So far so good for Sheffield United, as Premier League football gears-up for June 17 return

It had threatened to be the bloodiest installment of the ‘Project Restart’ trilogy.

Thursday, 28th May 2020, 7:34 pm
Updated Thursday, 28th May 2020, 8:23 pm

The one where, after two relatively routine summits, delegates from its 20 member clubs tore themselves apart debating how best to complete the Premier League season.

But fears that vested interests would wreck the entire process appear to have been unfounded. More than two months after coronavirus forced the game into lockdown, it has been decided the campaign will resume on June 17.

Sheffield United, who were represented at today’s discussion by their chief executive Steve Bettis, are set to take part in the very first match. Against Aston Villa at Villa Park, it represents a change to their original programme. But after discovering that Newcastle will be next on his team’s agenda, Chris Wilder’s initial surge of anger quickly subsided. United’s manager, who argued it would damage the competition’s integrity if the fixture calendar was altered, received a WhatsApp message from Bettis reminding him the trip to the West Midlands is their game in hand. The schedule published in June, which should have seen United return to action in the North-East, was otherwise being preserved.

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Although his squad now has less than three weeks to get set for their clash with Villa, Wilder is confident United’s players will be mentally and physically prepared. Indeed the mood at the Steelphalt Academy, where they recently received the green light to begin contact training following a two month break, is said to have been upbeat when Bettis began passing on snippets of information about the progress of the meeting after taking his seat around the virtual conference table.

With a proposal to stage contests not only behind closed doors but also at neutral venues seemingly being scrapped, United have got almost everything they wanted out of the latest round of talks - which began on Tuesday before continuing 24 hours later. A proper framework has been devised and final placings, barring a dramatic sequence of events, will be decided by results not questionable ‘sporting merit’ calculations.

Not everyone, however, is delighted by the outcome. Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, expressed concerns the return of top-flight football could lead to a spike in the spread of a disease which some analysts claim, pointing to a rise in unexplained deaths, could have claimed nearly 60,000 lives in this country alone.

“I am concerned about any action that could inadvertently lead to the virus spreading,” he told LBC radio. “I know, human nature as it is, fans will turn up to see the coach arriving, to listen to the atmosphere - the players inside the stadium even though they’re not allowed in - and to see the coach leaving,” Khan continued. “Police and councils need to enforce the (social distancing) rules.”

Sheffield United's manager Chris Wilder and chief executive Steve Bettis (R): Scott Merrylees

Acknowledging the scheduling could yet change depending upon the nationwide health situation, Bettis’ counterpart at the PL quickly moved to address those fears. But in a statement released on his organisation’s website, Richard Masters admitted work still remained in order to demonstrate the relevant safety measures are in place. Further details on how games will be broadcast - with rights holders expected to screen the majority free to air - are set to be released shortly.

"Today we have provisionally agreed to resume the Premier League on Wednesday 17th June,” Masters said. “But this date cannot be confirmed until we have met all the safety requirements needed, as the health and welfare of all participants and supporters is our priority. Sadly, matches will have to take place without fans in stadiums, so we are pleased to have come up with a positive solution for supporters to be able to watch all the remaining 92 matches.”

"The Premier League and our clubs are proud to have incredibly passionate and loyal supporters,” Masters continued. “It is important to ensure as many people as possible can watch the matches at home. We will continue to work step-by-step and in consultation with all our stakeholders as we move towards resuming the 2019/20 season."

Seventh in the table only a season after being promoted from the Championship, United have plenty of incentive to hit the ground running. Victory over Villa, 48 hours before the first full round of games begins, would see them leapfrog Wolverhampton Wanderers and Manchester United into fifth - only two points behind fourth-placed Chelsea, who occupy the final Champions League qualification berth. Gaining entry into that competition - still in the FA Cup, United can also reach next term’s Europa League via their final finishing position or by winning that tournament - would guarantee a huge and welcome windfall for Bramall Lane’s hierarchy as they count the financial cost of the pandemic. Featuring in the group stages of the CL is worth at least £13.5m to those taking part, with every win generating another payment of £2.4m and draws being rewarded with payments of nearly £800,000.

Sheffield United have not played at Bramall Lane since March: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

For that reason, Wilder is pleased but not surprised every single player at his disposal has declared themselves available for selection when football resumes. United confirmed that no action would be taken against anyone who did not wish to compete until a vaccine for Covid-19 is discovered. But captain Billy Sharp and Simon Moore, Bramall Lane’s PFA representative, informed Wilder there was “unanimous” support for ‘Project Restart’ after canvassing opinion inside the dressing room. Elsewhere, Watford’s Troy Deeney and N’Golo Kante of Chelsea are among those with decisions to make now that a date has been set having expressed concerns about the situation. Deeney has revealed his young son suffers from breathing difficulties, which coupled with his ethnicity would make him particularly vulnerable to the disease. A twice weekly screening programme has been rolled-out across the PL, with eight positive tests reported during the first two rounds. United’s squad have so far all returned negative samples.

Although the most significant hurdles have been overcome, a number of issues remain apparently unresolved. They include what will happen if the season is not concluded as planned by the first week in August - with the FA Cup final set to be held later that month - and also the thorny subject of rebates to those television companies who have paid handsomely to broadcast live games.

There have also been reports that the police will demand certain high-profile fixtures are staged at neutral venues in return for relaxing their demand to impose them across the board. Proposed kick-off times include 6pm and 8pm slots for midweek matches, with those taking place on a Saturday and a Sunday beginning at 12.30pm and midday respectively. Friday and Monday night games are scheduled to kick-off at 8pm.

An important message:

Sheffield United will return to action on June 17: Simon Bellis/Sportimage

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