For as long as I can remember, each season at Sheffield United saw rumours of some former great player returning to the club. It used to be talk of Brian Deane returning, and that did actually come to pass once properly in 1997 and sort of again in 2006, brief though it was.
Unfortunately, those brief examples where the Deano rumours were true have been dwarfed by other instances where it’s turned out to be utter fantasy – laughable fabrications from fans claiming to be ‘in the know.’ Michael Brown’s rumoured return is the sort of transfer rumour that a journalist would dust off once in a while if there was nothing to write about, and this used to be coupled with the sort of additional flaky fan info that you’d expect more on a transfer deadline day than the middle of summer. “Browny was seen driving near the ground/at a reserve game/mowing the Bramall Lane turf/leaving the ground dressed in a Rob Kozluk costume as disguise” etc. Brown could barely have had any pre-season holiday the number of times he was supposed to be within Sheffield.
In the last few years, the rumour mill naturally switched over to the most recent big name sale, James Beattie. Beatts, signed for a club-record £4 million in 2007 by managerial black hole Bryan Robson, was an instant hit in an otherwise terrible season. He finished the campaign with 22 goals to his name, joint second highest in the league, his biggest haul since his Southampton days and the fans’ Player of the Year award was a mere formality.
Fast forward to the following January – as the financial repercussions of relegation and, more damagingly, Bryan Robson began to set in, Beattie was sold to Stoke for a rumoured £3.5 million. 34 goals in 57 games spoke for itself – he was going to take some replacing. In May that year at Wembley, instead of James Beattie, United played Craig Beattie. The loan striker as a lone striker in the club’s most important game since relegation. James Beattie was helping Stoke to retain their place in the Premier League; Craig Beattie was incapable of helping United to return there. That summer, the two Kyles were sold to Spurs, and the rest is history….
While the Blades struggled in 2009-10, Beattie’s initial success at Stoke started to evaporate into his 2nd season. Injuries and greater competition for places saw him in and out of the team, before a reported dressing-room bust-up with Tony Pulis led to him being dropped altogether, and so began the Beattie return rumours. “He never wanted to leave…he/his family/his dog love Sheffield…he’ll take a huge pay-cut to return” before the Brown-esque ‘sightings’ started. And so they continued, right up until he headed to Rangers to sign for them in the summer of 2010.
United’s plight worsened, through managers Kevin Blackwell, to Gary Speed, to Micky Adams. Beattie meanwhile was fairing little better at Rangers. Without a goal to his name, he approached the transfer window last January out of form and out of sorts. “He’s available for loan, Adams is trying to bring him in” became the talk. At the club’s hour of dire need, Beattie signed on loan – for Blackpool. Five appearances and no goals later, Blackpool were down, United were down, and Beattie was back up to Glasgow.
The rumours re-circulated again in the summer and supporters waited. Rangers paid up the rest of his contract to release him on transfer deadline day. At last the moment was upon United. In the dying moments of deadline day, the club announced the signing of two players from Rangers. Beattie’s return was surely complete. Only, it wasn’t – two loanees that ultimately didn’t have their paperwork sorted in time, were the players. Beattie, as it turned out, joined nobody.
This will-they-won’t-they farce failed to go away. Beattie, it appeared, was weeks away from any level of fitness – and even the powers-that-be at Bramall Lane aren’t stupid enough to sign someone they can’t play for a few months, particularly when the purse-strings are tight. Late last week however, the first piece of tangible, creditable evidence emerged as Beattie was photographed at United’s training ground. The cat out of the bag, the club had to confirm that he is in training – many say he has been for weeks. His signing appears to be imminent, and seems this time to have an ounce of truth to it. He was spotted in the Director’s Box at the Lane on Saturday. The fans seem excited – it didn’t take long for the Beattie chants to emerge on the Kop.
Assuming he signs, what does this mean? Brian Deane returned to United a better player than when he left – this is clearly not going to be the case with Beattie though. Since his sale nearly three years ago, he has scored nine goals – and no goals in any competition since October 2009. He was pretty dismal at Blackpool, and a Rangers supporting friend considers him one of their worst signings in years. He’s lacking fitness, he’s probably lacking confidence, he’s always lacked pace and he’s going to have huge expectations to deliver based on his previous spell.
Then again, it could work well. Beattie may not be capable of playing in the top league anymore, but could find a new lease of life in League One. At 33, he’s got a few years left in him surely and is a year younger than Richard Cresswell. Certain players also do seem to click at certain clubs, for whatever reason. Perhaps Beattie genuinely does like the environment around the club, and hasn’t been as happy at any of his clubs since – perhaps that’s contributed to his form.
In many ways, this unwanted out-of-form Beattie is reminiscent of when Sheffield United first signed him – he’d been pretty awful at Everton, coming off a season where he’d featured 35 times and scored twice, both penalties. He then proved to everyone during his spell at Bramall Lane that he could still do it. If he at last signs, he’ll need to prove himself once again and if he’s successful, he might make a huge difference to the season.
Written by Joe Clift, We Are Going Up’s Sheffield United blogger
Joe tweets at @josephclift