Lockdowns, Restrictions and Postponements: The frustrations of Covid-19 in Youth Academy Football
By Tyla Crandon
The Covid-19 Pandemic has caused huge disruptions within the world of sport. Delaying or cancelling key sporting events, forced to play behind closed doors and the financial implications have all become a massive headache across the globe. But while all sport was able to continue at the senior level barring a few hiccups, youth football in England, particularly in the National League U19 Alliance, didn’t have the best luck in the 2020/21 season.
The Alliance, which has a total of 11 divisions within its system, represents youth players at the U19 level in which the teams, for the most part, are at the National League level. Leagues are split regionally and in some cases e.g. Oxford United, Luton Town etc. who play in the Football League, they will have their U19 sides play within The Alliance.
A big priority for teams in the Alliance is to grow and develop players participating in their divisions in the hope that they’ll become first-team players for their sides. However, Covid-19 put a quite a dent in those plans last season, with Boston United, at the time of writing, who feature in the NLFA North Division, only playing 1 game while Wrexham FC, playing in Division H, didn’t play a single match in the early stages of the last campaign.
During the second national lockdown of early November to early December 2020 caused the fixtures of non-elite football to be postponed, this includes matches within the Alliance which created further setbacks for the young players competing in the various divisions of National League youth football. Moreover, the postponement of the continuation of this season to the 17th of February at the earliest for some divisions, rather than its original 6th of January date means that managers of the U19 sides will at least get more time to evaluate their players, and see whether they are ready for the rest of the season.
‘Skeleton Training Programmes’ and Online Education
One such manager is Chelmsford City U19 boss Kirk Game, who were 6th in Division A of the Alliance with 9 points after 5 games played at the time of writing. Back in early December last year I spoke to him about the whole situation regarding Covid-19 and how the past few months, in particular, have affected his team both on and off the pitch.
“All of the footballers involved in the National Youth Alliance are associated with colleges as well. We try to see them as often as we can, trying to spread not only the football side of things but also they’re education, most difficult thing for these boys is to try to keep them engaged because they need to stay on top of their academics”.
“we had a lot of skeleton training programmes with all the lads, we were training only twice a week with no games as we normally train three times a week and the amount of time we get with them has had to come down, so I only get to see the boys on a Monday and a Friday for an hour session with the rest of the time they’ve got to try to get their academics done while not all of them are in class either”.
Chelmsford’s first game back after the second national lockdown was a home tie against Bishop’s Stortford, which they won 4-0. However, after this match, their next game against Aveley was disappointingly postponed, which would’ve been their last match before the Christmas break. But now that the restart of their season has been rearranged to the 3rd of March, an away clash against Concord Rangers, Mr Game had to use the time effectively in order to get the most out his players for the remainder of last season, both in their growth as footballers and in their academic studies.
‘It can’t be good not playing and not being part of a team’
Another manager I spoke to was Aldershot Town U19 Manager Ross McNeilly, The Shots U19 play in the NLFA South D and currently sit 3rd after 4 games played. His team has also experienced the frustrations of Covid-19, with just the previously mentioned 4 matches played so far this season due to countless amounts of postponements. Speaking about how the pandemic has affected his side in training and fitness, he said…
“keeping fit and keeping in shape, for the more disciplined ones this probably has been normal in trying to remain focused. Obviously it lacks that team spirit when doing this individually so that has a huge impact on social skills and mental health of young people, it’s something we’re aware of and something we’re trying to manage and help with throughout that period. It can’t be good not playing and not being part of a team”.
“One of the U19’s tested positive in the middle of November so we had to self-isolate in a group, so that was a challenge and it still goes on now. Just trying to manage that and trying to keep them ticking over as best as we can and as safe as possible”.
Aldershot Town’s last match was before the second national lockdown, a 3-1 away win against Hampton and Richmond Borough and no fixture can be scheduled in between the restart of early December and the Christmas break. Meaning that their next game against Oxford City will take place back in March 10th 2021.
Considering the Alliance had a four month break over the winter, the Aldershot Town U19 players must’ve found the isolated training and zoom meetings as preparation quite challenging to deal with while they waited for the season to restart.