Stoke City’s Academy staff are trying to reinvent themselves as they keep the youth set up going during unprecedented times.
Just as Michael O’Neill has been overseeing training programmes for his senior players, coaches through the junior ranks are dealing with the logistics of guiding a couple of hundred prospects through training from home.
It is new territory for an unknown length of time – but they have been able to keep going as best and innovatively as possible thanks to the backing of the club’s owners.
Academy director Gareth Owen said: “We are still operational but all staff are working from home so we’ve had to reinvent ourselves. We’ve got kids signed with us and our obligation is to keep them engaged and offer a shining light in devastating times.
“We’ve been devising programmes to keep them active; not just technically and physically but they’ve been cooking meals for their parents to learn about nutrition, ringing people, mowing lawns…
“We’re always gathering suggestions from staff and kids are filming themselves in gardens and sending in clips. We’ve had under-eights leading the FA Cup final team talk as they would have done it against Man City.
“We’re doing things that are putting smiles on people’s faces and that leads to positive mental health. We are remembering the important things we do and we’re thankful for fantastic owners who give us the chance to carry on doing it in different ways.
“These are strange times but it’s brought us closer together.”
Coaches are staying in regular contact with youth players and their families, via phone calls, messages and video.
Owen said: “Each family has their own life to lead and we’ve got boys from all walks of life to deal with individually. We’ve got players who are sons of key workers and we’ve got sons of people who have been furloughed.
“We speak to them every week and there are exchanges of texts daily. We’re experimenting with different media and we’re introducing training sessions where players can log in online. We’re trying to deliver the best we can while remembering that a lot of people are in different situations.”
Stoke have offered scholarships for next season but are still waiting on EFL guidelines about what happens next.
“We can only control what we can control,” said Owen. “We help each other out and help players and parents out. We’re in the unknown but we can spread positivity as much as we can.”
That spread of positivity has involved Stoke players, coaches and staff calling supporters in isolation.
Youth coaches have joined in and Owen said: “It’s been really good, a humbling experience.
“A number of Academy staff have been involved. We’ve got a lot of good people working at this club who realise we’ve got a place and a role in society and our community.
“It’s been good to recount stories with fans with conversations from great teams and players to being in a night club with Alan Hudson. It’s a fantastic club and it’s the club that bonds us all together.”