The Oxford United Academy programme has continued to work behind the scenes throughout the latest Lockdown despite matches being suspended for the Under 18 and Under 21 teams as well as the younger age groups.
With games set to resume this weekend we caught up with Academy Manager Dan Harris who told iFollow all about the challenges facing the team helping to develop the next generation of young players at the U’s
“I think we recognise that there is a situation going on that is much bigger than football and our hearts got out to everyone affected directly by things over the last few weeks” he said. “There are people associated with the club who have lost loved ones, people’s incomes have been affected and we understand our place in all this.
“But the context within the Academy is that games stopped in the current lockdown but the under 18s are now being tested on a regular basis and will restart on Saturday: fair play to the club who have been hugely supportive and the EFL, Premier League and PFA have now agreed to fund the under 18 programme to test twice a week, exactly the same protocol as the First Team. So they tested last week and all came back negative and that means that this weekend they can return to playing.
“Our programme doesn’t look like it usually would: the same as the pros, we have certain restrictions we have to abide by and we are doing things absolutely correctly. Usually the under 18s and 21s work alongside the First Team but at the moment they have a very clearly established bubble. At this time of year you would normally have a lot of trialists and under 16s moving from their squad to the 18s and back but this year we have to have a very fixed 18 person group. The under 16s haven’t started playing again yet but the 9s to 15s are completely online and will be for the next five or six weeks.
“The under 21s is different. There are only eight in that group and they have been out playing and training with non league sides. Which was a great plan until those games got called off! Because of the covid protocols the opportunity to drop in and out of the First Team group just isn’t there so we made a decision to get them in to regular senior football on loan but right now the Conference North and South are paused. Kyran Lofthouse and Slavi Soasov are making real progress at Woking and we are watching them every week in the National League but if we get to the stage where the North and South have to stop then we are going to have to make another plan ourselves.
“Logistically it is always challenging and there are layers of complexity. Take digs for example. We have players join us from other places and they stay in digs close to the Training Ground. The safety of those families is always our priority and at the moment we won’t risk putting players in to accommodation with them. We are having to train in the evenings and that means players travelling in and making huge sacrifices. That won’t be a long term solution but every player who plays at the top level will talk about the sacrifices they have made to get there so it is also an opportunity for those young lads to show us how serious they are about their craft. Who are the ones doing the right things when nobody is looking? Who are the ones prepared to stand on their own two feet?
“The 18s are fighting hard at the top of their league and in the last four of a cup competition. Their target is to earn pro deals and that process carries on. Their games will resume as will the under 21s who have a cup game at Southend coming up. So we expect to see them in matches soon but people also need to understand that we see day to day progress in training and also credit to Matt Jarvis and the education team because that has carried on and our lads are very close to finishing that part of their scholarship
“It has been a season without precedent but I think what we have to do as an Academy is adapt, keep everyone as safe as we can and ultimately give every single one of our players the best opportunity to be in the building next year. We do that every day and the staff have been outstanding, working in difficult circumstances. I think it is testament to the calmness around the place and the standards that we set that the programme keeps moving forward.”
Oxford United’s under 18s return to action with two home games in the EFL Youth Alliance, to be played at Thame United.
On Saturday they welcome AFC Bournemouth to the ASM Stadium, kick off at 12, and on Tuesday they take on Yeovil Town (1pm)