How Man United's academy is navigating the unprecedented COVID-19 shutdown
As the scale of the coronavirus crisis became apparent, the first thought for the staff at Manchester United's academy had nothing to do with football. "The first thing we had to think about was getting the boys home," head of academy Nick Cox tells ESPN.
"We have a core of foreign-based players and we had to make a very quick decision to try and get them home to their families. Our staff plotted all sorts of routes to get boys home. Flights were being cancelled and borders were being closed and we had to find very creative ways of getting them home to their families."
It is just one of the hurdles the staff who look after the club's young players have had to overcome during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When the shutdown was first announced last month, first-team manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was safe knowing he was sending his players back to luxury houses -- in villages around Manchester or in their home countries. Cox, however, could not have the same confidence about the club's youngsters. "We knew this was going to be a very challenging time," he says. "We're dealing with boys from all walks of life, and we know that some of our boys will be embracing this period of time because it's time with their family, they might have a nice house, it feels like a break and it's welcomed."
While the shutdown might be a break for some, for others the reality is much different. Some players have parents who are key workers, others might be returning to challenging living and financial conditions and some could even have illness in their families.
"We have to cater for all of that and offer support," Cox says. "Footballers are a diverse mixture of people from all corners of society. We've got boys facing very different situations."
In all, there are around 250 young players in United's academy system at any given time in age groups ranging from under-nines to U23s. While the U18s and U23s have been training at home, taking part in online meetings with coaches and reviewing the season so far, the approach with the younger age groups has been more relaxed with many of the activities optional.
"There's no blueprint for dealing with this situation," says Cox. "We've had to quickly come up with a plan as quickly as we can. It's been trial and error. We have had to park football development and support their well-being and be a resource to help them through tough times."
The aim, according to academy performance support manager Mick Farrell, has been simple. "Whether we're at Carrington or at working remotely, we still have the same purpose which is to the help the boys be happy," he tells ESPN. "We'd be lying if we said some of the boys didn't find it strange and struggled a little bit.
One thing the Academy is proud of is that the mental health and psychological provisions have remained open. This is an important resource for the youngsters, who can request an individual chat or refer one of their peers to that welfare system.
"Whether they're training or playing or at home, the aim is to make sure they are happy and although the situation has changed, the outcome hasn't," says Farrell. The plan has involved everything from hosting competitions to see who can come up with the most inventive individual training sessions to laying on online education courses.
United have even commissioned actors to produce videos for players about how to stay active and motivated during the lockdown, as well as encouraging them to take part in community activities while they're away from Carrington. There have also been group video calls with Solskjaer, Michael Carrick, Ryan Giggs and Jesse Lingard, while forward Marcus Rashford is due to hold one next week.
Meanwhile, Man United greats Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes hosted one together during which they were asked why England had not been successful when they were in the team. Lingard was asked about the size of his house and Butt, who is now the club's head of first-team development, was momentarily stumped when asked whether he would have preferred Scholes or Roy Keane to be available for the 1999 Champions League final.
"They've been really nice," said Cox. "We've tried to do one video call a week and the boys go away, research the player, send in their best question and they've had a chance to chat to their idols."
The ultimate goal of United's academy is to produce first-team players like Giggs, Scholes, Butt, Rashford and Lingard, but there is also a focus on preparing the youngsters for -- a potential -- career away from Old Trafford. In that sense, the pandemic has presented a chance and added down time for players to take online courses in Spanish, marketing and business.
"There's a little bit more time now than there would be in our usual structure," academy education manager Ian Smithson tells ESPN.
"The short courses provide an extra structure to their week. It helps with their well-being and there is an opportunity for a bit of personal development."
But while most of United's young players have been able to pick and choose how they spend their time while they wait for football to return, at least one thing has remained constant.
"There isn't anything quite like a phone call just to ask if everything is all right," says Cox.
"The staff have made sure that each week every single player and their families have had a phone call. The situation is unprecedented for everyone, and it's the same for us. We feel like we're doing the best we can under difficult circumstances."