Stoke City under-18s should have been running out at the bet365 Stadium tomorrow, live streamed to supporters and into a spotlight provided by the FA Youth Cup.
But the third round tie against Burton Albion is on hold for now with the competition – the biggest stage for most players’ careers so far – suspended until at least the end of the national lockdown.
As a Category One Academy, Stoke can still train and for the moment the under-18s Premier League is still scheduled to continue, with strict rules to mitigate Covid-19.
Coaches and players are grateful for that, even if everyone is dreaming of the kind of normality that saw a couple of thousand Stoke fans head up to watch this age group take on Manchester City in the Premier League Cup final in March.
That was the last match at any level when Stoke supporters were allowed in. A lot has happened since then.
Under-18s coach Rich Walker said: “We had that Premier League Cup final just before the first lockdown. I remember sitting in the hotel watching the news back then knowing it was getting really serious but I don’t think any of us could have envisaged what the next few months would hold.
“The whole world’s adapting. Clayton Wood is set up in a different way and I have to say that the club has been fantastic in enabling the people who put on football sessions to go about their business as smoothly as possible. They’ve been fantastic and made our lives easier.
“There are marquees erected, players have adapted really well and there’s a collective desire to keep the programme up and running while having full respect for Covid-19 and adhering to the procedures that need to be done.
“The group who reached the cup final has moved on (to a higher age group) and in many respects it’s almost been starting from scratch in the under-18s this season. The players coming up possibly haven’t had as many games at this level as previous years.
“The first three games in particular it took time to acclimatise. We’re a very young side and that’s absolutely fine, we’re about producing players for the first team.
“Don’t get me wrong, we want to win as many games as possible while hopefully still developing players as individuals but first and foremost it is about those individuals.
“That’s why we’ve had Emre Tezgel, who’s an under-15, playing in every game this season and done really well. Jack Griffiths is an under-16 and he’s playing in every game.
“The pair of them have probably played more under-18s football than any other schoolboy in the country. Straight away that presents its own challenges in terms of the physical tests they will encounter – and collectively as a team, we’re a young team.
“The first three games were tough going against good sides but players adapt and find a way of surviving and since then, barring a major blip away at Sunderland, the lads have done well by and large considering our age.”
The Youth Cup had been an exciting mark in the diary but the news was confirmed on Tuesday that the tournament would be suspended.
Walker said: “Our prep started on Sunday and the lads were in decent shape with a good vibe about them. There was the excitement that the Youth Cup always generates.
“You could sense the disappointment even among the staff and straight away with the players too.
“But you talk to them about controlling the control-ables and get back on the grass and do what we can do. There’s inevitable disappointment but hopefully it comes around sooner rather than later and we’ll be even more prepared by the time that it does.”
It is only suspended, not cancelled, although the Government has not committed to a date when the UK could come out of lockdown.
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There will be a challenges ahead but players won’t have to look far for inspiration.
“It’s always quite difficult to rearrange fixtures in the football calendar at the best of times and I’m sure there will be a logistical headache somewhere along the line,” said Walker.
“However, the world we want to prepare our boys for is to play in our first team and if anyone can complain about a gruelling schedule this season it’s our first team in a Championship season when you get to the quarter-final of a domestic cup.
“If it does get congested, if it does get clogged up, it’s another part of their development.
“It’s paused for the time being but we’re tentatively confident that it will get up and running again and if that means we have to play every other day then so be it. We just want to fulfil the fixtures and get as much game exposure for the players as we can.”