Wilder’s Blades return finally called off after 20 Middlesbrough Covid positives

Three hours after an impassioned public plea by Middlesbrough’s manager, Chris Wilder, the Football League finally agreed on Friday afternoon to postpone his side’s Championship match at Sheffield United, scheduled for Saturday lunchtime.

An alternately incandescent and bewildered Wilder had made plain his shock after the EFL declined initial requests by the Teesside club to call off the televised game. Boro had registered 19 positive Covid tests in the wake of their 2-1 win at Blackpool on Wednesday night.

Nine players and 10 staff members were affected, with seven of the nine senior professionals affected due to have been in Wilder’s starting XI at Bramall Lane. “It’s been the most difficult 48 hours of my 20-year managerial career,” he said. “We’ve been absolutely decimated by Covid.”

With two more players developing sore throats on Friday afternoon and a 20th positive test result recorded, the fixture eventually fell but Wilder, in charge of Sheffield United until last March, was earlier astonished when, he says, the EFL advised him to recall four loan players.

Two played a full 90 minutes for their clubs on Thursday night, Djed Spence appearing in Nottingham Forest’s 1-0 home Championship defeat against Huddersfield and Lewis Wing featuring for Sheffield Wednesday in their 5-0 League One thrashing at Sunderland.

“The blunt message we keep getting back from the EFL is: ‘You have an obligation to fulfil this fixture,’” said Wilder on Friday afternoon as he suggested that playing in South Yorkshire on Saturday would threaten the league’s integrity and player welfare, while exacerbating Covid’s spread.

“Apart from Covid we have four or five injuries and one boy who might last 30 minutes but the EFL want us to supplement our available players with the group out on loan. I can’t get my head around that. I’ll be making calls to Forest and Wednesday to see if we can have Djed Spence and Lewis Wing back to sit on the bench.”

Wilder claims the EFL advised him to recall loan players like Lewis Wing, who played for Sheffield Wednesday at Sunderland on Thursday.
Wilder claims the EFL advised him to recall loan players like Lewis Wing, who played for Sheffield Wednesday at Sunderland on Thursday. Photograph: Kevin Warburton/ProSports/Shutterstock

The away dugout would have been sparsely populated after key members of Wilder’s backroom staff, including his assistant, Alan Knill, the first-team coach, Matt Prestridge, and Kieran Scott, the director of football, tested positive along with three kit men, a sports scientist and a trio of performance analysts.

It would not have been the first return Wilder had wanted to the club he led from League One to the Premier League, played for and supported as a boy. He had never envisaged joking that he might be required to lay out the kit at Bramall Lane and even drive the team bus.

Since succeeding Neil Warnock at the Riverside in November, he has presided over a marked upturn in form with promotion-challenging Boro having won four of their past five games, climbing to fifth.

He remains adamant he was not crying wolf and insists he had been looking forward to the reunion with Paul Heckingbottom’s recently much improved Sheffield United, regarded by Wilder as potentially the strongest side in the Championship.

“I’m a man of integrity and a man of honesty,” Wilder said before the postponement. “I’ll play a game anywhere against anybody on a level playing field and I understand you can’t always play your best side. But we’ve been absolutely decimated. There’s been zero preparation.

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Thank you for your feedback.

“Our history as a club in the past two years shows we’ve had minimal Covid issues, our protocols are very tight, we’re not sloppy and we don’t cut corners, but this outbreak has ripped through us.

“It’s quite baffling that other games are being called off but we’re having to do our best, with hardly any staff or players, to prepare for a top game in the Championship live on Sky in front of 30,000 people.

“I’ve not seen anyone else have to recall anybody from loan. What will Public Health England [now UK Health Security Agency] say about this? There’s obviously an outbreak at our training ground. It’s incredibly confusing.”


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