Sheffield United continue to fly high on the pitch, but their purported takeover seems no closer to completion. So what is going on at Bramall Lane?
One more win will probably be enough to guarantee it. Sheffield United’s 1-0 victory against Bristol City was a nervous affair. The Blades didn’t really create much in front of goal until James McAtee broke the deadlock with 13 minutes to play, but at this stage of the season it doesn’t really matter how you get over the line, so long as you do so with all three points. The gap between United and third-placed Luton Town and fourth-placed Middlesbrough is now eight points, with just four games left to play.
And if a return to the Premier League after two years away wasn’t enough, they’re the last EFL team standing in the FA Cup too, with a semi-final coming up against Manchester City. Considering the stature of their opponents in this match, the result could be a foregone conclusion, but Sheffield United do have some cause for optimism.
Manchester City have been caught out in these big matches before – most notably in the 2013 and 2021 finals against Wigan Athletic and Leicester City – while United knocked out Spurs on their way to this semi-final.
But regardless of the outcome of this one particular match, this weekend will be an opportune one for supporters of the club to come together and celebrate these somewhat unlikely successes. They won’t be mathematically promoted by Saturday afternoon, but the opportunity to take to the Wembley pitch for such a high-profile match will be a party in itself for those who make the journey down to London.
Meanwhile in the background, the protracted takeover of the club by the Nigerian businessman Dozy Mmbuossi continues to rumble along. There remain questions concerning Mr Mmobuossi. In February, The Athletic reported an outstanding County Court Judgement against him for £30,109 which was awarded at Watford County Court in April 2021. A spokesman for Mr Mmbuossi told them at the time:
“A property in St. Albans was rented for consultants working on a specific project. There was a dispute over arrears, an agreement was reached with the landlord and a settlement was paid. Following a conversation with the landlord yesterday [Thursday 16th February], he has informed us he will be speaking with the court today to understand why this is still reflected in court records.”
More than two months on, Trust Online confirms that this judgement remains recorded as unsatisfied. It should be added that this amount may have been paid in full – records are only updated once a month – though unless it was paid within a month of the judgement date, it will stay on his credit record for six years as either satisfied or unsatisfied, depending on whether it’s been paid in full or not. At the time of writing, all indications are that it has not. There were also two further judgements against Tingo Mobile Ltd, one of his companies, for unpaid debts totalling £7,507.
Other controversies have dogged Mmbuossi since his declaration of interest in buying the club from its Saudi owner, Prince Abdullah. It had been previously reported that there was no evidence that Tingo Airlines, an airline of which he is listed as a director which had been incorporated with a billion shares with a nominal value of £1 each, had ever taken to the air.
Having failed to file any accounts since January 2022 (and with the last two having been accounts for a dormant company), there remains a proposal to strike the company off the Companies House register, although it should be added that an objection to this was received in the middle of March. This is particularly curious, since Mmobuossi’s statement on the matter stated that, “Tingo Airlines Ltd (UK) is in the process of being dissolved.” This is all fair enough. The last couple of years would not have been a good time to be entering the aviation industry. But who has lodged an objection to this dissolution, and why?
The EFL confirmed in the middle of February that they had put the matter on hold, pending responses to queries that they had over the takeover:
‘The EFL notes the comments from Dozy Mmobuosi in respect of a proposed change of control at Sheffield United.
‘Whilst the League is in receipt of the Share Purchase Agreement and Owners and Directors’ Test declaration, alongside some evidence of source and sufficiency of funding, it has previously raised a number of additional queries with the proposed purchaser and the Club.
‘The EFL has been awaiting a response on those queries for some time and until the League is satisfied that the requirements of its Regulations have been met, it will not process a change of control at the Club.’
To the best of anybody’s knowledge, these requirements have still not been met. Meanwhile, United were hit by allegations of their own that the club was close to entering into administration. The Daily Mail reported that ‘United were placed under a transfer embargo in January after failing to pay transfer fee instalments due to other clubs, with millions of pounds understood to be owed to Liverpool and Malmo for Rhian Brewster and Bosnian defender Anel Ahmedhodzic respectively’, and that among the cost-cutting measures already in place were turning off the undersoil heating at the club’s training ground and ordering the players to train inside. instructing ground staff to cut back on the use of grass fertiliser on training pitches and failing to pay several suppliers on time.
This prompted an angry response from the club’s CEO Stephen Bettis:
“We are not going into administration … there is not even a threat. Let’s be brutally honest, if you look at the Championship, everyone knows every club is running as tight as they can to the wire because the reality is the amount you invest into the first team makes results. Normally, the ones that spend the most get promoted.
“There are various clubs under embargo and some have paid their players late, but we have never done that and have no intention of doing that. I have the money in the bank to pay the wages at the end of this month. That’s complete and utter bullshit.”
All very bullish, but it can hardly be considered particularly positive when the CEO is having to make a public statement which begins with the words “we are not going into administration”. More recently, it’s been less than a week since manager Paul Heckingbottom confirmed that he has received no further updates regarding the takeover and that he is continuing to “plan for life under Prince Abdullah” following conversations with Bettis, although it is also worth noting that the club’s recruitment and contract issues, which will be coming in for considerable scrutiny come the end of this season, do not appear to have been resolved.
At such a pivotal time of the season, this all raises some very interesting questions. Sheffield United’s value as a football club increases substantially with promotion to the Premier League. Because they were relegated two years ago, they’re still receiving parachute payments at around £40m for this season, and going up guarantees at least £100m for one full season, plus a minimum of another three years’ parachute payments at 55, 45 and 35% of their previous TV income. They received £44.4m last season.
So while Stephen Bettis says that “if you look at the Championship, everyone knows every club is running as tight as they can to the wire”, it’s worth noting that some clubs have a thicker wire than others.
To put it another way, promotion would likely be worth £200m to Sheffield United, so was Mmobuossi’s bid accepted with that taken into account? Were there two prices, with the higher one being dependent upon promotion? Or might Prince Abdullah have thrown £200m away by basing a price on their value as a Championship club? Did they agree a mid-point valuation based on the possibility or likelihood of it happening? The possibilities are endless. Perhaps the Prince will change his mind as the gleaming lights of the Premier League come back into view on the horizon.
Maybe Tingo Airlines was worth a billion pounds. Maybe the CCJs awarded against both Mmobuossi and Tingo Mobile are the result of genuine administrative errors which still haven’t been resolved. Maybe Sheffield United were close to administration. Maybe they weren’t. Maybe this is all a series of unfortunate coincidences, none of which – either taken on their own or collectively – reflect particularly well upon the club’s medium-to-long term prognosis.
Far better, perhaps, for supporters to focus on what their team has achieved against this ongoing background noise of takeover talk, CCJs and fertiliser. Because Paul Heckingbottom has dealt with questions on a subject about which he likely knows very little for sure, can say even less about, and doesn’t really want to be involved with in the first place.
Sheffield United are estimated to have the fifth biggest wage budget in the Championship this season, so they are overperforming. And their success this season on the pitch is proof of what can be achieved should you get your heads down, work very hard, and manage to successfully block out the background noise.