Sheffield United consider the implications of English football's response to the coronavirus crisis

Clubs including Sheffield United face the prospect of at least another six weeks without a game after a joint statement, issued on behalf of the Premier League, the Football Association and the English Football League, confirmed the suspension of the fixture programme had been extended because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Thursday, 19th March 2020, 5:01 pm
Updated Thursday, 19th March 2020, 5:10 pm

James Shield, The Star’s United writer, examines what this means for Chris Wilder’s side, their supporters, and the game in general.

What the governing bodies said: After initially calling a halt to games until April 4, it has now been agreed that English football will remain in lockdown until “no earlier than the 30 April.” That will be 48 days after the blanket postponement was first imposed. “The FA, Premier League, EFL and women’s professional game, together with the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) and LMA (League Managers’ Association), understand we are in unprecedented times and our thoughts are with everyone affected by COVID-19,” the statement, published today, said. Crucially, it also contained a commitment to “finding ways of resuming the 2019/20 football season and ensuring all domestic and European club league and cup matches are played as soon as it is safe and possible to do so.” This came after some figures within the sport had proposed the campaign should be abandoned altogether, with football potentially starting afresh in August. That idea, for the time being at least, appears to be off the table.

What that means for United: Chris Wilder’s side are chasing European qualification on two fronts after climbing to seventh in the PL table and reaching the quarter-finals of the FA Cup before the game ground to a halt. Had last weekend’s match at Newcastle taken place, and had they won, they would have climbed to fifth and moved to within two points of fourth-placed Chelsea, who currently occupy the final Champions League berth. With Frank Lampard’s squad and fellow top six hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur and Wolverhampton Wanderers still to visit South Yorkshire, United have a great chance of securing a place in either UEFA’s showpiece club competition or the Europa League providing they can maintain their present form when they eventually return to action.

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What happened at the meeting: After the EFL discussed the situation on Tuesday, representatives of the country’s leading 20 clubs, United included, held a teleconference of their own 24 hours later. During this meeting, a number of options about how to proceed in light of the growing health crisis were explored. However, in light of recent government advice about how to try and limit contagion, extending the suspension of the fixture calendar was a fait accompli. Although there had been calls for the campaign to be written-off completely, UEFA’s decision to move this summer’s European Championships back by 12 months created a window for PL and EFL members to try and fulfil their remaining games. But with the FA’s own rules and regulations stating that "the season shall terminate not later than the 1 June" and "each competition shall, within the limit laid down by The FA, determine the length of its own playing season", special dispensation was still required in order to take advantage of this opportunity. That has now been granted.

What was needed for that to take place: Permission to “indefinitely” extend the season’s timeframe was given by the FA Board. It’s non-executive chairman is Greg Clarke, previously chairman of the EFL and Leicester City. Mark Bullingham, whose CV includes work with the America’s Cup yachting event, serves as the board’s chief executive officer. Other members include Rick Parry, once of Liverpool who now represents the EFL, legal expert Peter McCormick MBE, Jack Pearce from the National League and Sussex FA and Sue Hough MBE. Curiously, a week ago, Clarke expressed his personal fears that the season would prove impossible to complete.

What United said during the meeting and who represented them: Steve Bettis, United’s chief executive, is understood to have headed the Bramall Lane delegation. As The Star revealed on Wednesday, officials from Bramall Lane had decided it was wise to adopt a neutral stance, preferring to listen and then weigh-up all the arguments before taking a view on how they should proceed rather than approaching the negotiating table with any preconceived ideas. Privately, it would be a major surprise, given the position Wilder’s squad are in, if United had not been advocates of finishing the campaign. Qualifying for the Champions League proper would, for example, guarantee them a windfall of nearly 16m euros, with every win in the group stage worth nearly 3m euros apiece. United’s stance was shaped during talks between Bettis and members of United’s hierarchy, including owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Musa’ad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

What happens now: On the face of it, clubs will prepare to return to action at the end of next month. But this date is by no means set in stone. If the health situation deteriorates, it could be put back again. The PL and English football’s other major stakeholders will review the situation again over the coming weeks. “The progress of COVID-19 remains unclear and we can reassure everyone the health and welfare of players, staff and supporters are our priority,” the penultimate paragraph of the statement read. “We will continue to follow government advice and work collaboratively to keep the situation under review and explore all options available to find ways of resuming the season when the conditions allow.”

Sheffield United will not be returning to action for over a month due to coronavirus : Simon Bellis/Sportimage

What happens elsewhere: Although PL clubs are, to some extent, protected against the worst of the crisis by virtue of their huge solidarity payments, others lower down the pyramid are not. There are very real concerns that many could be forced out of business following the loss of matchday revenues, sponsorship and other associated costs. Barnet placed their non-playing staff on notice of redundancy earlier this week while United defender Enda Stevens had contributed to a crisis fund aimed at helping those working in the League of Ireland who have been affected. Stevens started his career in that competition with University College Dublin. It will also be interesting to see if staff working in non-footballing roles for teams in the PL and the Championship are afforded the same protection rights as those around their senior, development and youth squads. Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish has already reassured those at Selhurst Park he will be paying their wages, together with those of casual matchday workers, in full and that anyone diagnosed with coronavirus will continue to receive their salaries rather than being given statutory sick pay.

What matches are left: United have played one less than many of those around them in the PL rankings. They had also been due to face Arsenal in the last eight of the FA Cup this weekend. Of the 10 remaining on their schedule in the league, six are against opponents in the top half of the table. Three of those are at home, while Mikel Arteta’s side must also visit South Yorkshire. The joint statement confirmed the commitment to “finding ways” of completing the fixture programme also extended to domestic and European cup matches.

A passenger, wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure against covid-19, passes a sign alerting travellers to changes in TfL services, at Embankment Underground Station in London: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images
Sheffield United owner HRH Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud © BLADES SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY
Sheffield United's chief executive Steve Bettis (R) with manager Chris Wilder (C): Simon Bellis/Sportimage