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'We need to ensure they don't feel isolated' - How Man City academy is coping during coronavirus shutdown

4:00 AM EDT 4/29/20
Tommy Doyle Phil Foden Etihad Campus Jason Wilcox Man City
Period without football has given academies the chance to see what role they play in society, according to the City Academy Director Jason Wilcox

When the Covid-19 pandemic closed down football, the game shut down for everybody. From local parks right up to the Premier League, all matches have been terminated until a way to restart safely can be found.

For professionals at the top of the sport, the message during lockdown would appear to be relatively simple - stay as physically fit and mentally healthy as possible until football resumes, with the possibility that matches could return soon behind closed doors and with the help of testing.

But Premier League clubs’ responsibilities don’t stop with the first team. Champions Manchester City have around 200 youngsters at various age groups progressing through their academy and have been careful to come up with an approach they believes will guide them through an unprecedented period.

City’s academy is at the forefront of producing emerging talent, but those youngsters are drawn from different backgrounds and Academy Director Jason Wilcox says they have made it a priority to make sure they didn’t feel under pressure during the lockdown.

“One of the things that I've been really conscious of, with people working from home and homeschooling etc., is making sure that we didn't bombard parents and boys with activities and tasks that they couldn't keep up with,” Wilcox told Goal .

“We might have boys living in high-rise apartments, somebody who doesn’t have access to a computer, somebody whose parents might be working for the NHS or single-parent families that have to go and work on the frontline. So we just needed to make sure that we didn't have anyone who felt isolated in terms of not being able to contribute.”

Players are not left alone though. They and their families have received regular phone calls from someone at the club - whether it’s one of the coaches, a member of the welfare team or a physiotherapist - to check on their well-being.

Part of the culture of the academy is to try to produce grounded individuals, irrespective of whether they go on to make a career in the game. That's why youngsters that join City are given a top education at a leading independent school to prepare them for an alternative profession.

Wilcox believes there could be some benefits to an enforced break with youngsters taking their focus away from football and spending more time with their families.

“The families mean a lot to us and I think what this period of time has done is given all academies - not just ours - a chance to look at the role that we play in society,” the former England winger added.

“It’s important that these boys realise that they're not special - they're normal kids who are good at football. Ultimately, we've got to make sure that we develop these skills and they've got to be part of that family and make sure that they fit.

"They have brothers and sisters, who are just the same as them with talents, whether it’s dancing or learning a musical instrument and we've got to make sure that we run alongside family life - that's something that's really important to me.”

The lockdown and postponement of football is tough on fans and even harder for young players chasing their dream. However, Wilcox has confidence that his smart youngsters can cope with the hiatus.

“They're all keeping contact with each other through social media and FIFA,” he said. “We've got lads in Europe on complete lockdown, we've got boys in high-rise apartments living with three generations of family, we've got boys living in houses with big gardens so there's such a wide spread.

“What's really important is we just try to keep them active, they've got access to their fitness programmes and it's about them taking responsibility. They know what to eat, they know what not to eat, they know what time to go to bed and they're learning to be independent.

“Whenever our academy returns to some sort of normality, we'll be ready and the boys will be ready because they're adaptable and we've all got to adapt in this situation.”

What that “new normal” looks like remains uncertain. Wilcox and his coaching staff have discussed potential strategies for when lockdown is lifted, but it will still be dependent on governmental advice, particularly with the possibility that social distancing will continue for some time.

Academy coaches across the Premier League have been sharing their ideas and experiences to ensure that youngsters are given the best care and advice, and also sketching out ideas of what the future could look like.

An added complication is that March and April are often months when future planning is at the forefront of coaches' minds with decisions made on potential loan deals and scholarship contracts.

“All things are a discussion until we get a definite steer from the government because we've got to run alongside them and schools,” said Wilcox, who has been with the club for eight years. “We are just keeping our eye on the situation. I think we've got a real solid base now that we can move in any direction at any given point.

“Behind the scenes, situations will develop the closer we get to some sort of return to normality whatever that looks like for the next six months. So it's very difficult to plan, but we've just got to make sure that we are open-minded and we are able to be adaptable.”