Lockdowns, Restrictions and Postponements: The frustrations of Covid-19 in Youth Academy Football in 2020

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The Covid-19 Pandemic caused huge disruptions within the world of sports in 2020 including the Olympic Games, Euros, Premier League season, Six Nations, Wimbledon, Cricket test series and the Open form part of an extensive list. Delaying or cancelling key sporting events, being 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 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, during the early stages of the 2020/21 campaign, who features 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.

The second national lockdown from 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, meant that managers of the U19 sides got more time to evaluate their players, and saw whether they are ready for the rest of the 2020/21 season.

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‘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 sat 3rd after 4 games played at the time. 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.

“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”.

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“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 between the restart of early December and the Christmas break. Meaning that their next game against Oxford City will take place back on 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.  

Final thoughts and what’s next for the Alliance?

After getting these two perspectives, it’s clear to see that youth academy football at the National League level was struggling in a variety of different ways. From the constant postponement of matches, trying to keep up to date with young player’s academics, as well as the mental and physical toll the pandemic must be taking on the players, managers and also the league organisers, who must’ve been wondering if things would ever go back to the normality they knew before Covid-19 pandemic began.

The Alliance has done what it can to adapt to the ‘new normal’ which has gripped the footballing world and has tried its best to organise as many matches as possible to go ahead, with the delayed restart hoping that the rate of infections will have slowed down. it’ll be intriguing to see how they will adapt further if such a global issue of this magnitude was to happen again.

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