The man, wearing an open collar and a smartly tailored suit, will only have been recognizable to those with deep knowledge of football or die-hard Sheffield United fans. However, the woman was one of the most powerful and influential figures in world football.
It was there, over a hastily arranged lunch at the stadium’s 1905 club, that Paul Mitchell and Marina Granovskaia cemented the relationship that would move first Jamal Blackman and then Ethan Ampadu from west London to South Yorkshire. Although Mitchell’s boss has now changed with Slavisa Jokanovic taking over the reins after Chris Wilder’s departure in March, it was also at the meeting that the two clubs reached an agreement: a loose, unofficial pact on Bramall Lane as a stopover for some of Chelsea’s best up-and-coming talent.
Sources with knowledge of the meeting between Mitchell, United’s Head of Recruitment, and Granovskaia, Roman Abramovich’s eyes and ears at the European Championships, report how the two got on so well that they decided to stop their discussions over food to continue the coffee table in the office of the Russian-Canadian.
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And after United’s two-year stint in the Premier League ended earlier this month, the Bramall Lane hierarchy is hoping the relationship Mitchell built with Granovskaia and her staff will open doors that are now back in the championship .
With their owner, HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his advisor and confidante Jan van Winckel recently appointed Jokanovic to replace Wilder, United is well placed to select and bring on some of the most promising members of Chelsea’s development team them to the north. Encouraged to view the temporary transfer market as his first port of call during the upcoming window, the Serb spent several seasons at Chelsea before retiring as a player and had previously raided the ranks of his former club.
So it would be a big surprise if many of the names he has suggested as potential signings are not currently under contract with Thomas Tuchel.
Home to some of the world’s most talented footballers, the Chelsea Academy has long been a source of fresh blood for teams looking to acquire high-profile talent at a fraction of the usual cost. Provided, of course, that they are content to borrow the books from their books instead of buying them permanently.
Slavisa Jokanovic: BEN STANSALL / AFP via Getty Images
There are also a number of professionals who, after outgrowing the development program, look to first-team football to try and strengthen their place in their employers’ starting XI.
It is in this pool that Jokanovic has fished successfully in the past and used his contacts at Chelsea to bring Lucas Piazon and Tamas Kalas to Craven Cottage during his time in charge of Fulham, the second of two promotions from England second division won.
Others have done the same with Conor Gallagher, who formed a fatal partnership with Rhian Brewster in Swansea City and left Liberty Stadium for his final term in West Bromwich Albion. He was replaced by Marc Guehi, who sparked Tuchel’s imagination by excelling when City moved into the play-off final. Luke McCormick appears poised for promotion after impressing for Bristol Rovers while Armando Broja, most recently from Vitesse Arnhem, has been productive in youth.
Although he won’t officially arrive at United until early next month, United is arguably even better positioned to do business with Chelsea thanks to Jokanovic’s presence. The former Yugoslav international played alongside Jon Harley, who now works at their Cobham training complex, and Carlo Cudicini, one of three loan managers who worked at Chelsea. Although scouting is expected to be more global than it has been in the past as United seek to expand their network of global sister clubs, Jokanovic still has strong ties to the capital where he played under Claudio Ranieri.
Chelsea’s German midfielder Kai Havertz (front L) and Chelsea’s German striker Timo Werner (front right) hold the Champions League trophy while they win the UEFA Champions League Final soccer match between Manchester City and Chelsea at Dragao Stadium in Postage on 29, 2021. (Photo by Manu Fernandez / POOL / AFP) (Photo by MANU FERNANDEZ / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)
After promising to keep his distance until his contract with Qatari team Al-Gharafa expired, Jokanovic’s fingerprints were on the retained and published list United released last week.
The impending departures of Sander Berge and John Lundstram are out of his control and the two midfielders both decide to leave long before the Serbian is appointed. However, Jokanovic reportedly supported the plan to offer Kean Bryan a new contract. Mobile and at more than enough pace to keep up with the fastest attackers, the defender is far from finished after battling for playing time since leaving Manchester City. But his qualities could make him a fascinating project for Jokanovic, who named speed, strength and creativity as three things that all newcomers must possess.
In making the decision to focus primarily on loans this summer, United is taking a pragmatic approach to both losing their top status and the tough financial realities of football following the Covid-19 pandemic. That pragmatism is likely, if by no means certain, and expects them to try to capitalize on ties with both Mitchell, should he stay in position long-term, and with Jokanovic at Chelsea.