United’s director of football David Holdsworth spoke this week about the difficulties faced by the club through January, and into February, following what had been an unprecedented set of circumstances – through call-offs and covid suspensions – and with how pleased he was with how everybody pulled together when trying to deal with it.
“Everybody has a theory when they’re faced with questions about situations like this,” he said. “I think we’ve looked at this from our supporter’s point of view.
“What I will say in terms of where I sit with it is dealing in facts. I like Chris Beech. I like the way he is. He’s a good northern boy, proper morals. He’s worked incredibly hard under circumstances nobody else has had to work under.
“Other managers have mentioned that, and rightly so, it has affected everybody and it still is. But the facts of the matter are that nothing changed in terms of Chris’s preparation, his desire, his momentum in trying to promote, stimulate and to get it right.
“He’s a young manager that six weeks before Covid came about, everybody and his brother and sister and mother wanted Chris Beech tied down. And Chris Beech was tied down on a new contract.
“If things had changed dramatically off the pitch, or players had downed tools, or been a split in the dressing room, I would have known, because I’ve seen it happen before. When results aren’t going right, players don’t deliver the same performance, you get one or two creeping off.
“Players start texting you and you gain intel that things aren’t right. I can honestly say that hasn’t been the case. I’ve seen it with other managers and that’s not been the case.”
“And think about it, we’ve had the Beech Boys, we’ve had the social media stuff, and nothing has really changed. I was monitoring that every day, Chris knows that, I’ve got no problem with that. Whilst opinion might have changed because of results, we had to remain calm and reflective of the situation that he was facing.
“Gavin Skelton, Steve Collis, everybody’s been firm in their support of Chris, there’s not been one awkward situation where I’ve had to say why have you done that, can you do this. Of course we’re all searching for every three points, we wall want that.
“Chris didn’t change his method, the players slowly got a pulse back, you saw it when we were able to run the distances we needed to do. Supporters, are dying to come back, we’re dying for them to come back, it gives us more.
“But a reflection on that period of time, you had to use your common sense and deal with facts. Our club has big personality inside the dressing room, they’ve shown that, they’re together.”
“Without making up things just to protect people, Covid and the postponements came along and it cut us off at the knees,” he commented. “When we talk about facts – that’s absolute fact.
“The consequences were we couldn’t train, Nigel Clibbens had to speak to the EFL and he did everything he could to make sure we were conforming to the rules and regulations. The club was shut down, and if you’ve got the virus in there as well, it’s going to have an effect.
“We carried on trying to find solutions, and at times it’s been absolutely exhausting. Then you come back in, you get the weather, the game’s being called off, we travel halfway down a motorway and it’s called off, we’ve got nowhere to train, the pitch is frozen.
“Dave Mitchell’s doing his absolute best to help us, Nigel, the media, the staff are doing their best to help everybody, and one thing I can say is I’m proud of everybody at our football club, the way they dealt with things.
“After all of that you then have a losing run of games, the manager gets frustrated, the players are still recovering, and we were affected really badly as a club. It was horrible and it has been horrible.
“We had seen other clubs and players in situations of isolation, of mental struggle, and we’ve had to deal with many of those issues. We’ve had one of our youngest players who had full Covid, he’s probably still not recovered.
“I think our players deserve an unbelievable amount of respect, and so does the management, for getting through that spell. We’ve gone on a good run recently, it got halted on Tuesday night by a very good performance by a very good side who have ambitions of grandeur and of going up, but we’ve had to deal with more equations than Carol Vorderman.”
On the upper echelons of the club maintaining a silent approach through that period, he said: “There are two ways of thinking about it. I understand completely the supporters always want information. We had to remain calm and we had to make sure we weren’t going to have a knee-jerk reaction.
“I spoke to a chairman of another club and he said that our approach was absolutely bang on, because he felt they had got rid of a manager too soon. Who’s got a crystal ball in terms of support?
“There’s no way I was going to come out and give Chris the vote of confidence. No chance, there’s simply no point. We had and have very good confidence in him. I monitor everything every day, every week, every minute.
“The method wasn’t changing, the solutions were being looked at. He was trying to overcome what was probably the most difficult time in the world. And it was a struggle, no doubt about that. But six weeks prior to that, everybody was desperate for me to extend Chris’s contract in case he went to Fleetwood Town.
“Did he become a different manager, no, he was dealing with harder consequences and harder equations. By standing firm and loyal to people, you gain a lot of respect out of that, and it’s proved to be the case.
“Once that heartbeat came about again, we picked up results, we went on a good run, and we were in there with a fight, where at the start of the season if you’d said to me we’d have four games to go and we’d still be there, I think people would have been absolutely buzzing with that.
“Of course the situation was very difficult, but there was no way I was going to give a vote of confidence when he didn’t need one. He had our support, the chairman’s support, and inside the club we knew how hard he was working. Loyalty stands for a lot in this world sometimes.”
“He’s a manager and person who I think can continue to grow with us,” he added. “Would I have been more comfortable with Sam Allardyce in the building, or Joe Kinnear, or Jose Mourinho? No.
“They’d only deal with things in the same way. We’ve had to deal with more equations than anybody. We’ve lifted, upskilled, hard skills and soft skills inside people, we’ve had to deal with many players with Covid, you have to understand, this has never been done before.
“I’m proud of everybody at the club for getting through that period. We adopted a measured approach and we’ve come through it. We heard a lot of opinions but for us there wasn’t a decision to make.
“Do we need to evolve … I’m sure Chris will have learned a great deal this year. When we sit down and have a cup of coffee at the appropriate time, we can ask the questions about what we perhaps need to review.
“I certainly will be doing that. We’ve had good conversations regarding going forward, but we’re still at a time when we’ve still got something to play for. Right now we want to be rolling our sleeves up and showing a bit of passion.”
On whether or not long-Covid is proving to be an issue, he said: “I’ve mentioned before that I deal in facts, and I don’t know what that it. I’m not scientifically minded enough to say yes or no.
“After every training session we know how far people have run, sprinted, how far they’ve done in games. You look at players who are doing more because of the position they play. Over this period of time we knew at the beginning of our lifeline, when we’re looking for a pulse, we weren’t performing or running as far as we can.
“We do have numbers, magic numbers if you like, and when we got to that, results came back in. That’s a great thing to know, because it’s based on facts, not fiction or personal opinion.
“Once I saw we ran a certain distance in a certain game, I said to Chris that we had our pulse back. It was very difficult to judge players before that. What is long Covid? I don’t know.”