The story of United Academy's return to training
Manchester United's Academy have pulled out all the stops to return to training at the club's Littleton Road facilities in Salford.
A great effort has taken place to enable the youngsters to prepare for the 2020/21 season, in safe and secure conditions, with the friendly campaign already under way.
Two large marquees have been set up at the venue, close to The Cliff, and staff are working around the clock to ensure each individual is cared for in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic.
"It was a long time off, which is unusual as a footballer or being involved in football," said head of first-team development Nicky Butt. "You don't get that much time off so you could feel a bit lost. But the support staff, people like Nick Cox, Dave Bushell, Tony Whelan, Andy Jordan, Steve Higham. All the people were doing unbelievable things to try to get the boys engaged in other sides of football and keep them busy.
“It was very hard for any youngster, and older people, in lockdown as well, to keep sane but especially with young people, to keep going and keep the mindset and focus that it was going to be six to nine months. It was difficult for the club but the support staff did an excellent job.
“I think what we do very well as a club is the support staff look after the players as human beings really, first and foremost. Younger people have ups and downs, still to this day now, and we've done an amazing job and it's something we're all very proud of. Now we're back on the grass, the older age-groups anyway, and you can see the kids are eager to get going again. We have to abide by the rules with the medical side, which we are doing, but it can be difficult at times. It's a joint-effort by everyone at the club and the setting up of the training ground has been amazing and a really big team effort.”
Academy operations manager Steve Higham knows only too well the level of planning that has gone into the return, and is continuing unabated as pre-season unfolds, which has naturally posed plenty of questions that needed answering.
"It's been a challenge," he told us. "That's fair to say but, with the support we've got, it's been something we've embraced and I think we've been quite successful in the preparation we've had. We're quite pleased with the outcome.
“It's been a meticulous level of planning but it's something we have taken in our stride. We have people helping the team get onto the pitch and we've managed to get to this level. It's safety-first for the players and staff - that has been integral with all the plans made during this return-to-play period."
Under-23s in friendly actionGallery
See 20 pics from the youngsters' pre-season fixture with Swindon...
For Jason Judge, the endeavour of so many unsung heroes in the background is worth it to see the smiles back on the young footballers' faces, once they have a ball at their feet.
"It was a long wait but for the facilities guys at GPS, we worked right through lockdown on reduced hours," he said. "There was maintenance and cleaning that still needing doing. It's so good to get them all back up and running. At the end of the day, it's football isn't it? They want to be playing football and it's good to be able to help them do that.
“The big thing is around the medical questionnaires and they've adapted well and we've had no non-compliances, as such. The key is not to have groups of people within the building - it's all to do with being out in the open and getting fresh air. So we've got two large 20 metre-plus marquees to enable them to socially distances and exercise, while being confident they are not on top of each other.
“It's still constantly changing and it's difficult following all of the guidance as it can be confusing. The Premier League have helped us with their guidance as they've been thorough and the difference is they went to each club's medical team for advice on how to approach it. They listened to the clubs as well. So, one of the first things we did, after speaking with Steve Higham, was producing a risk-assessment based on his preparation plan to make sure everything fitted in with the right guidance and to make sure everyone is safe.
“That is the whole driver for it - to make sure of the players and staff's safety.”
Player-care assistant Andy Jordan has managed to continue prioritising the wellbeing of the youngsters throughout what has been an unprecedented period for everybody associated with the club.
"We've been having to make judgement calls and starting to think about what is going to happen next," he told us. "It has literally been a whirlwind since March.
“We've made sure we're in the best position by thinking on our feet and outside the box but we're doing what we normally do on a day-to-day-basis, just making sure we're providing top-class service to these players, even if we're not together.
“They just love playing football and the fact that was taken away from them was really difficult. Some players from certain countries could not even leave their houses for a certain time, let alone jog or kick a ball. Every player within the Under-18s and Under-23s has had regular contact from one direction from the club and it's carried on all the way through.
“We're still doing online content with the players after the training sessions. It's just a short amount of time at Littleton Road but the days are still pretty busy with WebEx calls on top of the football content. Where the coaching staff normally have a lot of time for video analysis and everything else, it's not an option anymore. Literally, once the football content is done, it's time to go and we'll see you online in a couple of hours so it's just reducing face-to-face contact."
So many individuals have been involved in the whole process since the virus took hold in March and none could have foreseen the huge impact it has had on the sport.
Nonetheless, the way the club has reacted and adapted is something everybody associated with Manchester United should be proud of. The fact that the Academy players are back on the pitches, doing what they love and what we love watching, is something that can never be taken for granted. It is down to the hard work and innovation of people behind the scenes that this has been made possible again.
Get ready for next season. Our 2020/21 home and away kits are available now from United Direct.