Welcome to the new normal - what Sheffield United will have to do before kick-off at Aston Villa
Earlier this week, as Sheffield United finalised their preparations for the visit to Villa Park, Chris Wilder gathered his players in a circle on one of the training pitches at Shirecliffe and began issuing an important set of pre-match instructions.
They focused not on what to expect during a Premier League fixture, which marks the competition’s return to action following a three month break. Rather it was events before and after the game - the first to be staged in England since the Covid-19 pandemic - Wilder wanted to discuss with his squad.
Football is back. But, with social distancing and hygiene measures still in place, not quite as we know it.
“We understand we’re changing in a big media room down there,” Wilder said ahead of tomorrow’s meeting with Aston Villa, which could see his team climb into fifth. “We’re not going to be in the actual dressing rooms so we’re going to have to adapt - just the same as people will have to when they come to our ground later on.
“All the details have been explained and distributed to everyone. The amount of staff meetings, so we can comply with the regulations, have been unprecedented.
“To be fair, a lot of people have probably been getting a little bit bored of them. But we have to have them so everyone, and I mean everyone, knows what’s going on.”
With supporters banned from attending games for the foreseeable future, the sight of four empty stands which would usually be swarming with more than 40,000 people will be the most obvious sign of the effect coronavirus has had on the national game. But others are set to become apparent hours before United begin their journey to the West Midlands. (Kick-off 6pm).
Wilder’s squad are scheduled to travel on three different coaches instead of their usual one, with senior management and those in the starting eleven separated from those set to perform more peripheral roles. Although they are not required to wear facemasks en route, United will be forced to follow a prescribed route - signposted by arrows and other markings - when they arrive at the stadium.
“We’ve got three buses going and the main actors will be on the first one so, when that gets to the ground and the lads get off, it’s not going to be too difficult to pick the team is it,” Wilder joked, before highlighting another problem United have been forced to tackle as they plot a course through the campaign. “We’ve got to try and make things as normal as possible and we’re pretty fortunate we’ve only got a few games left - probably three - where overnight stops are going to be needed because of the distances involved.
“Obviously hotels are shut but we’ve had guidance from the Premier League that some are still available and so we’ve done our health and safety checks on those. There’s been so much help from people who actually won’t be out there on the grass along the way, and I think it’s important we recognise what they’ve put in to all of this too.”
With only five points separating them from the Champions League qualification positions, Wilder felt it was important to brief his team on the ‘new normal’ to try and prevent the protocols from becoming a distraction during United’s 10 remaining PL games. A little over a year after being promoted, United are viewed as genuine contenders for a place in Europe next term - although Wilder, who took charge of a club languishing in the third tier when he was appointed four years ago, refused to contemplate the prospect of facing the likes of Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid during interviews with the regional and national media on Monday.
Representatives from Bramall Lane helped shape ‘Project Restart’ when top-flight clubs made a commitment to finishing the campaign last month but Wilder, despite making his feelings known publicly on a number of issues, insisted United had taken a back seat in those negotiations. Others who took a seat around the virtual conference table, however, insist nothing could be further from the truth.
“I didn’t really get asked my opinion,” Wilder smiled. “It’s like being the new kid at school isn’t it, trying to get through the first week without getting beaten up.
“When a young player comes into the changing room for the first team, you can always see them picking up their boots, messing around with them, putting them back in their bag again and them taking them back out.
“I always used to say - ‘Put your bloody boots down, start talking and man up!’ - that introduced them properly. Well, we just let the big boys get on with it, didn’t we.”
Those tasked with the responsibility of trying to deliver a top four finish have also been reminded about their behaviour away from the pitch too. With a twice weekly screening programme still in place, and anyone testing positive immediately entering a seven day quarantine, United want to avoid losing key members of their starting eleven for crucial contests.
“The amount of detail handed down by the Premier League, I’ve got to say, has been brilliant,” Wilder said. “Richard Garlick, its director of football, has been really good and so have our people as well.
“It’s not going to feel natural for players, when there’s a break in play, to stand two metres apart but they’ve had to adhere to it and they have. That’s shown in the really low numbers (of positive results) which have come back across the whole division.”
“I’ve had to get used, the same as everyone, to people sticking swabs down the back of my throat and nose. It’s not nice but it’s necessary and a small price to pay.
“It also underlines the attention to detail that every club has gone to to try and make sure all of this goes as smoothly as possible.”
Directives have also been issued to journalists covering the remainder of the season too. With numbers strictly limited - only 25 non-rights holders from the written press are permitted to attend fixtures - face coverings must be worn in all working areas while post-match briefings will be held via a teleconferencing facility. No food or drink will be provided, while the use of public transport has been advised against. Anyone who fails a temperature check will be denied entry.
Another adjustment United have had to make to their usual routine concerns Wilder’s pre-match team talks, which are now limited to 15 minutes.
“I’m sure the lads will be delighted,” he said. “Seriously, though there’s been enough detail in the build up and so it’s just reminders before we start.
“Yes, it’s going to be different - not going down the tunnel at one of the best grounds around, a really historic ground with a modern touch and that’s another thing we’ll have to adapt to.
“But I’d be gutted, absolutely gutted, if the lads needed me to motivate them for any game, let alone one like this.”