Manager reveals the steps The Blades are taking to keep their season on track as health crisis grows

Every weekday morning, before he kisses his wife goodbye and drives to work at the Steelphalt Academy, Chris Wilder fires up his laptop and searches for a very important email.

Thursday, 12th March 2020, 6:25 pm
Updated Thursday, 12th March 2020, 9:10 pm

It comes from Sheffield United’s first team doctor and provides up-to-the-minute details on the players’ health and well-being. Originally designed to ensure training schedules are not disrupted by injuries, the process now represents the frontline in Bramall Lane’s battle against coronavirus. Which, Wilder has admitted, threatens “inevitable” consequences for the remainder of the Premier League campaign.

“Yes, there’s systems in place,” he replied, after being asked by The Star if United are screening for the disease. “Before they come in, they have to fill out a form on-line about how they are feeling, if there’s any muscle soreness or issues like that. Then everything gets flagged up.

“I always receive an email, at about 8am, telling me where everybody is at. We get talked about as being pretty old fashioned here. But we are up to date and have our finger on the pulse, if you want to put it like that, from a modern technology point of view.”

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Seven days earlier, when the issue was raised before United’s win over Norwich City, Wilder had cut a cautiously relaxed figure as he discussed the possible effects of coronavirus on English football. One week later, as his team finalises its preparations for Saturday’s visit to Newcastle, the 52-year-old’s mood has changed. As the number of cases in the country continues to rise, there is a very real possibility that fixtures could soon take place behind closed doors. Swapping handshakes for fistbumps, Wilder expects the authorities to decide, no longer represents an appropriate response to the looming health crisis.

“I think it’s coming, definitely,” he said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if something happens for us at Newcastle on Saturday. I think it is inevitable and I think something will happen sooner rather than later. There’s a meeting and it’s coming, I think.

“The ramifications are incredible. You live in a football bubble and it has picked up speed so quickly. The ramifications are huge, in terms of what might happen.”

Although Wilder later admitted next weekend’s FA Cup quarter-final against Arsenal is more likely to be the first United game affected by any crowd control measures, the situation is clearly causing him grave concern ahead of a contest which, if his side avenges December’s defeat in South Yorkshire, will see them climb to fifth in the table. Only 11 months after being promoted from the Championship, a campaign which still promises so much for United could descend into chaos.

Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder speaking during his press conference at the Steelphalt Academy, Sheffield: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

In order to try and limit the disruption, United are understood to have performed a ‘deep clean’ of their training complex this evening, with members of their youth and age-level programmes instructed not to report for duty. The exercise was planned before it emerged Chelsea had taken similar precautions at their own base near Cobham and that three Leicester City players are now in isolation after displaying coronavirus symptoms.

“We get regular briefings through the Premier League,” Wilder said. “There’s a network that we’re all plugged into; from the chief executives, the managers and on to the doctors and the physios.

“We’re concerned as a football club and from a general health position for this city. We’ve been kept up to date by the chief executive and our medical staff. It’s hugely disappointing from a sporting point of view that behind closed doors games or whatever might happen.”

With United chasing European qualification on two fronts, it is a sign of how seriously Wilder is taking the situation that he would prefer the season to be suspended rather than compete in front of empty stands.

An empty St James' Park, where Sheffield United will face Newcastle this weekend: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.

“I don’t think the game is anything without the fans,” he said, acknowledging that was a big statement, given United’s position in the rankings, to make. “They are why we do what we do. We’re all in football for a reason but the biggest one is because of the buzz and the excitement that supporters bring.”

Enda Stevens, who has signed a new contract which ties him to United until 2023, will definitely miss their trip to the North-East after suffering a recurrence of the calf injury he sustained during last month’s draw with Brighton and Hove Albion. Ben Osborn, previously of Nottingham Forest, is expected to deputise for the wing-back at St James’ Park, where United are set to lock horns with opponents in 13th.

Newcastle are without goalkeeper Martin Dubravka (knee), with Karl Darlow set to take the Slovak’s place.

“We’d accept what the authorities above us and the experts on this virus say,” Wilder said. “And we’d respect that.

A man on the Jubilee line on the London Underground tube network wearing a protective facemask: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Wire

“As a football man, we want to see packed stadiums. We’re in a great position and going to Newcastle, which is another great environment, for our players. And we’ve enjoyed it as well.

“If there’s no punters in the stadium, for me that would be a huge blow. But if that is what happens, if it does come to that, then we’ll just get our heads down and get on with it.”

Enda Stevens signs a contract extension at Sheffield United: Simon Bellis/Sportimage