Academy building.

The message underpinning Academy's lockdown plans

The one thing that struck me instantly when speaking to various members of Manchester United’s Academy staff was the overwhelming tone of positivity in dealing with a crisis that has rocked the world.

In my opinion, there has been a slowness to react in a wider sense and a profound lack of innovation in dealing with what has become the ‘new normal’, but this has not been the case with a department that has placed the well-being of its youngsters at the forefront of its thinking.

The club, as a whole, was quick to respond to the growing problem of COVID-19 with head of Academy Nick Cox and head of first-team development Nicky Butt setting up specific programmes that were adopted by the various age groups. With a clearly defined purpose, there was hopefully no time for feelings of isolation or worry to grow.

One of United's senior officials sent a message to us staff, relaying a theory of ‘dog days’ – ones where you spring out of bed, are ready to take on the world and can enjoy being with the family, where possible – and ‘cat days’ which are the opposite, ones that almost feel like you’re being imprisoned, missing your usual freedom.

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It was a perfect analogy and completely apt for how many of us have been feeling but the overriding sense of positivity coming out of the Academy staff suggests this was the best way to deal with lockdown. The claim the Chinese use a similar word for ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ may apparently be false but this can still be viewed as a chance for betterment and embracing some of the enforced changes.

From the moment plans were swiftly formulated to send many of the overseas players home, there has been a determination to make things as easy as possible for youngsters whose routine and way of life has been shattered. Never has there been a time when feeling part of a team must be so rewarding and this spirit is pervading the work being undertaken by those who clearly care deeply for their charges.

Academy player liaison officer Dave Bushell wanted regular phone-calls to the youngsters and their parents as the Academy decided to consider the best response to an unprecedented situation. “Right at the beginning, Nick sent an email out to everybody asking what we can do. I’ll tell you what, they were coming in left, right and centre. I spent a full weekend at the start reading the things the lads were suggesting. My only input was can we just ring them as well. We came up with all sorts of ideas and, of course, sometimes they can be difficult to action but it doesn’t really matter. Everyone is being really positive, all the coaches. Nick leads it well but all the coaches are doing some great stuff.”

A lot of administrative work was involved in ensuring the overseas players were able to get home, as the virus swept across the continent. Academy education manager Ian Smithson explained how the fast response to a fluid situation achieved this goal. “We had the consideration of the lads being in digs and we made those decisions very quickly,” he said. “We had to get them and it was quite a challenge. We got them back in the week before lockdown but the borders were closing. There are stories about one player having to go via Budapest to Slovakia and another travelling from Berlin to Poland. We had to speak to the Spanish embassy because they were in lockdown already but they were able to repatriate citizens. We were just so glad they went when they did because it would have got harder and harder.”

So what of the activities? There has been a bit of everything for the boys to get their teeth into, all with no obligation for the younger age groups. At the higher end, though, the physical training mirrors that of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s senior squad. “We’ve given the Under-18s some programmes to do at home, which are in line with the Under-23s and, more or less, like the first team,” explained Under-18s lead coach Neil Ryan. “It empowers them a little bit, to drive themselves to do that and give ownership of their work, which is not a bad thing for them. The Academy is offering fantastic support and the communication lines are strong.”

The 5k runs have proved popular across the board and there is a charitable approach to getting the lads out jogging and cycling. One of the challenges is replicating the number of miles (4,556) to Mumbai with each Academy player completing 26 miles over the course of a week. The Under-14s became the first United team ever to play a match in India earlier this year and it is hoped £1 can be raised for every mile covered to support the community out there. Donations are also being made to Ashton-on-Mersey, the school where the MANUSS project is hosted, and their bid to create PPE for frontline workers.

A breakfast club includes a work-out with Gabe Mellor, and yoga sessions have been put on for the Under-9s, with some of the staff joining in. Some of the youngsters have put together videos showing their skills and pretending to pass the ball on to the next colleague, or performed somersaults off trampolines before hitting a target.

Yet the mind is just as important as the body at times like this, something that was quickly recognised by the staff. Academy programme advisor Tony Whelan has helped create some ‘dead-hard’ quizzes based on United, football and general knowledge and the schoolboys have been taking part wearing fancy dress or football shirts. “It was a bit of fun interaction and great fun but I had to put everyone on mute for bit,” explained Eamon Mulvey, the head coach for the Foundation stage. “Everyone was wearing different daft hats and the kids seemed to enjoy it. It was really good to see the faces and how they’re dealing with the situation.”

Schoolwork remains fundamentally important for most of the boys and Ian Smithson has been helping to oversee the educational aspects. “They have regular courses that have just been moved online,” he explained. “We set them work on things and they continue on their school course anyway. With the MANUSS programme at Ashton-on-Mersey, we’re putting on tuition lessons again online in Maths, Science and English and it adds a bit of structure. We’ve had really good feedback from the parents on this.

“For the older players in the professional development phase, the Under-18s squad and above, including the Women’s first team, there has also been a good take-up in our short education courses. We’ve got them doing Spanish, football marketing, business entrepreneurship and financial trading, while one of the lads has followed up his French. They’re due to finish in a couple of weeks and we’ll give them a break in terms of what was set to be the off-season period anyway.”

It doesn’t stop there. Cookery classes and challenges have been popular, with Mulvey talking of one of the Under-9s being a budding Gordon Ramsay or Gino D’Acampo after putting on a demonstration of his burger-making. Around 40 boys sent in recipes – youth-team skipper Teden Mengi was proud of his protein pancakes and Spanish midfielder Arnau Puigmal, unsurprisingly perhaps, can make a mean paella.

United's Under-14s.
United's Under-14s played in India and are now fundraising for Mumbai residents affected by the virus.

“It’s about naturally developing them but creating opportunities for them to explore within that really,” said Travis Binnion, the head of player development for the 14-16 year-olds. “The cooking, the fundraising, doing research on people, doing nice things for people. The kids really surprise you sometimes. You see them around the club and can get bogged down just seeing them as footballers. It’s a great reminder for all of us of what they’re capable of.”

And who better to help provide additional inspiration and motivation than some of the biggest names in the club’s past and present? “We’ve been running Q&As and had some great guests,” enthused Bushell. “We’ve had Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on, Ryan Giggs, Michael Carrick, Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay. Bryan Robson and Denis Irwin too. The boys have to send their questions and Nick [Cox] hosts it and asks the best ones. They all come on the webinar and we have about 170 people watching it every Friday.”

It can also be a time, of course, for reflection and introspection and an ideal opportunity to go over individual performance and development. James Garner, a contender for Under-23s Player of the Year, told us about the benefits of such analysis and the Under-18s have all been through a similar process with lead coach Ryan. “We’ve been doing player reviews and different things like that,” he said. “Purposefully, just drip-feeding work to them over the period to make sure we don’t bamboozle them. It’s a steady flow of contact and communication from the club but also keeping them active, busy and their minds engaged.

I just think the club should be really proud of how we’ve managed this situation. There is so much support – individual mentors, player care, coaching staff. Everyone is there for the players when they need it. Nicky and Nick and everyone from the management team has done a really great job organising it all, and the staff in the office too, and I’ve just been really proud to be part of the whole process.”

The lessons to be learned, just from speaking to those involved are obvious. The inspirational and aspirational ethos of the Manchester United Academy is surely the correct philosophy to adopt elsewhere in such trying circumstances. “I think one thing this period has told us is it allows them to fall in love with the game again,” added Binnion. “When there’s a routine and you’re prescribing everything for them, they kind of have to do it but they’ll see how to progress when they’re not at the club or in school as it gives them the opportunity to find themselves and come back fresh. We all take it for granted. I’ve spoken to adults who hate their job but they can’t wait to go back to work! So if you love what you’re doing, imagine how much you look forward to that.”

Mulvey agreed. ”You forget how much you actually love something until it is taken away from you,” he confessed. “I think, myself included as well. Sometimes, you’re running around seven days a week, at evenings and weekends but United is a special place to be. A lot of kids are coming here four or five times a week and have been at the Academy since nine and the development centre before that. At 15 or 16, they’ve been here a long time and, all of a sudden, it’s stopped. I think something positive to come from this is we do take things for granted. You think to yourself: I’ll make sure I’m giving it my all to stay at United and hopefully push my way through to the first team.

“We’re making sure they all know it won’t be long before we’re all back. This is just the time when you keep digging in – like a Manchester United player would do – and adapt and try to make the most of the situation really.” It is a message well worth passing on in at a time when we know it can be depressing watching the news on a daily basis. Staying positive is the best solution, remaining motivated and cherishing the return of football – and watching United at all levels – when it does happen.

”It is what it is,” concluded Bushell. “We’ve got to be positive, that’s the most important thing. Plenty of activity and lots of care. What our coaches are doing is not forgetting anybody. The ones who might be a star in our eyes to the ones who might be struggling a little bit. They are all equal in terms of the commitment we have to them.

”We’d all like to be back at the Aon Training Complex but, until we are, let’s keep supporting them and have a big party when we get back!” Now that really does sound like something to lift everybody’s spirits!

For more information on the fundraising challenge for Indian communities affected by coronavirus, visit here, as the boys try to cover the 4,556 miles from Manchester to Mumbai. 

Donations can also be made to the MANUSS project that is raising money to allow the technology department to manufacture protective equipment for GPs, nurses and care-home workers.

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