The issues facing Sheffield United - and the Premier League as a whole - due to coronavirus
The Star’s Sheffield United writer James Shield analyses how the coronavirus crisis could impact upon the club’s season after it was decided to postpone Premier League matches until April 4.
What has happened: The PL, in tandem with the English Football League, has decided no games will take place for at least a fortnight, when the situation will be reviewed. The announcement was made following an emergency meeting of all top-flight clubs, with those in the EFL following suit, convened when it emerged Arsenal’s head coach Mikel Arteta had contracted Covid-19.
Why this was necessary: With the Government refusing to call a halt to sporting events when Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation on Thursday - describing the coronavirus outbreak as the “greatest” health challenge of a generation - there was nothing to stop this weekend’s fixtures going ahead. “We are considering the question of banning major public events such as sporting fixtures,” Johnson said. “And the scientific advice, as we’ve said over the last couple of weeks, is that banning such events will have little effect on the spread but there’s also the issue of the burden that such events can place on public services.” That point, about the stress placed on ambulance and medical staff, could have come into the clubs’ thinking. But Arteta’s announcement meant Arsenal’s game against Brighton could not take place as planned, while it was also unlikely the Londoners would be able to face United in the last eight of the FA Cup next weekend. With other players and coaches being placed into self-isolation after reporting symptoms, the potential logistical problems of pressing ahead, coupled with public opposition, became apparent. There was a possibility a game could be called off minutes before kick-off if a case of Covid-19 was suspected in a dressing room. So it made more sense to simply call a halt and take stock.
Why The Blades have remained silent: Because, as one member of staff at Bramall Lane has admitted, the situation facing English football is almost without precedent. Although there have been delays to seasons in the past, the increasingly commercialisation of football in this country means the situation is now more complex than, say, in the early Sixties when bad weather forced numerous fixtures to be postponed. Officials at clubs affected are likely to be as confused about what happens next - and when that might happen - as everyone else. So United are likely to keep their counsel until the picture becomes clearer.
The problems caused: The season will, most likely, be extended. Shunting this summer’s European Championships back 12 months provides space on the calendar for this to happen. But there is no guarantee that football will resume on the date specified by the PL and the EFL. If the health crisis worsens, the hiatus is likely to be extended. If that does happen, the longer it goes on the more it raises the possibility that matches will be played behind closed doors or that the season is shelved altogether. And that, as discussed below, opens a whole new can of worms. Given the situation United find themselves in, it would also be unthinkable.
Other potential difficulties: Where do we start? Season ticket holders will have to be compensated if clubs are unable to complete their seasons although both the PL and EFL have stated it is their intention to fulfil all postponed fixtures. Broadcasters who have paid to cover matches could also be owed money. But their claims are unlikely to be viewed as sympathetically by the general public, who are often required to pay subscription fees to view footage. Then there is the issue about what happens to players whose contracts are due to expire this summer? Could they be required to take part in games anyway? The Professional Footballers’ Association has sought clarification on this matter. United, though, are not likely to be dragged into this debate because Wilder’s squad are all, for the most part, tied to long term deals. If the season is prolonged, it could also impact upon clubs’ summer friendly schedules. At PL level, these can be financially lucrative. One wonders, if the 2020/21 campaign is squeezed into a tighter window as a result, if there will be calls for the EFL Cup to be abolished or for top-flight sides to be excused from taking part?
How are Chris Wilder and the squad dealing with things: The halt to the season could not have come at a worse time for United’s manager and his players. Seventh in the table - only five points outside the Champions League places - they are unbeaten in their last six outings and have also reached the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. The winners of that competition qualify automatically for the Europa League. Wilder will be concerned the momentum his players have built up in recent weeks will be lost by the time they return to action. Whenever that might be. But they are powerless to do anything about this, other than potentially arrange behind closed doors training matches between themselves. The focus, for the time being at least, is on ensuring they protect themselves against the virus and, if one of their number does test positive, the contagion does not spread. Instructions about the importance of personal hygiene have been reissued while players are required to use a mobile phone application to provide details about their health and wellbeing before reporting for duty at the Steelphalt Academy.