Meeting the man who is simply there to listen for Sheffield United's players

Towards the end of last month, when the nation was placed into lockdown because of the coronavirus crisis, Delroy Hall began composing a letter to one member of Sheffield United’s first team squad.

Sunday, 12th April 2020, 4:45 pm

A second quickly followed. And then another after that. In fact, by the time he put down his ballpoint, around 30 handwritten notes were signed, sealed and ready to be delivered by first class post.

“I’ve always liked to do it,” Hall says, “If one of them is injured and out, let’s say, for three or four weeks, I’ll drop them a line because I think it’s important. For different reasons, with everything that is going on in the world at the moment, I’ve done lots of them during this period.”

Hall had planned to spend part of his Easter Monday strolling through the corridors of Bramall Lane, chatting with everyone he came across before doing the same at the Steelphalt Academy. But with the stadium deserted and the fixture calendar suspended due to the global pandemic, the 60-year-old is instead relying on pen and paper to keep in touch with Chris Wilder’s players, the manager himself and anyone else he thinks might be in need of a pick-me-up during the break in competition.

Hall isn’t a lifelong United supporter. He doesn’t mingle with the players because he enjoys the glamour which now surrounds Premier League football. Rather, admitting he is more interested in them as people than professional sportsmen, the 60-year-old from Leicester regards it as perhaps the most important aspect of his role as United’s official club chaplain.

“I think just being there if people want to talk, that’s the main thing,” Hall says, explaining the nuts and bolts of the job. “That’s what I think is possibly the biggest thing.

“When I first came here, I promised the footballers I wouldn’t intrude on their personal or their professional lives. I told Chris that I’d never been a manager and so I wouldn’t dream of commenting on that part of what he does. Basically, I just want to be there if someone wants a chat about anything, because I think everyone can benefit from having that.”

Although he is obviously happy to discuss matters of faith, Hall’s presence provides those under Wilder’s command with a valuable escape route from the often all-consuming pressure of professional sport. Dressing rooms, even in an era where folk are encouraged to discuss their feelings, can still be pretty unforgiving places where those searching for a friendly ear fear being seen as weak.

Sheffield United's club chaplain Delroy Hall before a Premier League fixture at Bramall Lane: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

Hall, whose CV also includes work as a pastor, lecturer and well-being counsellor, represents an invaluable link to the outside world and a source of honest, impartial advice.

Someone who can afford not to obsess about results and has no interest in questioning them about contract negotiations, formations or the choreography behind United’s 3-5-2 system which has been constantly picked apart and pored over since United’s promotion from the Championship.

“I’ve told all of them ‘You are obviously great players’, otherwise they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing,” Hall says. “But I am interested in them as human beings, because they have feelings and emotions the same as everybody else.

“There’s lots of money in football. There’s lots of pressure in football. But footballers are also people.

Sheffield United's players spend their professional lives in a highly pressurised environment: LINDSEY PARNABY/AFP via Getty Images

“They might be excellent at what they do on the pitch and in training. But they are also husbands, fathers, sons, daughters and friends with the same difficulties and feelings as us all.

“Often, because of the nature of the job they are in, they might not feel like talking to the people closest to them or even people involved with football. They do, though, just want a listening ear.”

“When I speak with one of them, I’ll often ask them a question,” Hall continues, elaborating on his point. “There’s four of them and I say I don’t want them to necessarily respond. They can just think about them.

“The first is how long do they think they’ve got left in the game? Another is are they making provisions for when that time comes to an end? There’s also one about are they watching out for their mates? Their real mates, that is. Because when they are footballers, there will be lots of people around them, lots of hangers-on if you like. But when they aren’t anymore, often it’s only the true friends who still want to be there around them.”

Sheffield United were seventh in the Premier League table and had reached the FA Cu quarter-finals before the fixture calendar was suspended: Robin Parker/Sportimage

Sander Berge, Panos Retsos and Chris Basham have all described in recent weeks how the Covid-19 pandemic has intruded upon their day to day routines; causing them to worry about their health of their loved ones even more than maintaining performances levels on the pitch as United, seventh in the table before the game went into lockdown, chased a place in Europe.

“That’s what I mean about them being the same as all of us,” Hall reminds. “Nobody, no matter what they do, can escape what is happening at the moment. We are all affected by it and we are all involved in it.”

Hall has spent three years with United after, by his own admission, being hoodwinked into the position.

“Alistair Beattie was my predecessor and when he left to take up a position with the British Army, he spoke to an ardent Blades fan but they said they were too busy to do it. They did, however, mention me.

“I’ve been in Sheffield since 1996. My parents were Windrush Generation and I’m from Leicester but I came here in the Nineties and I’ve settled. I love it here. But athletics was more my thing.

“I spoke to Alistair and he invited me to the ground for a match. Then, before I knew it, he was introducing me to everyone as the new club chaplain. I wasn’t on the radar but everyone has been so welcoming. I always joke that I’ve been here three years now and yet I still haven’t said ‘yes’ to the job.”

Chris Wilder, the Sheffield United manager, appreciates what Delroy Hall does for his players: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

From the pentacostal tradition, Hall sees parallels between the religious aspect of his life and what happens at United on matchday.

“Sheffield United feels like home, and I always think, when I’m at the games, that it’s a worship service. There’s singing and there’s chanting. Everyone gets involved. I love what I do and I love the people here.”

With public gatherings such as football games and church services prohibited by the social distancing guidelines introduced to try and limit the spread of coronavirus, Hall’s routine has changed.

“I don’t have the pressure of leading a congregation because of what’s happening. Usually, on a Monday, I like to go to the stadium and try and meet people there, just talk to them and say ‘hello’.

“Then, after that, I’ll make my way up to the training ground, around the time when the players are finishing training, and just make sure I’m there if any of them, the staff or the people who work there need me. I don’t push myself on them. But they know that I’m ready to talk to them or just to listen if they feel like it.

“But with things being different at the moment, I’m going to have and run and then do some planning for some things I’m trying to set up in my own life.”

There might also be some more notes to write.

“One of the things that will always stay with me is the day Chris Wilder asked me to come into his office for a chat,” Hall smiles. “I didn’t know what he wanted but he told me not to under-estimate the power of the letters I send to people when they are facing something and that they were always appreciated. Little things like that help to make everything feel worthwhile. Little things can mean a lot.”

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