Sheffield United finally confront 'inevitable' consequences of coronavirus

The Steelphalt Academy was virtually deserted on Thursday evening, save for a small band of contractors performing a deep cleanse of the facility.

Friday, 13th March 2020, 5:00 pm

Sheffield United have no reported cases of coronavirus. For the time being at least. But the decision to drown every surface at their training complex in disinfectant was the first real sign, after previously going about their business pretty much as normal, that things are now different.

Seven or so hours earlier, when he had sat down with journalists to preview his team’s visit to Premier League rivals Newcastle, Chris Wilder’s demeanor suggested he knew what was looming on the footballing horizon. The United manager always cuts a jovial figure during his pre-match briefings. But behind the smile, having canvassed opinions within the game, Wilder was clearly troubled. Reading between the lines, listening to his description of disruption as “inevitable”, one suspected he had already resigned himself to a postponement. Earlier this morning, following an emergency meeting of top-flight members, the competition was suspended until next month.

Although news of the shutdown was not publicly confirmed until 11am, UEFA’s lockdown of the Champions and Europa leagues meant the outcome of those talks was a fait accompli. Within minutes of that directive being issued via the governing body’s communications department, some outlets purporting to have the inside track on discussions which had yet to take place began jumping the gun and ‘exclusively’ revealing the shutdown would happen; safe in the knowledge that, 60 minutes later, they would be able to say ‘we told you so and we told you first.’

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But events in Nyon, coupled with the growing number of players and managers in this country announcing they are either suffering from Covid-19 or placing themselves into self-isolation meant, by the night before, the findings of the PL’s assessment of the situation were already obvious.

Certainly, with Mikel Arteta, whose Arsenal side were due to face United in the FA Cup quarter-finals next weekend, confirming he had tested positive, Wilder knew the night before that fixture would not be taking place as scheduled.

“In this unprecedented situation, we are working closely with our clubs, government, the FA and EFL, and can reassure everyone the health and welfare of players, staff and supporters are our priority,” Richard Masters, the PL’s chief executive, said when it emerged no games will take place until at least April 4.

The statement, relaying Masters’ words, revealed it is his organisation’s intention that all matches affected will be contested at a later date.

A general view of the big screen with an announcement from the NHS about hand washing during a Premier League match at Bramall Lane, Sheffield: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire.

“Despite the challenges, it is the Premier League’s aim is to reschedule the displaced fixtures, including those played by academy sides, when it is safe to do so,” its penultimate paragraph read.

That means United, seventh in the table only a season after being promoted, still expect the season to be completed. Wilder, whose side are challenging for Europe on two fronts, will be desperate for that to happen. Shifting the Euro 2020 tournament to next summer creates a window, not only in England but also across the continent, for that to happen.

Although he was bracing himself for the order to play behind closed doors, Wilder’s comments about the impact the health crisis would have on football proved remarkably prescient.

“I think it’s coming, definitely,” he told reporters, when asked to provide his thoughts on how the situation, later described by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the “worst health crisis in a generation”, might unfold. “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.”

Sheffield United had been due to play at St James' Park, Newcastle, this weekend: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire.

His task now, together with other members of the coaching staff and the first team squad themselves, is to ensure United remain sharp, focused and ready to return to action when, assuming everything goes to plan, business resumes next month.

Bramall Lane, the home of Sheffield United: Mike Egerton/PA Wire.