Meet the men responsible for driving Sheffield United through the Premier League season, to Villa Park and beyond
Alistair Bayliss admits it was a fair question. After all, he was driving Sheffield United’s players home from a pre-season friendly at the time.
The only trouble was, as they crossed one of the most exposed bridges in Scotland at the height of Storm Francis, the man responsible for ensuring Chris Wilder and his squad arrive on time for their matches felt, even though it sounded strange, he had no other choice.
“The manager asked me ‘What on earth are you doing going into the middle of the road?’ Well, that’s not quite how he put it but it was words to that effect,” Bayliss laughs, remembering United’s journey back to Edinburgh after facing their namesakes from Dundee during last month’s training camp in Scotland. “So I had to say ‘Trust me, I know what I’m doing.’ We were going right over the Friarton and, because I could feel the wind blowing us about, I didn’t fancy being close to the edge.”
Tomorrow, when United travel to Aston Villa for their latest Premier League fixture, the trip promises to be a little less eventful than the one they made from Tayside to Midlothian four weeks ago. Bayliss won’t be at the wheel either. Paul - “The first team’s regular driver” - will be tasked with ensuring they report for duty punctually and preferably without drama, ahead of the meeting with Dean Smith’s side. It is something Bayliss and his staff have been doing, to the absolute best of their abilities, for the past six and a bit seasons. United have been on a remarkable journey since his company became their official coach provider. And Bayliss Executive Travel have, quite literally, been responsible for steering it.
When United’s bus snakes its way through the entrance gates of Villa Park, all eyes will be on those who disembark ahead of what promises, given the hosts’ recent largesse in the transfer market, a very difficult assignment. The pre-game talk has focused on Wilder’s selections. The post-match chatter, depending on the result, is likely to centre on whether he got them wrong or right. What will definitely go unmentioned, though, is the work of Bayliss and his employees. It began over the weekend, with a telephone call to Villa’s security coordinator and then a recce of the ground.
“The lads do a lot more than just drive there and back,,” Bayliss explains, from his office near Deal. “They’ll make contact with the club we’re going to beforehand to make ourselves known to them and check on things like where they want us to come in, where they want us to park and other protocols. If it’s an overnight stop, whoever is driving will take a taxi from the hotel to take a look themselves and see if any problems might arise.”
Which sometimes they do.
“At Spurs last year, it’s always a bit weird going to their new ground because you park in a Sainsbury’s supermarket,” Bayliss continues. “Big John, who was on that one I think, had done the usual and spoken to their people. What they didn’t tell him was that they closed the road outside at a certain point. When the coach got there, it had to take a different route. The problem was, every corner it went around, the ground seemed to get further away. It’s one of the joys of the job.”
Although it seems a relatively minor part of the preparations, Wilder acknowledged a great deal of thought goes into how United arrive for fixtures - not least in the Covid-19 era, with social distancing and sanitisation guidelines requiring them to take three coaches rather than one and get changed in some unusual places before competing inside empty stadia.
“You’re racking your brain,” he acknowledges. “Because we’re going in three buses, do we mix it up a bit? Do we turn the music up at bit more? Seriously, think about it because the lead up is different.
“At Burnley the other day, we were getting changed in a marquee. We’ve been to Villa under this scenario before so there will be familiarity about what we’re going into, but it won’t be the dressing room.”
Bayliss regards it as his personal responsibility, and the responsibility of his drivers, to help United navigate a route through the uncertainty. Something which comes at a personal cost.
“Because we’re in the ‘bubble’ and all the players and the staff are tested twice a week, we are as well,” he says. “At the beginning, we were getting tested down here, where we are based in Kent, and sending the results back. Now, because you can’t get a test for love nor money down here, the lads are going up in a car twice a week to get tested with everyone else.”
“We’ve had a new bus for the club built,” Bayliss adds. “It’s amazing - hand stitched leather seats, wifi charging tables, SKY TV, Apple TV, a fully fitted kitchen and the sound system is like one you’d get in a club. We’ve also put hand sanitisers all over it now and there’s a fog machine that spreads out across the whole coach and sanitises everything.”
Being in such close proximity to Wilder and his players has enabled Bayliss, ‘Big John’ and their colleagues Paul and James to enjoy a front row view of some of the most memorable scenes in United’s recent history.
“There’s obviously times when discretion is everything,” he says, “There’s things you hear, you’d never repeat. I’ll always remember coming back to the ground after the Stoke game the season before last, when the lads had gone up, and seeing all the fans at the ground. The music was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think. It was a great experience, though, and you were so pleased for everyone on board because they’re top people who treat my guys like they’re one of them on trips.”