Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad doesn’t tweet often. So when Sheffield United’s Saudi owner shared some thoughts in the immediate aftermath of a dismal 3-1 home defeat against fellow relegation candidates Bournemouth on Saturday, the fans were quick to translate his words from Arabic and pore over them.
But his two tweets were actually about the recent results of Saudi Pro League club Al Hilal — they made no mention of the Yorkshire team he owns. It was indicative of United’s odd status this season, trying to survive in the Premier League while their owner 1) wants to sell up, and 2) appears to have lost interest.
الهلال يعادل الرقم القياسي في تاريخ الدوري بالفوز على الصفر (٩-٠) بالفوز اليوم على الحزم خارج أرضه
ال ٩-٠ السابقة كانت ضد الرياض سجل ٣ أهداف سلطان بن نصيب و ٣ سمير سلطان و ناجي بن عبدالمطلوب رحمه الله و العمدة و ريفيلينو
— Abdullah Bin Mosaad (@Saudi49er) November 25, 2023
The final scoreline against Bournemouth flattered United and keeps them in the relegation zone with a third of the season gone. The performance was bitterly disappointing for the supporters, particularly as it followed a spirited return of four points from games against Wolves and Brighton in the final two fixtures before this month’s international break, after the promoted club had seemed condemned to an instant return to the EFL after taking just one point from their first 11 matches.
It did not take long for the fragile optimism of the crowd at Bramall Lane to be silenced on Saturday.
“How s— must you be?, we’re winning away,” sang the Bournemouth fans when Marcus Tavernier scored after just 12 minutes. It was the first time those travelling supporters from the south coast had felt the headiness of leading a Premier League game on their travels since April and they went on to dominate proceedings, taking 23 shots.
Bournemouth and Sheffield United have experienced similar ups and downs over recent years, with multiple promotions and relegations, but this season the two feel like they are heading in different directions under very different owners.
The brutal economics of the Premier League often mean that clubs have to swallow big financial losses to compete at the higher level after winning promotion, but at Sheffield United, Prince Abdullah seems to have his mind on other things.
Meanwhile at Bournemouth, their new American owner Bill Foley has been spending heavily after the club finished 15th last season to avoid an instant return to the EFL following a relegation scare. Bournemouth started this season badly but, with three wins in four, they are pulling away from the bottom of the table and are now seven points ahead of Saturday’s third-bottom hosts.
Over the past decade, these two clubs have had similar financial trajectories — revenue ballooning upon promotion to the Premier League, then falling off sharply after relegation from it, cushioned by so-called parachute payments which the top flight pays out to teams who drop down to the Championship.
Those parachute payments amount to £44million in the first season after relegation, £32m in the second, then an additional £16m in the third if the club involved had been in the Premier League for longer than one season, says Kieran Maguire, a football finance expert at the University of Liverpool.
Even if they last just one year among the domestic elite, that means United will bank around £120million, including this season’s broadcast income. The club faced a transfer embargo earlier this year for defaulting on payments to another club still owed after spending big between 2019 and 2021 while in the Premier League.
This time, some have wondered if it is a deliberate strategy to spend little post-promotion and bank the windfall for the long term, meaning that although United are staring down the barrel of swift relegation, there is little jeopardy or fear about that fate.
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Cash goes a lot further in the Championship but relegated teams tend to arrive in it with big wage bills. Many player contracts today include relegation clauses, but these generally mean a pay cut of 20-25 per cent whereas a reduction of something closer to 60-70 per cent is needed to break even in the Championship, says Maguire.
Over the past decade, the wage bills at these two clubs have followed a similar trajectory, just as their revenue did — falling after relegation, but still pretty high by second-tier standards.
United signed two players for sizeable fees over the summer: Cameron Archer from top-flight Aston Villa for £18.5million ($23.4m) and Gustavo Hamer from Coventry City of the Championship for £15m. Both players have shown promise but it says a lot about modern football that Villa, promoted alongside United in 2019 but bankrolled by billionaire owners, got a big fee out of them for a player who had made just a few substitute appearances in the Premier League.
Crucially, United also sold two key names: midfielder Sander Berge to Burnley, promotion race rivals last season and now fellow relegation candidates, and Iliman Ndiaye, player of the year last season, to Marseille of the French top division. Many fans think their team is weaker now than it was in the 2022-23 Championship.
Though none of their fans expected an easy time of things returning to the division where they finished an impressive ninth under then manager Chris Wilder in 2019-20 a year after their previous promotion, it is all somewhat demoralising.
“In general, we’re quite a pragmatic fanbase,” says Jimmy Smith of the Blades Ramble podcast. “I think it (what’s going on this season) is a smart business decision. While we understand (the strategy), we’d have liked to give it more of a go.”
“We sailed so close to the wind last season and promotion was needed to probably stop us falling off a precipice,” says another supporter, Ian Rands. “The best we can hope for is to yo-yo (between the top two divisions) for a bit.
“I can’t say I am really enjoying this season. It’s a cliche, but they say the journey’s often better than the destination and you can say that for any club of our size or stature trying to get into the Premier League.”
Smith agrees, saying the most fun he has had as a United fan is in promotion seasons, whereas attempting to stay in the promised land of the Premier League can be joyless — especially when the club appear to not be giving it a proper try.
In contrast, Bournemouth, now managed by the Spaniard Andoni Iraola, spent over £100million this summer under Foley, which went little noticed because these huge sums — vast by European standards — are becoming the bare minimum to compete in England. Maguire says the gap between the EFL and the Premier League is getting ever bigger and the costs involved to compete keep growing.
Some promoted teams, like Villa in 2019-20 and Nottingham Forest in 2022-23, have spent huge sums to buy virtually new squads, both taking a huge risk, which appears to have paid off. Fulham tried the same and failed in 2018-19, going straight back down, but are bankrolled by U.S. billionaire Shahid Khan.
United’s approach has similarities to that of fellow newcomers Luton Town, who have spent little and are also looking prime candidates for relegation come the spring despite some good recent results. “Luton weren’t budgeting to get promoted in the first place, so this is just seen as bonus money for their new stadium,” says Maguire.
Like Luton, if Sheffield United do get relegated at the end of this season, they will be in a comfortable financial position in the 2023-24 Championship.
Their accountants might appreciate that, but for their fans, it’s not much fun.
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(Top photo: George Wood via Getty Images)