With United having had their festive programme decimated by Covid, manager Keith Millen spoke about what has been a frustrating period at his pre-Scunthorpe press conference on Thursday afternoon.
Speaking first about the call-off of the Boxing Day game against Rochdale, he said: “We picked up our first suspected cases on the Tuesday of that week and we immediately followed the right protocols.
“Anyone who had any symptoms was sent home, and booked in for a PCR test, and that started to happen a bit more on the Wednesday.
“Those who tested positive via PCR had to isolate for the seven days so for the Rochdale game, and with our injured players included, it meant we’d have a weakened team and just one substitute, along with a goalkeeper.
“There was no way I was going to go into a game like that. I wouldn’t go into any game like that. You can’t have just two subs.
“We found that with the numbers available through doing the protocols correctly it was impossible for us to field a team, or fill the bench.”
“The players we did have available included the likes of Lewi Bell, who hasn’t played too much for us this season, and Jack Ellis, who is still a youth second year,” he added. “They’ve both been around the first team environment, but not so much in terms of actual appearances.
“At that time we were training with 10 players plus those two lads, and it was like that for a few days.
“Obviously training has been difficult, but you do what you can. Initially, through the first batch of cases, we shut down for two days so that we could minimise the contact for everyone, until things became a bit clearer.
“We got back together after that and we trained in small groups of four, again to make sure we were being as careful as we could be.
“We told the players to come to the stadium already changed, so we weren’t allowing them into the dressing rooms, and we stopped them from coming into the building to eat, as they had been doing first thing each morning prior to this developing.
“They’ve also been leaving straight after training, so they were basically working in small groups away from each other.”
And on trying to manage the situation to get the group back as quickly as possible, he commented: “We’ve tested them daily and we’ve basically done everything we can to minimise the risk of more cases.
“By keeping them apart, and by isolating, we’re now at a point where hopefully we can get going again.
“We’ve been able to do more in training over the last couple of days so I don’t think we’ll have lost too much in terms of fitness. We feel ready now, and we can certainly fill a team and a bench.
“When games are called off and you know you aren’t playing you do tend to lose the intensity levels that were naturally there before the postponement happened.
“We’ve been really on top of the players over the last few days to make sure that the required focus is there.
“In a way it can be good to have a little break from it, that can be good mentally, but the flip side is that you have to be able to pick up and kick on.
“We’ve talked a lot about the Stevenage away game because we need to go into Saturday with the same approach.
“When you’ve won the last game you played you want to keep that momentum going, so the break hasn’t been ideal for us from that point of view.
“This is why I said at our last press conference that football should have had a break whilst all of this was going on.
“Some teams have possibly gone into games well under strength, or slightly weakened, and some teams will be sharper because they’ve missed one game but not the other.
“It goes against the whole concept of playing in a league to compete, because it isn’t really a level playing field.”
“I haven’t studied every game to say that’s definitely the case, or looked at what players have been fielded by clubs, but I have heard managers say that they’re nowhere near their full strength,” he continued.
“Obviously the Premier League gets a lot more coverage and they’re saying it all the time. All you can do is deal with it, and we feel that as of today we’re back, and we’re strong enough as a squad to go again and be competitive in the games coming up.”
But has the need to train in small groups around a disrupted festive fixture programme brought a sense of frustration?
“Having to train in small groups is frustrating for everyone,” he admitted. “The guidelines are changing all the time about what we can and can’t do.
“We have to be so flexible every morning, after the testing, so we can’t really prepare like I would want us to.
“You can’t prepare the week of training or pick the team for the next game because you have to wait until the test results come back to see how many you’ve got.
“We haven’t been doing our usual meetings, we’ve tried to do everything outside in the fresh air. Yeah, it’s frustrating, but we can’t let it affect us.
“We can still prepare well enough, and in the last few days we’ve got more players back training. When you’ve only got 10 or 12 players training, you’re very limited to what you can do.
“It’s the same for every club so we’ve just got to try and make the best of it and keep everyone fit and healthy.”
Does that mean it’s a green light for the Scunthorpe away game on Saturday?
“At the moment we’re really confident, but you can say that and next day it’s all changed on you!” he said. “Every day you test the players and you’re waiting for those results before you can really get going.
“Another one of our injured players has gone down with it, but that doesn’t affect us because he wasn’t available anyway.
“Joe Riley is the only one that’s been training this week from our group of six injuries, and he isn’t fully fit yet, but he’s certainly close to it.
“Medically he’s had the all-clear, and it’s good to have him pushing again. He’s trained all week and he’ll be part of the squad that travels this weekend.”