It has been a season like no other and, hopefully, the likes of which we will never see again.
We caught up with academy boss Eric Kinder to get his thoughts on what it had been like managing the under-18 age group through it, and to see if he had ever experienced anything like it before.
“No, nothing even anywhere near it,” he insisted. “The world’s been turned upside down, hasn’t it, and I remember at the start of it all that people were asking us what we were going to do.
“There was no way of answering those questions because there was nothing to compare it to. It’s never happened before in the entire history of the world so it wasn’t like we could look back and say, oh yeah, that’s what we did in 1865. There’s just no reference.
“It was new to everybody, and if you look at what’s happening in India you can see that we aren’t done with it yet. Looking at that you can see that we dealt with it really well in this country, even though mistakes have been made. But you’ll always get mistakes when you’re dealing with something this new and on this scale.”
“On the football side I think it’s unbelievable how we’ve managed to see a season through at all levels, and that’s from the Premier League to the Conference and internationally,” he continued. “We finished our league season on 30 April and we started on 8 September, and we’ve got through it by being two weeks ahead of where we would be if it had been a normal season.
“On this occasion we have to say the football authorities at all levels have done well to get us to a position where we could get it done and dusted at all. There have been strict match day protocols, complicated testing regimes and all sorts. I think we’ve all done well in very trying circumstances.”
Has it been difficult to manage a group of relatively young men through it all?
“You’d think so, but I never saw any adverse reaction from any of them,” he replied. “The first years adapted so quickly, which is unusual, and the second years just got on with it.
“It was a really happy group with excellent focus. There are always little things to deal with, and you have lads who are louder than the others, but I genuinely haven’t seen a closer set of lads than this.
“We’ve had seventeen 16 to 18-year-olds who have been really close and who have worked hard together. When we’ve had the little fall-outs that come in any walk of life they’ve quickly been resolved.
“In fact, it hasn’t happened because they’ve gelled so well. You can see in games when they do things right, or score goals, they celebrate together.
“I found out that some of them had got together on a Saturday night at one of their houses, which didn’t go down too well because we hadn’t finished the season, but there was no fall-out from that either.
“We’ve had a couple of instances where we’ve had to deal with privately, but they’ve been easy to work with as a group of lads. I have to commend them for that.”
Part of the strangeness of the season has been seeing parents and permitted family members watch the games at Creighton from the adjacent field, socially distanced and raised high on a bank above the playing area.
“It’s actually the best view of the game you can get,” he insisted. “If I was a parent and I came next season, and restrictions were lifted, I’d still go up there. It’s a cracking view.
“You get to see the movement and how passages of play develop. I’ve been up there and it’s good to be able to see exactly where players are at certain times during the game, you can see all of that perfectly.”
With 2020/21 done, the focus now is on next season, and the return to work in July.
“We started preparing a while ago, with recruitment and things like that, and also with planning our pre-season and the early stages of the campaign,” he confirmed. “Mark Birch is really important for that. He’s had a huge input.
“When I was here before I worked on my own for the most part, certainly on the football side of it. I recruited, picked the team, and I had a physio and strength coach to help. Dave Wilkes looked after the 9 to 16 age groups and I looked after the 18s.
“EPPP kicked in when I left here to go to Blackburn, and an assistant was appointed. Then, at Exeter, I was the assistant, and in the seven years I was away the whole thing here had changed completely.
“The staffing model has changed, because of the audit, and Mark fronts the side on match days. We work together during the week but I’m very much behind him once a game kicks off.
“Hopefully I’ve helped him to understand little areas, like not having free match dates when the weather’s good, for example, because you’ll end up having to play 10 games in March and April.
“If your fixtures have piled up for the last couple of months you can find that you’ve lost your second years at that point and you’re having to play a lot of under-16s. It means you can’t finish the season off properly, and that can become frustrating for everybody.
“Mark is at the heart of all of the planning and he will do a lot of preparation for the team next season.”