The Saudi Prince who has helped lead Sheffield United to the top half of the Premier League has called for reform of the “ridiculous” VAR system and for the English League Cup to be scrapped.
Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz, who bought a stake in the Yorkshire side in 2013, also pledged not to overspend on transfer fees and wages despite his club’s surprise success this season, their first in England’s top flight in more than a decade.
Sheffield United were one of the favourites for relegation last summer, but are currently seventh in the table, ahead of the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.
While the club’s impressive form has been one of the stories of the season, it has also been dominated by controversy around the introduction of the VAR system, with Sheffield United among the sides who feel they have been on the receiving end of bad calls most often by the video referees’ rulings.
Prince Abdullah added his voice to those of fans and commentators who have criticised the practice of ruling out goals for marginal offsides, saying that while VAR is “here to stay”, its application needed to be reexamined.
“It is ridiculous now,” he said. “Before VAR maybe you would have five bad calls a game. Now, if you can get two, that’s a victory. But we have to find a way to make it efficient. If you can’t see it is offside with the naked eye, I think we should let it go. I think VAR has to be improved.”
On the issue of fixture congestion, the 54-year-old said that "too many games" were played in English football. He suggested that the League Cup, England's second club cup competition, would not be missed.
“I think maybe we can do without the Carabao Cup,” he said. “I predict the next World Cup [in Qatar in 2022] will be the best ever, because it is taking place in the winter, when players are still at their peak. For me, the Premier League is the best, but we have too many games, it is exhausting.”
In a wide-ranging conversation at the Leaders in Sport conference in Abu Dhabi, the multi-millionaire opened up about his passion for sport, saying he remembered fixture lists better than his own children's birthdays.
Sheffield United’s performances since August have effectively secured a second lucrative season in the world’s richest league, meaning another windfall of more than £100 million (Dh478m).
However, Prince Abdullah repeatedly said he would continue to run the club “responsibly” by looking to balance a squad with young players brought through the youth system with more highly-paid stars.
“Otherwise you will run a loss - and nobody wants that,” he said. “So it is always important to have people around you who will find a balance.
“Our philosophy is to invest in clubs that have good academies, improve academies, and give a chance to academy players. Big clubs, Manchester City and Liverpool, they always have to buy stars, and that’s a very expensive model. When you have a chance to have an [academy] player, it makes it much more efficient.
“The best managed clubs financially are the most successful in the world. I think when you own a sports club, the most important thing is to run it responsibly, not to overspend. You have to run a healthy institution.”
The Prince, a grandson of modern Saudi Arabia founder King Abdulaziz, said he had decided to follow his passion for sport following his success in the paper tissue business.
He said he could not afford a Premier League side and considered purchasing QPR, Leeds United and Cardiff City, before deciding on a 50 per cent stake in Sheffield United.
Then, the club was languishing in the third tier of English football but he said had been attracted to it after learning of its history, the passion of its supporters and Sheffield’s industrial heritage.
After becoming co-owner, he said Sheffield United would be back in the Premier League within five years. In the end, it would take six.
“That took a lot of time, a lot of money, a lot of effort, but also some luck,” he said. “I think without luck in sports it’s difficult to achieve success.
“It is not like owning a paper company or any other business. The club belongs to the fans, it affects the mood of the city, so you have to be responsible managing the club. Profit cannot be your only concern or worry, you have to think about making the team better and making the city proud.”
Last year, Prince Abdullah won a court battle to take full control of Sheffield United, following a fall out with Kevin McCabe, previously the other co-owner.
He spoke in Abu Dhabi only hours before it was confirmed that the UK courts had thrown out an appeal from McCabe, putting to an end uncertainty over the club's ownership.
He praised the role of manager Chris Wilder in Sheffield United's success, saying the club was "very lucky" to have him, but predicted the rest of this season and next season would be more difficult.
“The clubs that are very successful, they are clubs that are bigger than any coach, any president, any owner, any player,” he said. “We want Sheffield United to reflect that.
“We are very proud but the one thing I know about sports is that it is a very competitive industry. You always have to grow and it’s always a challenge to improve or even stay at the same level. I think the rest of this year and next year will be more difficult, but we will be ready, we are working hard.”
Speaking about his passion for sport, he revealed that he remembered the birthday of only one of his seven children – because it coincided with a famous victory for the San Francisco 49ers, his favourite American football team.
He refuses to travel on Saturdays or Sundays so that he can watch Premier League fixtures, often taking in two matches at the same time on different screens.
During his talk, he mistakenly called the film Jerry Maguire, the 1996 romantic comedy starring Tom Cruise which an early speaker had made reference to, Harry Maguire, the Manchester United and England defender.
“When I am in Los Angeles the first [Premier League] game starts at 4.30am,” he said. “I don’t need an alarm to wake up. I wake up at 2.30am, I go back to sleep, I wake up again, and by 3.30am I am all awake, ready to watch the game. It is always the happiest day of the week."