United’s under-18 side will have to wait for their new-season kick-off with today’s home game against Shrewsbury Town having been postponed at the request of the visiting club.
We caught up with Mark Birch to get his reaction, and to talk about what had been a busy pre-season.
“It’s one of those things, so we’ll arrange a friendly for the lads just to keep them ticking over,” he said. “It does delay the start of the season, but we’ve got a good group and they’ll adapt to it.
“They’ve worked hard through the summer. Everything went as well as we could have expected, and obviously there are things that crop up along the way that you have to react to, as we’ve seen with losing this game this weekend.
“But from a fitness point of view, and in terms of the games programme, it’s been really good. We mixed our fixtures up so that we played men’s teams and Category 1 academy teams, and that was deliberate.”
“We want the lads to experience as many different scenarios as possible, because they’ll face a range of tests through the season, and that’s why we do it the way we do,” he continued. “The academy teams tend to be technically very good, and you don’t see as much of the ball as you would normally, and the men’s team bring that edge of physicality to it where you have to be better when you do have the ball.
“The really pleasing thing is seeing how well all of the lads have settled into it. We’ve adapted our training sessions around football, with the way we want to play our games very much at the forefront of it, and we’ve worked a lot on what we expect of them as a group and individually.
“Everyone has bought into what we’re doing but with the first league game now just over a week away the proof will very much be in the pudding.”
With the team having finished so close to top spot last time round, he commented: “One of the habits you want to adopt is winning games, and pre-season has helped with that.
“Part of being a footballer is learning how to win. At this level you have to put people into situations that they will face if they make it through to train or play with the first team.
“Our job is to make first team footballers, so if we don’t preach about the importance of winning games while they’re with us, they’ve got no chance, to be honest. Standards have to be set at every level of the club in my opinion.
“Another good aspect from this summer is that we’ve already had players train and play with the first team. That’s exactly what we want. The manager gives these lads opportunities like this and it’s about them understanding that they need to take them.
“It’s the same with us, we had two under-16s with us for the game against Middlesbrough last Saturday, and that was a chance for them to show us what they can do.”
The return to a games programme brings with it the return to the schedule of educational and scholarship requirements – a balance that has to be struck as the months progress.
“What we often forget about the scholarship programme is that it’s exactly that, it’s about equipping the players with life skills,” he said. “The education requirements dovetail with the football and you have to strike that balance.
“We can’t fight against that, we have to understand it, and we have to make sure all of it is done correctly. It’s no longer a selfish approach, as it was years ago with it being a huge focus on football, and we’re comfortable with that.
“But the football is obviously important. We’ll get the first six games out of the way and that’ll give us a good idea of where we’re at. All we can do is concentrate on ourselves and we think we’re in a good place. We’re very happy with the group and we all want to finish as high as we possibly can.
“It’s good to get going again, even though the first game is now delayed. Pre-season can drag on and I think everyone was relieved that it was our last friendly when we finished the Boro game last weekend.
“Heading into the season’s programme we can now settle down into match, training and educational routines - and I think we’re all ready for that.”