cold snap before Christmas.

The matter has since been resolved and the undersoil system connected. But there is a suspicion the delay has contributed to the grass not fully binding together, something that has led to the players having to train on other, heavier pitches at Shirecliffe in recent weeks.

Heckingbottom last week suggested the recent muscle injuries suffered by George Baldock and Enda Stevens are down to having to switch between playing on these soft surfaces, the much firmer Bramall Lane pitch and Shirecliffe’s 3G pitch.

Even if the embargo is lifted, this week’s revelations will concern supporters. Not least because the cashflow problems could encourage rival clubs to test United’s mettle in terms of holding on to key players, such as Iliman Ndiaye and Sander Berge.

Encouragingly, United’s mindset, even amid such a challenging financial landscape, has been to focus solely on channelling what precious money is available into the football side of the business.

This admirable stance is why Heckingbottom’s side sit effectively 15 points clear of the chasing pack when goal difference is factored in. Nevertheless, surely only when the cloud of this transfer embargo is moved on by the outstanding bill being paid can supporters relax.

(Photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

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