James Shield: Sheffield United, Covid-19 jabs and a revealing story from their visit to Fulham

Football in 2021 was all about zones.

Thursday, 6th January 2022, 5:00 pm

Not the type aficionados of the latest tactical trends talk about or have become a buzzword in coaching circles. No, the zones people talk about now concern where you can and can’t go in a stadium as clubs, with varying degrees of success judging by the farce that is the fixture schedule, attempt to prevent Covid-19 outbreaks within their squads. There’s red ones, which only those who have undergone more tests than a professor are allowed to enter. And amber ones as well. Probably a few more colours will soon appear on the matchday guide spectrum, as those tasked with trying to negotiate safe passage through the crisis come up with new and often unfathomable ways of trying to curb the spread of the virus.

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This year looks like being no different. Despite some encouraging data trends, the virus is still with us. Just like the lockdown hungry doom-mongers who think scientists should be allowed to govern rather than elected representatives.

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But whenever I read the instructions detailing some of the things supporters and journalists must adhere to in order to attend Championship games, it reminds me of a conversation with a colleague from the national media ahead of United’s win over Fulham last month. First, before describing it, let me set the scene.

Before entering Craven Cottage folk were required to produce a vaccine ‘passport’, confirming they’d had at least two doses. If not, then proof of a negative test result was necessary. Fair enough. Although I’m not a fan of the VP idea, London was the epicentre of the Omicron crisis at the time.

Upon entering the press room where we’d usually prepare for work, a steward informed me that access was limited. We could get refreshments there but were required to consume them elsewhere - either in our seats or on the crowded concourse beneath the main stand. Only during the post-game interviews would we be allowed to spend any length of time there; the idea being that it was reserved for members of the respective sides’ in-house media units, who would be coming into close contact with those players taking part in the contest.

Sheffield United beat Fulham at Craven Cottage in their last outing, with those watching required to show proof of their vaccination or Covid-19 status: David Klein / Sportimage

Now, as we all know, footballers aren’t always the most enthusiastic when it comes to getting jabbed. Which again, I’ve got no problems with. It’s their bodies. It’s their choice. The same as everyone else in the country. A country which, despite our many problems, thankfully isn’t one which makes things like this mandatory for the majority of the population. Well, at least not yet.

Anyway, inevitably, the latest variant of the coronavirus was the most talked about subject among the Fourth Estate beforehand.

“Have you had your booster yet?” my pal asked me. “Yes,” I replied. Which is when he made an interesting point.

The Star's Sheffield United writer James Shield

“Are these rules in place to protect them from us or protect us from them?” he asked, glancing towards the pitch where the warm-ups were now taking place. “It’s to keep us away from those guys but everyone I know in here has been jabbed at least twice. I don’t know the numbers but that’s probably not the case out there. So it seems a bit strange that people want to keep us away from them when, what they really should be asking is ‘Do you feel safe doing an interview with someone who hasn’t had their shots?’ That’s how I feel anyway.”

Okay, so we know you can still contract the virus even if you’ve been dosed up to the eyeballs. But you can understand where my good friend was coming from. (There’s a little clue about his identity, right there).

The footballers themselves are the most valuable and prized assets at every club where, quite correctly, everything is done to ensure their health and wellbeing. Sometimes, those whose job it is to do so overstep the mark, such as the guy who once asked me to step off a pavement inside the Etihad Stadium’s footprint because two Manchester City stars were walking more quickly behind. I refused, albeit politely, because they weren't in a rush, beautified beings or disabled in some way which would have made it difficult to get past. Is there any wonder some of those in the game end up getting a little bit above themselves?

Sheffield United manager Paul Heckingbottom and John Egan celebrate the win over Fulham in west London: David Klein / Sportimage

Players shouldn’t have to get vaccinated. But, as we enter the transfer window, one can’t help but wonder if those without genuine medical, religious or moral reasons still to accept their quota, aren’t going to shortly find they are at a disadvantage.

Talent and potential, both sporting and financial, will always decide who gets signed and who gets sold. But after seeing so many fixtures fall victim to the disease over the Christmas and New Year period, apparently because managers have enough players to pick from, surely clubs must think seriously about recruiting people - well, those in the rump of the ability pool at least - who haven’t received two shots? Particularly as so many people made so many sacrifices to ensure the Premier League and the English Football League not only got up and running as quickly as possible following the first wave of the pandemic and has been able to continue through the second and third.

Whatever happens, whatever your standpoint, it would surely be remiss of officials at places such as United, who through no fault of their own have been inconvenienced by the situation, not to check the vaccine status of potential new players before signing them. Oh and then taking a view, if a comparable fully jabbed alternative exists, whether or not they represent a more desirable option.