It took just 42 minutes of the restart for Sheffield United fans, players and media to feel rightly aggrieved when a remarkable failure of the supposedly-infallible Hawkeye technology cost them dearly in the first game back at Aston Villa.
The game’s flashpoint arrived when Villa goalkeeper Orjan Nyland caught Ollie Norwood’s cross and somehow stumbled over his own goalline, colliding with the post as he did so.
In real time, it looked close; replays showed the ball was well over the line in Nyland’s hands. Then-Blades boss Chris Wilder later joked, through gritted teeth, that Nyland was halfway into the Holte End. But referee Michael Oliver’s watch incredibly failed to buzz; VAR, the technology brought in to eradicate such failings, remarkably did not intervene.
United could only secure a point in the Midlands and felt aggrieved not to kick off Project Restart with all three. It seems like a lifetime ago but it’s worth remembering that victory at Villa Park would have actually sent the Blades above Manchester United in the table and into fifth place, with nine games of the season remaining.
As it happened, they won just three times post lockdown and eventually finished ninth. In their first season back in the Premier League in a dozen years, it was still a remarkable achievement to equal the club’s highest finish in its long and illustrious history.
But how tempting it is to wonder how different things could have been, but for that ‘occlusion’ of the Hawkeye technology. United may have still not lasted the pace in their unlikely push for Europe – the burnout they seemed to experience after the season restarted may have still happened.
But fatigue doesn’t seem to have as much effect on football teams that are winning games and a battling three points away at Villa may have been the catalyst for an even stronger finish. Chris Wilder may still be at Bramall Lane; United would surely not be facing up to life in the Championship again?
Hawkeye’s failure also had huge ramifications at the other end of the table, too; Villa survived by a single point with Bournemouth suffering relegation. That in turn would have had a knock-on effect on Aaron Ramsdale’s future; he’d likely not be a Blade now if the Cherries were still in the Premier League and who knows if he’d be in the England squad for the Euros?
Conversely, Villa probably wouldn’t have been able to attract former United targets such as Matty Cash and Ollie Watkins if they’d been a Championship club. Watkins scored 14 goals in his debut Premier League campaign for Villa as they finished mid-table, while United’s top-flight adventure ended as they were relegated back to the Premier League.
It's United’s very own version of the butterfly effect. All of the above may have happened anyway, of course, and we’ll never know for sure. But it’s also tempting to wonder, if the technology had done its job and Michael Oliver’s watch had buzzed, how different things might have been.