Sheffield United should reflect on the words of Daniel J. Boorstin, the American social theorist and former Congress Librarian, when planning for the forthcoming season. Because not only would it preempt many of the problems they are likely to face without taking steps to address the personnel issues Paul Heckingbottom has identified within his first team squad. Crucially, studying events during the previous campaign, particularly over Christmas and New Year, will help them navigate safe passage through a fixture schedule which contains a near month long break to accommodate this year’s World Cup.
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With the tournament in Qatar set to begin on November 21st, the top two tiers of English football will pause their calendars nine days earlier before the EFL’s flagship competition resumes on December 10. The hiatus mirrors the one United experienced midday through last term when, thanks to a spate of Covid-19 related postponements, they went nearly four weeks without contesting a match in the tournament. And their performances when they did eventually return to action, beginning with an insipid display at Derby County, betrayed the fact they were ill-prepared and quite possibly overcooked.
“We were getting ready for matches, building the workload up as you would and then finding out there wasn’t one,” Heckingbottom reflected, after United finally rediscovered their form with a win over Luton Town. “It wasn’t ideal. Far from it in fact. And if we’d have known, then we’d have done things differently. But we didn’t have a choice.”
As well having a detrimental effect upon their results, Heckingbottom also partly attributed the debilitating spate of injuries United subsequently suffered to their inaction throughout the festive period. Having commissioned an investigation into those fitness problems, the manager and his coaching staff will be able to use the data researchers collect when they deliver their findings to ensure there is no repeat this time around. Although conditions at United’s training complex in Shirecliffe are also thought to be a factor, with Heckingbottom petitioning the club’s hierarchy to improve them during the summer recess, the mistakes made back then will shape its agenda when the domestic game shuts down. Even though, he confessed, they were made inadvertently.
“If we’d have known what was going to happen then, yes, of course, we’d have changed things. But we didn’t know how the situation was going to pan out. We kept having people pull out on us at the last minute, which was far from ideal. There was nothing we could do about it, as frustrating as it was.”
With the normal rules pertaining to international call-ups set to apply once the group stages of FIFA 2022 have been completed, United could face an even longer break than the 26 day window shoehorned into the domestic programme depending upon who they are paired with when it cranks back into life. However that is unlikely, with only two players at Heckingbottom’s disposal hoping to travel to the Middle East. If Wales fail to qualify - they face either Scotland or Ukraine in a final eliminator shortly - then Rhys Norrington-Davies and Adam Davies, if he accepts their contract offer, will remain in South Yorkshire anyway. Neither John Fleck nor Oli McBurnie, who is still wearing a protective boot after fracturing a foot, have been included in Steve Clarke’s plans for the meeting with Oleksandr Petrakov’s side.
It remains to be seen if United will arrange a warm weather training camp or some behind closed doors friendlies when the World Cup is taking place. With all eyes set to be focused on Doha, commercial opportunities are set to be in short supply.
But United’s experiences midway through the previous campaign should help them to ensure that, however they arrange their timetable, they are in the best shape possible when competition resumes.
With no other club suffering the same level of disruption during the most recent wave of the pandemic, that could work to United’s advantage next season.
“We had a lot thrown at us back then,” said Heckingbottom. “A hell of a lot and, as I’ve made clear before, none of it was our fault and I think some of it might have been avoidable. Not all of them, but I’m not sure what was going on at some places.”
“It definitely had an effect on us,” he continued. “Looking back, you could see that. We wouldn’t have done some of the things we did. We might even have just told the lads to take a bit of a break if we’d have known, or just kept them ticking over.
“The thing was, we didn’t know and we couldn’t have known. It was beyond our control. But building up for games that then didn’t take place, it didn’t just take its toll physically. There was a mental aspect to it as well.”
Although United were able to shoehorn an FA Cup tie against Wolverhampton Wanderers in between their trips to Fulham and Pride Park, the defeat to Wayne Rooney’s side was followed by a draw with Preston North End. On the face of it, that wasn’t a bad return from a midweek outing at Deepdale. The only trouble was, United surrendered a two goal advantage despite facing opponents reduced to 10 men when Andrew Hughes saw red before the half-time interval.
“No excuses,” Stuart McCall, Heckingbottom’s assistant, said after the meeting with County, “But I thought you can tell the lads hadn’t been out there for a while, that they were coming off a long lay-off.”
The knowledge United gleaned during that period could, if utilised correctly, prove crucial during the upcoming campaign.