Going behind the scenes during the strategy meetings responsible for shaping Sheffield United's approach to 'Project Restart'
Early on Monday morning, Sheffield United published a picture of George Baldock on one of their social media accounts.
It wasn’t the image – a stock photograph of the defender wearing the club’s striking white away kit – which grabbed the attention. It was the words alongside it. And the day it was posted. Neither the timing, nor the content, was an accident.
A couple of hours after Baldock appeared on United’s Twitter feed, declaring himself “One hundred per cent ready to play” and reminding that because he is a footballer, “I am chomping at the bit to get back”, representatives from England’s leading 20 teams gathered via videolink to discuss ‘Project Restart’.
Bramall Lane’s delegation, fronted by chief executive Steve Bettis and chairman Prince Musa’ad bin Khalid bin Musa’ad bin Abdulrahman Al Saud, had adopted a ‘open ears’ approach during previous meetings. But, aware that further procrastination could threaten plans to resume the season, they entered this week’s summit in more forthright fashion. Baldock’s quote, coupled with the decision to share it as Premier League officials fired-up their laptops, was designed to send a signal to their top-flight rivals that United want the fixture suspension to be lifted as soon as it is safe to do so.
Seventh in the table when the campaign was mothballed two months ago because of coronavirus, Chris Wilder and his squad welcomed the eventual outcome of this week’s vote, which saw PL members receive permission to step-up both the intensity and the frequency of their training programmes.
Numbers are still limited, with regular testing and screening required for those invited to take part, while social distancing protocols must still be adhered to both inside and out. But 10 weeks since staging its last round of games, elite level football in this country is edging closer towards a return; possibly on June 12, although leading figures within the sport are now suggesting June 19 might be a more realistic date.
Despite pledging to listen to all the arguments being put forward at the beginning of the crisis before reaching a position of their own, United have privately been waging a guerilla war against those who wanted to draw a line under the present campaign and start afresh next term of late.
The opening shots can be traced back to a series of interviews Wilder performed with regional journalists last month. Arguing it would “not be a good look” to continue negotiating new contracts with some of United’s leading stars while folk in wider society were either being furloughed or losing their jobs, the 52-year-old warned the “integrity” of the competition would also be damaged if anything other than actual results were used to decide final placings. Showing himself to be an excellent judge of the public’s sensibilities as well as a shrewd politician, Wilder ensured the battle lines were drawn. Not accompanied by great fanfare. But quietly, carefully and diplomatically.
It marked the start of a process which culminated with the publication of that Tweet 24 hours ago.
Although Bettis and to a lesser extent Prince Musa’ad bin Khalid have been the public face of United during negotiations about how best to tackle the issues created by the pandemic. But the two men, as Bettis recently acknowledged, have consulted Wilder and his coaching staff every step of the way. United’s club doctors, who are thought to have given their approval for small scale training sessions to resume before Bettis outlined his position earlier this week, have also shaped Bramall Lane’s response to suggestions the season should be abandoned. It has proved to be a remarkably effective strategy, based on scientific evidence, sporting reasoning and social responsibility – Bettis reminding that thousands of jobs could be threatened unless the industry survives in something like its present form during his own address to the media.
United’s attitude noticeably hardened last week, when several high-profile players expressed concerns about returning to action until a vaccine for the respiratory disease is discovered or contagion drops to negligible levels. Although the voices and the fears of people like Aaron Cresswell and Troy Deeney should not be ignored, the latter appeared to cross a line when he declared he wasn’t bothered about losing money if football remained in hibernation because “I’ve been broke before.”
The Watford striker’s desire to protect his family’s health is impossible to criticise. His five month old baby has breathing difficulties. But given that it would take him a lot longer to go bust than, say, a ticket office worker earning the minimum wage, some will argue Deeney’s comments failed to recognise the challenges faced by those with little or no savings to fall back on. Either way, Bettis and Wilder have definitely attempted to address these on several occasions of late, whilst confirming that any player who feels unsure about taking part in training will not be compelled to do so.
“We, as a club, employ something between six and seven hundred people,” Bettis reminded in his latest statement. “All of them rely on our club for income, so we have a responsibility to get back as soon as it is safe to do so.”
There are several more hurdles the PL must overcome before this term’s remaining 92 fixtures can be completed, with a spike in positive tests likely to force another delay or even an abandonment. Advice from government health experts could also change.
But the momentum appears to be with those, United included, laying the groundwork for a return to action next month.