Sheffield United's caretaker manager identifies one troubling consequence of playing behind closed doors as fans prepare to return

As Sheffield United supporters prepare to make their long-awaited returns to Bramall Lane, Paul Heckingbottom has identified one unintended consequence of the decision to stage matches behind closed doors during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thursday, 6th May 2021, 5:10 pm

Speaking ahead of Saturday’s Premier League fixture against Crystal Palace, United’s penultimate home fixture of the season, the club’s interim manager complained football has become less tolerant of physicality and aggression since turnstiles were closed 14 months ago.

“With no fans and now VAR (video assistant referees) I think it’s starting to be refereed differently now, and we are beginning to tolerate things that I don’t think we should be tolerating,” Heckingbottom said, suggesting simulation and feigning injury are becoming more prevalent. “Taat, for me, is a real shame because there’s lots going on now that, from a personal perspective and I’m sure many others will agree, I don’t think we want creeping in.

“Referees are influenced by fans every bit as much as players are, and I don’t mean that in a bad way.

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Sheffield United's Interim manager Paul Heckingbottom: JUSTIN SETTERFIELD/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

“We don’t want things to become sterile. We have to be really careful about where we are going.”

Given the financial advantages established Premier League teams enjoy over sides such as United, whose relegation has already been confirmed, the fashion for protecting world class players, which reduces contests to battles of pure footballing ability, is a greater issue for those at the bottom of the division than the top.

Chis Wilder, who parted company with United in April after twice leading them to promotion, also frequently warned against allowing the sport to become too sanitised.

Echoing those sentiments, Heckingbottom, who was placed in interim charge following Wilder’s exit, said: “There’s all sorts of reasons why I can’t wait to see the supporters back and that’s one of them.”

Barring any unforeseen changes in the national health figures, United expect to allow a limited number of fans back into Bramall Lane when Burnley visit South Yorkshire later this month.

"I can’t wait,” Heckingbottom said. “I don’t know what sort of reaction we’ll get but hopefully it’s a good one because, despite everything that’s happened recently, these players have broughyt so much to the club and I think people are just excited to be back.”