Big things ahead for Blades, says Prince
New Saudi owner vows to sign ‘super players’ Bin Ladens defended as being ‘a good family’
There had already been 30 minutes of breathless talk about the future at Bramall Lane when Prince Abdullah first mentioned Champions League qualification, amid one of many wide-ranging answers from the new owner of Sheffield United that were long on ambition but short on detail.
Alongside him, Chris Wilder, manager, local hero and general miracle-worker, had trodden a careful path between upsetting his old boss, former chairman Kevin Mccabe, and the new one sitting to his left who had prevailed in the pair’s High Court dispute three days earlier. Was a top-four finish really the end goal for the first Saudi Arabian owner in the League? As Prince Abdullah sought to dial it down, Wilder observed drily that it was “a bit of pressure”.
An unusual day at Bramall Lane that, among other highlights, saw the introduction of Prince Abdullah’s 26-year-old son-in-law Prince Musaad as the youngest chairman in the Premier League, and a defence of the Bin Laden family. It was an exercise in diplomacy, as the club sought to draw a line under the legal dispute at their heart, and Prince Abdullah’s eagerness to position himself as an ally of the manager who brought the Blades back to the Premier League.
The 55-year-old Saudi prince presented himself in hoody, jeans, T-shirt and trainers – and his style of public relations was equally relaxed. He declared himself well connected with “all the good agents”, claimed never to have missed a single Premier League game in four years in his multiscreen Los Angeles mansion and made a joke about his wife spending his money, which on reflection he later sought to withdraw. It was a flamboyant, unscripted performance and what Wilder made of it, one can only guess.
On the big vision, Prince Abdullah had much to say, promising “two or three super players” next summer. He claimed it had been him who funded the Blades’ record signing of Oli Mcburnie for £20 million in July. Indeed, he said he had invested £28 million already and would have been liable for a further £12million had Wilder not secured promotion last season.
As for the estimated £50million of assets, including stadium and training ground, he must buy from Mccabe as part of the High Court judgment, Prince Abdullah said it was “ultimately” his responsibility. Although no clue as to where the funds will come from.
Prince Musaad conceded that his age was unusual, but assured all concerned that his experience as a “sector manager” in the sports and entertainment business at Ernst & Young, and work with an unspecified football academy in Saudi, had prepared him well.
At the other end of the table was chief executive Stephen Bettis, who will have to guide the young chairman and deliver on the lucrative new Saudi sponsorship deals that Prince Abdullah believes possible. Bettis said both owners had dealt with their dispute “respectfully”, although it was pointed out to him that Mccabe had allegedly wanted Bettis sacked. For now, a fragile peace reigns, with Wilder “100 per cent sure” that he would be allowed to run the club as he saw fit. Wilder was careful to endorse the role of Belgian Jan van Winckel, who will be a de facto director of football. “I’m not pig-headed and arrogant to feel I know everything about the game,” Wilder said. As for the motive for owning a club, Prince Abdullah talked about his passion for the game, which he prefers to indulge away from the stadium.
Even when in charge of Al-hilal, the Saudi club, he was rarely at matches and that is unlikely to change.
He said “if money was the concern” he could sell to “the Americans”, investors Dave Checketts and Alan Pace who had been in talks with Mccabe.
Prince Abdullah was never quite so animated as when he discussed how “offended” he was that the Bin Laden family, construction magnates, were constantly judged on the actions of Osama bin Laden. The Bin Ladens had been named in the High Court case as having considered a loan to the club that would have given them an option to buy Mccabe’s shares. “They are a good family,” he said. “Every family may have a bad person. They are a very respectable family. I have not done business with them in past, but I would be happy to do business with them.” As a former government minister, he was less prepared to engage on Saudi Arabia’s humanrights record.
“You ask me any sports question, no matter how tough, I will answer it. When it comes to other topics, I prefer to stay away from those.”
This was, he maintained, a private investment and it is hard to argue otherwise.
“Sheffield United is a big club,” he said, “and a lot of people care about Sheffield United.” He seems to grasp an essential truth about the institution he now owns, although how much he can deliver on the big promises remains to be seen.
Top table: Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder (left) and the club’s new Saudi owner Prince Abdullah at their press conference yesterday