Yes, they suffered one small set-back but Sheffield United proved their worth during the Premier League's 'Project Restart' negotiations
Sheffield United should regard it as nothing more than a flesh wound - a minor injury sustained during a skirmish which broke out as they retreated from the theatre of conflict.
They might have lost the battle to prevent teams from using five substitutes during the remainder of the season. But when it came to ‘Project Restart’ - ensuring the campaign was completed rather than prematurely curtailed - Bramall Lane’s negotiation team and their like-minded allies certainly won the war.
Make no mistake, at the beginning of the fight to overcome coronavirus, they faced plenty of dissenting voices across the virtual conference table.
Thursday’s meeting, the latest in a series of summits designed to address issues arising from the decision to fulfil the fixture programme, ended in a small defeat for United - who are understood to have opposed calls to increase the number of replacements allowed in games. Rather than three, Chris Wilder and Dean Smith, his opposite number at Aston Villa, will now be permitted two more when their respective sides meet in the West Midlands on June 17. Ostensibly designed to protect players against injury as they face the prospect of competing once every four or so days, the move also favours those with deeper squads in the scramble to qualify for Europe. Seventh in the table - only five points behind fourth-placed Chelsea and with a game in hand on the Londoners - this will be a concern for Wilder and his coaching staff as, a little over 12 months after steering United out of the Championship, they attempt to make the supposedly impossible happen.
United, however, can still be satisfied with how they have acquitted themselves since the fixture calendar was suspended because of the health crisis in March. Proving the effectiveness of quiet yet assertive diplomacy combined with a carefully orchestrated social media strategy, Wilder, in tandem with chief executive Steve Bettis and chairman Prince Musa’ad bin Khalid bin Musa'ad bin Abdulrahman Al Saud have got pretty much everything they could have wanted out of the discussions between PL members, government ministers, representatives from the competition’s headquarters in London and also the Football Association. Despite initially adopting a “neutral stance” towards many of the issues raised, pledging to “listen to all the arguments before deciding a position”, United kept a low profile in public. Privately, though, they are known to have argued their case forcefully - whilst revealing their thoughts on many of the matters being deliberated through Instagram postings and Tweets. It was no coincidence, for example, that hours before the start of a meeting called to decide when or indeed if competition would resume, United published pictures of John Egan and George Baldock accompanied by captions revealing how they were “desperate” and “ready” to return to action.
There is, however, plenty of bargaining still to be done. And because the majority of it revolves around finance, positions surrounding how best to compensate media rights-holders for the losses they have incurred since English football was mothballed threaten to become increasingly entrenched.
With several overseas broadcasters thought to be already demanding a slice of the payments they made to screen PL games is handed back, domestic television and radio companies are understood to have adopted a more conciliatory position - with monies owed set to be repaid over a two season period. But the amount each club owes is likely to be decided by their final league position, meaning the higher United finish, the more they could be set to lose. It makes reaching either the Champions League or Europa League an even more attractive prospect, with entrance into the former guaranteeing a windfall of nearly £14m. Every group stage win and draw triggers further payments of £2.4m and £799,000 respectively. The framework PL members began to devise before kicking the subject into the short grass would see them reimburse rights-holders around £15.7m each - although that figure would rise to nearer £20m for those inside the top six.
Other matters yet to be decided include what will happen if the season is delayed further and, as those towards the foot of the rankings consider the possible implications of this, whether or not relegation would be enforced. Rick Parry, chairman of the English Football League, has warned denying teams the right to compete at the highest level would be a breach of previous agreements between the two organisations. If this problem arises, an weighted points per game solution would see Norwich City, Villa and AFC Bournemouth drop into the Championship.
United’s preparations for the visit to Villa were yesterday continuing at the club’s Steelphalt Academy training complex, where contact sessions resumed towards the end of last month. However a number of restrictions, regarding hygiene and social distancing, are still in place - together with a twice weekly testing programme designed to reveal if players or coaching staff are carrying the respiratory disease.
Wilder and his midfielder Ben Osborn have both gone on record to praise the work of United’s club doctors, whose advice has enabled United to comply with all the measures being implemented by the PL despite the size of their base in Shirecliffe.
Osborne, a summer signing from Nottingham Forest, insisted his colleagues felt “safer there” than visiting the supermarket or performing other everyday tasks.