Sheffield United's Chris Wilder and Pep Guardiola if Manchester City give their thoughts on whether football should be continuing through lockdown
After watching his team lose six of its first seven games this season, Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder sounded surprised to be asked if he had given any thought to whether football should continue during the forthcoming lockdown.
“I’ve not really thought about it to be perfectly honest,” he told journalists who asked for his views on the nation’s latest response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced professional sport to be suspended earlier this year. “The only thing I’m thinking about is trying to affect my team. Maybe if you ask me in the next few days I might have an opinion on it.”
With Kyle Walker’s first-half goal condemning United to another defeat, this time against Manchester City yesterday lunchtime, no one was really surprised to learn that Wilder was choosing to focus on football rather than healthcare, economic and social policy over the weekend.
However, with City entering the top half of the the Premier League table thanks to the former United defender’s finish, Pep Guardiola had the luxury of being able to contemplate if pressing ahead with the campaign, while further restrictions on movement are placed on the rest of the country, would risk offending the public’s sensibilities - a public which, after being banned from entering stadia since March, is beginning to feel increasingly remote from their clubs.
“We don’t want to be different,” Guardiola said, suggesting he favours pausing the fixture schedule. “If pubs and restaurants have to close, we do not want to be different. But if we play, we have to play.”
“We have to follow what the PM says, because it is not a joke,” Guardiola, whose mother Dolors Sala Carrio succumbed to the virus in April, continued. “It is serious. If he says stay at home, then we must stay at home. If he says do something, then we have to do whatever that something is. We have to be conscious of the reality. If we stop we stop. If they decide we play because it is good for society, then we play.”
In many senses, top-flight football has been a model of how to continue with life in as normal a fashion as possible whilst still recognising the threat posed by a disease which is thought to have claimed more than a million lives worldwide. By introducing regular testing of players, holding media conferences via Zoom and effectively turning training complexes into hermetically sealed bubbles, only 42 positive results were returned from 11,195 procedures during the first eight rounds of swabbing. Perhaps the only false step clubs have made since being granted permission to resume competition was allowing players to travel abroad on holiday last summer rather than ordering them to stay at home. Journalists and support staff have been permitted to enter grounds, but only after undergoing temperature checks and upon successful completion of a health questionnaire. The wearing of face masks is also obligatory media rooms have been closed.
Oliver Dowden, the Culture Secretary, confirmed “elite level” sport will be permitted to continue during the lockdown, meaning United’s visit to Chelsea on Saturday is expected to go ahead as planned. Broadcasters and rights holders suffered crippling losses when the fixture programme was paused in March, with PL members fearing the collapse of the agreements they had negotiated both at home and overseas would wreck football’s economy.
A statement issued by the English Football League confirmed its own competitions are also subject to the exemption.
“The EFL notes the difficult decision taken by the Government in respect of the implementation of a ‘national lockdown’ from Thursday in response to the rising cases of Covid-19,” it read. “During this next phase it has been confirmed by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that elite sport will be able to continue...professional football has implemented some of the most stringent, robust and regularly reviewed protocols since the restart in June 2020 and our medical experts advice remains in place to fully adhere to these measures which are specifically designed to mitigate against the spread of the virus.”
Speaking earlier this year, when United and other PL clubs were granted permission to return to training, Wilder paid tribute to the work of their in-house doctors and other advisors - explaining how the measures they had put in place at the Steelphalt Academy had made everyone there feel safe.
“The doctors, I’ve got to say, have been magnificent,” he said. “To get the club up and running again, they’ve been part of it all the way through and I’ve got to say we wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.
“I always remind people that football clubs are about more than what happens on a Saturday afternoon. They’re about the people behind the scenes, who often don’t want or get a huge amount of publicity, but who play a huge part in ensuring everything we do is possible.”
Enda Stevens, the United wing-back, echoed that sentiment after revealing how players follow a special route around the complex in order to minimise contact with those outside of their social bubbles. United are also now required to travel to matches on at least two different coaches, with those in the matchday squad separated from others within the group.
“To be honest, it’s like walking through a maze,” he said, when United returned to work in May. “When we pull up in our cars, there is someone there telling us where to park and there’s a lot of distance between the vehicles. Then, in the prehab sessions, there’s only a certain number of people allowed in at any one time, and we have to walk through into different rooms following a certain route. It’s all very strict, but it’s good.”