James Shield: Are Sheffield United a select band of clubs in the Championship and Premier League who can be trusted?
Slipperier than Boris Johnson when it comes to facing tough questions in the Commons.
More machiavellian than those C-list celebs who complain about press intrusion after tipping off the paparazzi about their whereabouts.
Events over the past month or so have proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that some football clubs - probably most if they feel their interests are threatened - are capable of the type of duplicity which would put Dusan Popov to shame. (For those of you who have forgotten or didn’t really study modern history, he was the guy who spent the Second World War working for the top brass of both German and British military intelligence).
Sheffield United, unless something has escaped our notice, can probably claim the high ground on this occasion. Unlike some clubs in the Championship, and plenty in the top-flight, they haven’t tried to use the latest wave of Covid-19 to sweep through the country to manipulate the fixture schedule. But others have. And it threatens to have ramifications for our national sport long after Omicron and other parts of the Greek alphabet disappear from people’s everyday vocabularies.
Why? Because after being allowed to postpone league matches following coronavirus outbreaks rather than select untried and untested players - something which, unsurprisingly, they appeared happy enough to do in the FA Cup - it will shape the debates surrounding other controversial aspects of our national sport.
How can a manager or director, whose team has exploited the situation to their own advantage, now complain about an opponent taking a dive to win a match winning penalty without being greeted by fits of laughter? Is it now possible for naysayers such as myself to campaign against the farce that is VAR? After all, we’ve just spent the last four weeks or so being reminded that there are lots of people within the business who, going by both circumstantial evidence and the cleverly scripted testimony of their counterparts, are happy to bend the rules to suit.
The answer isn’t ‘no’. But it certainly makes things a damn sign more difficult when many of those you are trying to help have shown themselves to be dodgier than a Durango. Rather than pursuing excellence, they’re encouraging a race to the bottom. And that isn’t only not good enough. It’s a threat to something every reader of this column almost certainly holds dear.
Let’s not kid ourselves, United would almost certainly argue the earth is flat if it furthered their own interests. But in this instance, as they face a gruelling period of nine matches in only 32 days, they are the victims. Not every contest they’ve either been forced to rearrange or are yet to reschedule was delayed for nefarious purposes. But I’d be prepared to wager a pretty tidy sum that, if every conversation and WhatsApp message exchanged between some of their future opponents are ever made public, some were.
Of course, even if what we all know is ever accepted by the authorities, there won’t be any punishment. Well, a minnow from League Two might get held to account by the EFL. But those members with some clout? I wouldn’t hold your breath. The lack of leadership over this issue, which has created the impression of a ‘Who shouts loudest wins’ free-for-all, is quite simply staggering.
The governing bodies, by delaying certain legal cases and investigations into accounting mistakes or instances of financial wrongdoing, clearly have an aversion to allowing anything other than results to deciding the outcome of a campaign.
But when it comes to coronavirus, they seem to be turning a blind eye. Because, although United manager Paul Heckingbottom is doing his best to put a positive slant on things, make no mistake whatsoever: He and some of his counterparts elsewhere in the country, who have tried to do the right thing, are going to be inconvenienced at pivotal stages of their respective races for promotion or relegation. Because prize money is at stake, and lots of teams are living hand to mouth, even those whose sides are simply existing in mid-table have reason to complain.
Will those responsible for some of the sharp practice we all know we’re witnessing look those low paid members of staff in admin positions who might lose their jobs as a result in the eye and apologise? Or even give them a second thought if owners are forced to cut their costs because of a £100,000 or so shortfall? Plenty won’t even give them a second thought. Because they’re selfish and myopic. They only see the game through the prism of on-the-pitch outcomes and finishing positions. The only time they give its context in wider society and civic responsibilities any consideration is when they’ll get some PR brownie points for doing so.
Around a year-and-a-half ago, when competition returned following the first national lockdown, I remember writing that players who hadn’t been available for selection when matches were supposed to have been contested shouldn’t be allowed to take part when they were eventually staged. I was shouted down by most on social media. The fact the idea now appears to be gaining traction, or at least popular support, suggests many supporters think football has become a moral cesspit.
They’re right. And that does not bode well. Either commercially or even more importantly, when those in positions of power are required to try and rally the populous in times of trouble.