Charles Green arrived at Bramall Lane in September 1995 and was appointed as Chief Executive by Manchester businessman Mike McDonald in February 1996, following the latter's takeover of the club. With McDonald making a number of laudable objectives to try and lift the Blades out of the doldrums; Green's job, as McDonald's man on the ground, was to make it happen. Green's appointment and involvement was sold as a positive thing for United. Presented as "a football man" thanks to his involvement as a professional player until injury ended his career and his focus switched to business.
What actually occurred over the next three years was a turnaround of fortunes on the pitch and the signing of relatively big name players for the Championship, but the rug was pulled from under it all before any tangible success was achieved.
The early days of Green's involvement saw Dave Bassett's reign as manager come to an end. With supporter discontent high, yet a recognition of what Bassett had achieved for the club, there were mixed emotions around Bramall Lane when Bassett left by mutual consent. That should have been that, but an agreed compensation package didn’t materialise as Bassett had expected and he later stated that an attempt to argue his case with Green led to the latter offering to sort it out in the car park, allegedly not the only time such managerial tactics were employed.
Under Bassett’s replacement, Howard Kendall, United went through a significant turnover of players as funds were provided to increase the quality of the squad. As United escaped relegation and the following season reached the play off final, the club seemed to be on the up, despite the last minute play off final defeat to Palace. However, little did the fans know the extent to which problems were bubbling away beneath the surface. Problems derived from over ambition at board level and some incredibly poor decision making by Green that would start to unravel in the following 18 months and beyond.
United continued to invest in well-known players; he return of former hero Brian Deane was presented as a coup for the club. Dean Saunders was also signed. With Jan Aage Fjortoft and Gareth Taylor already at the club, the Blades had an embarrassment of riches in terms of attacking quality. However it had come at an unsustainable price.
In the summer of 1998 Steve Bruce was appointed manager and was reportedly staggered at some of the salaries and contracts negotiated by Green. A fans forum was told that Saunders and Deane together were being paid more than Dave Bassett's entire squad of three years previous.
Deane himself has talked of how he tried to temper negotiations so the club didn’t end up with problems.
“I bought into what I was being told by the Chief Executive at the time (Charles Green) as to what they wanted to achieve at Sheffield United. I was really up for it. They even offered me a two year contract and I said, “Look, I’ll sign a one year contract and we will review it”.
I had been in the Premier League with Leeds on Premier League wages, although nothing like what they are today. It was a contract where I thought that if we aren’t promoted it is going to be hard for the club to be able to afford it in this division. At the time I was thinking that I really want to be here and if you’re telling me that we are going to build a team that is capable of going up and then competing in the Premier League, then I’m in for that. I’d seen Paul Merson go up to Middlesbrough, he was still at the peak of his powers, so they obviously had a plan and I wanted to do the same at United. “
Howard Kendall returned to Everton and in a surprising move Nigel Spackman, on United’s books as a player, was appointed as manager, his first managerial role. This is when things started to unravel. Following Spackman's appointment as manager Charles Green stated that the manager had signed a three year deal. However, rumours persisted that Spackman hadn't actually signed it. A playing contract remained in place, on more advantageous terms to the managerial contract and so the latter remained unsigned. Green was increasingly seen as untrustworthy by the fans.
Mounting financial losses led to player departures, alongside long term injuries to key players, this led to Spackman asking for funds for new players. Green's response was to sell £2.5m of players, claiming that this wouldn't affect the club's promotion prospects.
Fans increasingly believed that Green was interfering in team affairs. The persistent questioning on the matter was irritating Spackman and led to Mike McDonald issuing a statement refuting the rumours and saying a three hour meeting had been held to thrash out the issue. Maybe director involvement in team affairs is more common now and wouldn’t cause as much fuss. It wasn’t that outwardly common then and it was upsetting fans. It was as if Green believed his brief involvement in the game as a player made him qualified to be involved in what should be managerial duties. There are those who believe he had a say in picking the team, although this has never been proved.
During Green's reign as Chief Executive, several long-standing members of staff left Bramall Lane; including the club physio, kit man and several backroom staff. This built on rumours questioning who was managing these key team roles; Spackman or Green. Departing players talked of increased director involvement and team unrest as players were being "treated as pawns".
Green told the press that Utrecht had enquired after popular striker Gareth Taylor, to which Taylor responded that he knew nothing of it and was in the dark on the whole situation. In the end, interviews given by Spackman and a FC Utrecht spokesman suggested that a player would have to be leaving Bramall Lane, whether it Taylor or another saleable asset. It was something Spackman admitted he had little say over. Then Mike McDonald admitted that players would have to be sold to stave off financial suicide.
His argument was that the attendances were not high enough to support the squad size and wage bill. He suggested that he had been led to believe that crowds would increase with successful football and investment in the team, but it hadn’t happened. That risk taking was, apparently, the fans fault. This “financial suicide” that McDonald referred to was something he and Green had personally presided over. To take the phrase used by the chairman of another Yorkshire based club following their financial suicide, there was an element of them "living the dream".
At the end of the day McDonald was in it to make money and the decisions he and Green had implemented were losing money on a weekly basis, albeit with on-pitch success. Prior to buying United he had failed to achieve a takeover of his beloved Manchester City and this was an alternative chance to “invest” in football. He had even admitted United had been his choice, because they represented a better opportunity to make money.
Eventually things came to a head when Deane and Fjortoft were sold on the same day, with manager Spackman not even aware of the deal. He was aware Fjortoft may be on his way to Barnsley, but thought Deane was late for training until he spoke to him on the phone and found he was in Lisbon, heading for talks with Benfica. It was portrayed in the media as players wanting to leave, but Brian Deane recalls differently;
“There is a lot about leaving United that I still cannot get to the bottom of. There are some things that I am still in the dark about. When I heard that I had wanted to leave, I wondered where that came from. I never said that.”
Green was becoming increasingly irascible. Apparently challenged by then director (now majority shareholder) Kevin McCabe and others that they would be lynched if Deane and Fjortoft were sold on the same day, Green's response was to say he didn't give a damn and that he would sell Taylor as well. As further players criticised the McDonald/Green regime, including Fjortoft, the only thing the duo could do was resort to personal slurs. Fjortoft - scorer of 23 goals in 42 games was branded "lazy" and Fjortoft was quick to respond to with both anger and an eagerness to expose further “lies” of Green and McDonald.
Spackman eventually resigned shortly after this double blow of having his two best strikers sold without his knowledge. The striking duo's departure had been followed by the sale of Don Hutchison and the departure of Spackman's assistant Willie Donachie, who left for Manchester City. His departure was followed by more slurs from McDonald/Green; McDonald claiming Spackman’s appointment was one he was never 100% happy with despite his public positivity when those questioned his lack of experience at the time.
With United challenging for promotion to the Premier League and on a decent FA Cup run, fans could see the season unravelling. They had been sold a pup by McDonald and Green yet they were the ones who were apparently to blame. Fans chanted "Charles Green, he sells the team". They were right. He had built a team with signings he had made, on wages the club couldn’t afford and McDonald was unwilling to subsidise. In the end, under temporary manager Steve Thompson, United lost in the play offs and in the cup semi-final. A season that had promised much, had delivered some great games, but no end product.
"I am Chief Executive. I take the decisons and I live by them" was Green’s retort to criticism of his operations. In the end he died by them. His position becoming increasingly untenable, in March 1998, Green's role was "redefined" and moved away from team and management affairs; his removal from the club impossible at the time due to pro-McDonald factions on the board. His eventual resignation saw him receiving a payment in excess of £100,000 an amount that caused consternation and raised questions when highlighted by fans and shareholders at the AGM. He didn’t do badly for himself out of a relatively unsuccessful spell at Bramall Lane.
In between times new manager Steve Bruce had become increasingly vocal about the difficulty of doing his job, players were targeted but not signed, and existing players were sold. It was like managing with his hands tied behind his back. He was paying the price for previous gambles that hadn’t been given the chance to pay off. The plug pulled in panic. No-one can say whether United would have reached the Premier League if Deane, Fjortoft, Hutchison and others hadn’t been sold but, given the margins involved there must have been a good chance.
Charles Green is a much vilified figure at Bramall Lane. He may have just been a puppet for McDonald; he may have been the ultimate decision maker, guiding the investor. Either way the manner by which he went about his business won him few friends within the club, or with the fans.
Now, after a significant absence, Green is back in football with Rangers. The fans should treat his arrival with caution. What his role will be day-to-day remains to be seen. But the last thing Rangers need now is a man who takes risks, a man who panics when the risks don’t pay off and a man who fans doubt they can trust.
If you want to know more about Green’s time at United and the various boardroom machinations over 30 years at a football club, I can recommend Fit & Proper:Conflicts & Conscience in an English Football Club. A real eye opening book, whether you are a Blades fan or not. I am indebted to the book for reminding me of the timeline and key events.