United’s under-18 squad found themselves in an almost identical situation to the first team as they became part of the club self-isolation protocol last week with their immediate games postponed as they sat proudly on top of the north west alliance division pile.
With the players now over halfway through that period of exile, academy boss Eric Kinder spoke to us about all things youth football this week.
“We’re on lockdown now, the same as the first team, and I think that’s probably the right thing to do,” he said. “We have this mentality where I think just about everybody who works in football thinks that football is the most important thing in the world, but it isn’t.
“This kind of thing that’s going on around us right now is when it hits home that there are sometimes much bigger things to contend with. We know this has to be done, and we’ll then work hard at catching up again once we do back together.”
“In terms of our season, we’re in a good position,” he continued. “We’ve played 13 games out of a 26-game programme and we’re still due to finish on the last Saturday in April.
“As long as we’re playing games again early in February this shouldn’t really interrupt our season. That’s why I always say to the staff, if there are free dates between the start of the season and Christmas we should bring games forward and fill those blank days up.
“There are usually three or four dates like that, and some clubs like to use them as down time, which is fine. I always fill them up because with the weather, and now with the virus, you just never know what’s going to happen.
“We’ve lost games every season that I’ve been here in December and January, so it just makes sense to me to get them played and out of the way so that you don’t suddenly have a lot of games to get done in the second half of the year.”
“The fact that this is a lockdown due to the virus – we thought we had it bad in March and April but this is off the scale now,” he commented. “We will gladly battle our way through this season in whatever way we can, because protecting the NHS and getting the infection rates down has to be the priority.
“Hopefully when we’ve all had our jabs it will mean we can start afresh next season and see some kind of ‘normal’ again.
“For me personally, I think it’s the same as it is for everybody else. It’s just rubbish. I didn’t really understand what was going on back in March because I didn’t really know anybody who got it, or who even had symptoms, and I started to think we should just get back to work and crack on.
“Now, it’s completely different. Every single day I’m getting calls to let me know that people have got it or they need to isolate. It’s rife, and it has to be stopped, so I completely understand the need to lock down this time.
“It’s still frustrating, but it’s the way it is. We have to do what needs to be done to stop this. Let’s be totally honest, a youth league becomes insignificant when you see what’s happening around us.”
Again, as with the first team, the players have been sent away with fitness programmes to keep them ticking over.
“Most of them will be doing it, but I know the ones who will say they’re doing it, but they’ll be skipping bits,” he joked. “I also know the lads who will do it to the letter, but they’ve all been given their programme and the advice to go with it. We’ll know when we get back together if they’ve done it or not, so it’s up to them.
“We’re at a point where the injured lads are coming back – Dylan Garvey has recovered from the broken toe he picked up in the youth cup, so that means Ryan Swailes will be the only one absent through injury.
“We’ll have a couple of younger lads with us as well. Dan Hill has come in over the last few weeks, and he’s part of the under-18 squad now, and we’re looking strongly at a midfield player who will join the group at the end of the season.
“It’s nice to have the numbers back again because we went to Walsall before Christmas with two subs, and they were both keepers. We needed strengthening so it’s good that we have these lads available again, along with some good schoolboys who can step up to help us further.”
And speaking once again about the need for the current football lockdown, he said: “It’s always about the safety of the players and the staff.
“We’ve had a number of lads who’ve received track and trace notifications to self-isolate because they’ve been close to somewhere at some point that’s had a problem, and we’ve made sure they’ve done that.
“Some of the lads will ask why they’ve got to stay in for 10 days when there’s absolutely nothing wrong with them, but the whole point of these notifications is because it’s highlighted a possibility, and we don’t want the risk of it spreading further.
“The thing with it is, we know that any age group can get it or, just as bad, can spread it on without realising. I’m very good friends with David Dunn, we grew up together at Blackburn, and he’s had it. He told me that you’ll know when you get it, because it’s not just the 10 days of feeling ill, it’s the period after that when you’re trying to get your fitness levels back.
“Hopefully, with us having had this club lockdown, we’ll have avoided any of the major problems and we’ll be ready to pick up where we left off when we do get back together again. We do have a free week coming up so that will give us a fortnight to work the lads on their fitness as we get ready to get back to playing games, which should be against Port Vale early in February.”
“I look back, and people will know I was banging on in my interviews after games about the fact we couldn’t find any consistency,” he added. “Then, leading up to Christmas we beat Oldham 6-0 at home, Tranmere 4-1 away, Walsall 4-0 away, and we were at a point where we’d found what I’d been asking for.
“We were top of the league - yes, having played more games than other teams, and it felt like we were flying. Our thoughts were all focused on pushing on and seeing where the season would take us, because we’ve got a really good group together here.
“The situation now is that we played our last game in the middle of December and we won’t play again until February, and that’s obviously a long time. It’s pretty much equivalent to the length of a pre-season, but we’ll soon get up to speed if we do things properly.”
We’ll have more from Youth boss Eric Kinder on how the youth department is dealing with the lockdown on the official website later this week.