Conversations at their training ground, where Paul Heckingbottom and his squad are set to gather for another round of fitness tests, will revolve around their opening day opponents and other key moments on the schedule. The secretary’s office is expected to be a hive of activity. The same as the communications department, where press releases must be typed and graphics constructed for use on the club’s social media channels.
Even the commercial department, which has invited local business leaders to a breakfast event designed to coincide with the moment, is going to get in on the act before returning to its office for a series of meetings and briefings to plot a course of action.
“There’s always something going on,” a former executive at Bramall Lane admitted last night. “But when the fixtures come out, everything slips into gear. It feels like ‘This is it. The countdown has started.’ And that’s right across the board.”
Once governed pretty loosely, with national and regional journalists receiving an early ‘heads up’ to help them prepare their stories, the EFL now plans its programmes in the utmost secrecy. A series of leaks, some containing accurate information and others not, recently convinced the organisation to keep them under wraps until 30 minutes or so before they are officially published. Accredited newspapers and websites can pay for the privilege of seeing them early. But, for the most part, they are reliant upon friendly officials to feed them little snippets before the big announcement. Competition rights-holders, who pay for preferential treatment, do get an early heads-up of course.
But what else happens, particularly at United, when they discover their timetable for the season? The answer, it transpires, is actually quite a lot.
“Obviously you know which teams you’re going to be coming up against, that’s already been decided,” the source continued. “But when you know when you’re going to be coming up against them, you can start to really plot your route through.
“I’ll give you an example. Most clubs these days use agencies to help them make their travel arrangements and the secretaries or secretary can get on with the job of making sure those get sorted out. Managers and coaches always have their favourite hotels and places they like to stay. It’s not superstition as such, although there’s a lot of that in football. But if something hasn’t worked out properly on a certain away day in the past, for whatever reason, then they might want to alter.
“Once you know where you are going to be on a given date, you can put those arrangements into place and make sure they get the things they want.”
The Star has discovered that United experienced difficulties en route to November’s clash with Nottingham Forest, when they arrived late at the City Ground because of traffic issues. Still under the stewardship of Slavisa Jokanovic - he would shortly be replaced by Heckingbottom - the Serb’s side went on to draw the midweek clash. But their experiences are thought to have prompted a change of approach when they returned, six months later, for the second leg of their ill-fated play-off semi-final.
“It’s not just the overnights that get sorted,” the source added. “There’s what are called ‘afternoon stopovers’ too, when you book into a hotel for lunch and then a sleep before heading off to a match.
“Those also need to get arranged as well. And when you know what’s going on, when you know your dates, you can begin sorting all of those out as well. The hotel you use for a short midweek trip might be different to the one you’d check into for an overnight stay.
“Clubs like to get all of that mapped out as quickly as they can.”
When the fixtures are released, the season always feels a lot closer. After what is fast becoming a traditionally slow start to the transfer window, United supporters will hope that spurs their team into life - encouraging them to begin finalising some of the deals they have been plotting since last month’s defeat in the play-off semi-finals. Talks with at least two targets are on-going, with one of those known to be a senior international who may or may not be sold later this summer. Another is thought to be a free agent who, after leaving his employers at the end of last term, has received offers from several second tier sides keen on acquiring his services.
The prior knowledge
With the Championship pausing in November, to prevent clubs being weakened by World Cup call-ups, United hope the knowledge they gained last season, when a series of postponements triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic meant they contested only one league game in nearly a month, will prove advantageous this time around.
“The manager can start writing up his schedules, deciding how to organise training sessions,” the source explained. “There might be a run of matches, for whatever reason, when he wants to do specific things and now, when you know what the fixtures look like, you can start arranging all of that.”
Other departments also study the programme closely, including those tasked with selling matchday packages and also the ground staff.
“The people looking after the pitch, they know if they’re going to need it ready for the first weekend or if they’re going to have a little bit more time,” the source said. “The people who do matchday programmes know when they’re going to be busy and when they can have time off. Catering can get ordered and hospitality sorted. Everyone is affected by this, and it’s when they really begin gearing up for what’s ahead.”