James Shield: After almost certainly costing them a place in Europe, Covid-19 means we must show Sheffield United some patience now

It was supposed to be ‘Freedom Day’. But really, on reflection, it wasn’t.

Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 5:10 pm

Well, not unless you’ve been double jabbed, have previously contracted Covid-19, are teetotal, don’t visit nightclubs or any other entertainment venues. Oh, haven’t become so consumed by the pandemic that you’re now prepared to forgo some of the civil liberties that, only two years ago, were considered sacrosanct by the overwhelming majority of people in this country. Things like the right to move around freely without carrying an ‘identity’ card or being governed by elected representatives - whether you agree with them or not - rather than scientists; many of whom, although I don’t doubt their intentions or grasp of their briefs,, are in danger of turning the UK into some sort of dystopian bio-security state. Within hours of the clock passing midnight on Monday, we discovered that rather than handing some of our freedoms back, the powers-that-be are planning on taking more away.

I’ve listened to the argument that Boris and the boffins are simply trying to frighten youngsters into getting vaccinated by threatening to introduce vaccine passports for nightclubs. Maybe so. But what I haven’t heard is an explanation, if sowing fear is now considered a legitimate tactic for our politicians to use, how they then stop huge swathes of the population being perpetually petrified? Because there isn’t one. Not a coherent one anyway. Just like there isn’t any sane reason why many of those supporting this ‘VP’ proposal previously used social media to lambast Johnson and his cronies for being slippery and duplicitous yet are seemingly content to trust them implicitly on this issue. Worse still, someone they only know as a talking herald of Newsnight or another hard news show. If Vladmir Putin, Alexander Lukashenko or Xi Jingping confessed to doing exactly the same thing, they’d be getting pretty het up about it, trust me.

I’m not an anti-vaxxer or a Covidiot. Far from it. Quite the opposite in fact. Nor, as regular readers of this column have probably grasped by now, a medic, Tory, UKIP’ista or extreme right-winger. Actually, make that right-wing of any shade or persuasion. But I do understand what the phrase ‘mission creep’ means and that immunologists and epidemiologists are experts in immunology and epidemiology, not society as a whole.

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Oh, and as well as realising that framing this debate about your right to bust a few moves on the dance floor is also ridiculous, I always try to consider the bigger picture. Something, trying to be charitable and fair for a moment, many of the specialists now being lauded as Christ-like figures on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, haven’t been asked to do.

That - considering the bigger picture - is something Slavisa Jokanovic, the Sheffield United manager, has spent the week doing after two positive cases were confirmed within his squad following a recent trip to Spain. Perhaps, on reflection, they should have stayed closer to home. Maybe played the second-half of last August’s aborted clash in Dundee? Then again, thanks to the pingdemic, that probably wouldn't have made the slightest difference. Viruses seldom recognise borders. They don’t carry travel documents and are quite happy to holiday in Scotland during one of the worst storms in recent years.

There’s no point in pretending this won’t affect the Serb’s efforts to ensure they are fully conversant with his strategies and tactics ahead of next month’s Championship opener against Birmingham City. It will.

With players forced to self-isolate while they should have been performing training ground drill after training ground drill, it also means Wednesday’s friendly against Doncaster Rovers will now be as much an exercise in gaining match fitness as rehearsing moves, formations and shapes. Even 72 hours later, when Norwich City visit South Yorkshire for United’s final warm-up game, that will still be a consideration.

Slavisa Jokanovic with his squad in Spain
Slavisa Jokanovic with his squad in Spain

And we can all remember how the first national lockdown - the one which convinced some folk that coronaviruses are the only issue in town - proved detrimental to United’s form during their first season in the top-flight under Chris Wilder. I’m still convinced, had the fixture schedule not been interrupted and the game forced to retreat behind closed doors, that they would have snatched the final place in Europe. Utterly convinced in fact.

Fortunately, the circumstances are a little different now. United, unlikely to be the only club whose preparations are undermined by Covid, entered ‘Project Restart’ looking totally overcooked having spent the best part of three months pounding their treadmills and pumping iron at home. Now, if anything, there is a danger they will be rare to medium when Birmingham City travel to Bramall Lane next month. And that, whilst being far from perfect, is probably preferable. At least they can build.

But it might also mean we have to show United a little patience at the beginning of a campaign during which, having just been relegated from the Premier League, they will be expected to challenge for an immediate return.

The same patience that comes in handy when you discuss politics with someone who is now prepared to sacrifice things they would have fought tooth and nail for a year ago because a doctor, who may or may not have very different principles to themselves, tells them it's necessary. And I say that as someone whose life has been touched by this disease and whose mother and nan were both nurses.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield
Prime Minister Boris Johnson: Yui Mok/PA Wire