Manchester United, Sheffield United and the case of Dean Henderson | Paul Doyle | Football


Manchester United have a clear opportunity to sabotage one of their closest rivals in the chase for Champions League qualification but it would belittle them to seize it. There has been a lot of talk about sporting integrity in recent months, sometimes to camouflage something more base, but the case of Dean Henderson is one where the spirit of the game leaves no doubt about the only respectable outcome.

Henderson has been on loan to Sheffield United since 2018, an initial season-long stint having been renewed last summer. The young goalkeeper was enjoying another excellent campaign until the Premier League was suspended on 13 March, the day after he turned 23.

The understanding up to that point had been that he would complete the season with Chris Wilder’s team, in which he has become a key component and earned an England call-up. But the shutdown has pushed the campaign beyond 30 June, the date on which the loan agreement expires. What happens now is yet to be decided.

The Premier League has given permission for clubs to prolong loan deals to cover the remainder of the campaign and the two clubs have been talking for weeks about Henderson’s immediate future. No agreement has been reached and unless they strike a deal, Henderson will return to Old Trafford in July.

He has the ability to succeed David de Gea, maybe as early as next season, but if he went back this term he would have to twiddle his thumbs in Manchester while his erstwhile teammates at Sheffield United tried to adapt to losing, for administrative reasons, a player on whom they had good grounds to rely.

The only sensible ambition for Wilder’s team at the start of this season was, as far as most onlookers were concerned, to stay in the Premier League. But they have been a thrilling blast of sunshine that has made fools of forecasters, not just participating in the Premier League but invigorating it by embodying all that is wholesome in team sport: collective intelligence, solidarity, dynamism and skill.

The Blades have played their way so far beyond predictions that when the season was paused they were two points behind Manchester United with a game in hand. If they beat Aston Villa when it resumes on 17 June, they will climb to fifth place before Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team kick another ball.

Wilder takes his team to Old Trafford on 24 June. The only match in which the Blades have conceded more than two goals this season was in November’s 3-3 draw with Solskjær’s side at Bramall Lane, when Simon Moore kept goal because Henderson was not allowed to play against his parent club.

The match at Old Trafford will obviously be important but whatever the result, Sheffield United have played their way into a position where they have a chance of finishing above Manchester United in their first season in the top flight for more than a decade.

Maybe that would be seen as embarrassing for Manchester United but if the impression were to be formed they were trying to take advantage of a pandemic-enforced lockdown to nobble their promoted rivals, that would be far more embarrassing.

Solskjær said in April his club’s financial health meant that, once the transfer window reopens, they could “exploit” the economic woes indirectly inflicted on other clubs by coronavirus. That was probably meant as a bland statement of the obvious rather than a proclamation of vulture tendencies. Solskjær did not suggest he was referring to unexpectedly interrupted loan deals. 

It could be the two Uniteds are sincerely and honourably trying to agree a fair price. Without knowing the nitty-gritty of the talks we can only hope the talented goalkeeper and Sheffield United get a go at finishing the job they have so admirably started.


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