Big things ahead for Blades, says Prince

New Saudi owner vows to sign ‘su­per play­ers’ Bin Ladens de­fended as be­ing ‘a good fam­ily’

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Sport Football - By Sam Wal­lace CHIEF FOOT­BALL WRITER

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

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