James Shield: A warning for Sheffield United, more Covid-19 nonsense and why all eyes should be on the city's hierarchy
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And to some extent it’s true, as Aston Villa’s Dean Smith can testify. His side lost half of their opening 20 matches last term; the final one of those defeats coming against Sheffield United nine months ago. Despite finding themselves mired in the relegation zone for much of the year, Smith’s men stayed up and are now signing cheques for new players as if they’re going out of fashion. Admittedly, Villa were defeated in three and drew two of the final seven outings too but I suppose you could say they won when it mattered. Oh, and found themselves on the right end of some terrible officiating decisions too.
At United, who enter Sunday’s contest against Arsenal having lost three straight Premier League games, Wilder will be trotting out this old cliche too. Quite rightly so because, although recent results have been a disappointment, there appears nothing systemically wrong with the way they are performing.
Plus, as performances over the past 13 months or so remind us, we know they aren’t out of their depth at the highest level. What they’re having, although July’s ninth placed finish inevitably raised expectation levels, is exactly the sort of campaign they probably should be having when you consider the spending power of the division’s other member clubs.
Leeds’ outlay since being promoted is set to surpass the £80m mark while West Bromwich Albion and Fulham, who also came up, both benefited from parachute payments during their time in the Championship and therefore boast plenty of top-flight experience.
However, although there is no need to set the alarm bells ringing just yet, United can’t afford to slip too far off the pace. Not simply because of the mood it would create around Bramall Lane, but also because, if the reaction of government to a rise in Covid-19 cases is anything to go buy, there is good reason to think the 2020/21 fixture schedule could be set to be affected by the same type of disruption we saw during the 2019/20 calendar - when competition was suspended for three months.
Fortunately it was able to be completed because the European Championships were shifted but, now set in stone to be staged this summer, another lengthy lockdown would surely make the present programme impossible to complete. PL members met to discuss how they would react if faced with this Doomsday Scenario and what measures, including average points per game should a certain number take place, they would use to decide who finishes where.
United can not afford to rely on making a Villa type recovery themselves because their fate could be decided by number crunchers and statisticians rather than out on the pitch.
•Speaking of government, and the Orwellian state we now find ourselves living in thanks to its chaotic and increasingly nonsensical handling of the global pandemic, United supporters had every reason to feel incensed this week when the latest guidance on allowing supporters back into stadia, which I can only assume had been approved by Downing Street, was published.
Followers of non-elite clubs - tier seven and below - will be allowed to open their gates to up to 600 fans if they are drawn together in the FA Cup. But elite sides, those in National League North/South and above, can’t if they are paired.
Presumably, coronaviruses are so smart, they can differentiate between fans of rival sides. Not to mention, so sympathetic towards the financial plight of those clubs towards the bottom of the pyramid, that they would refuse to infect someone at Scarborough Athletic’s Flamingo Land Stadium but ravage the system of anyone who dares step within half a mile of Bramall Lane.
Those spending billions searching for a vaccine or insisting on stupid curfews have clearly missed a trick. Don’t bother with the drugs or fuss over pub opening times. Just tell everyone to deck themselves out in Athletic, Whitby Town or South Shields gear instead. We’ll all be as safe as houses.
I get why the authorities have made themselves look ridiculous. They’re worried, and quite rightly so, that smaller clubs will go bust and are trying to help by striking a balance, as we all must do, between the health of the economy and the nation’s well-being. But United’s home ground, due to its sheer scale alone, is surely better placed to ensure social distancing than, say Mariners Park?
So can someone please explain to me why United - and Sheffield Wednesday for that matter - still can’t play in front of crowds?
• Readers of this column will remember that, last week, I returned to one of my favourite (or should that be frustrating?) subjects - Sheffield’s failure to spread the message that it is the home of football as the world knows it today and, yes, commercially exploit that status by influencing funding policy and tourism trends.
Five days later, The Star carried an article detailing how Councillor Anne Murphy - one of the few people in a position of power who ‘gets it’ - is leading a campaign to prevent a historic establishment in Crosspool falling into the hands of property developers. The Plough, in case you were unaware, is where the original rules of the game were drafted and Hallam FC, the world’s second oldest club, was founded.
“It would be great if Sheffield looked at making it a World Heritage Site,” Cllr Murphy told our reporter. If politicians in the city really are serious about promoting Sheffield, if they truly respect its history, then there is simply no argument to be made for rejecting this plea. None whatsoever.