Chris Johnson

Naturally I'm both delighted and very excited about the return of Junior Football.

We have been training for some weeks now and gradually building up from small groups completing technical work towards contact training, and we have our first friendly next weekend.

This will be our first fixture since the end of February as the weather hit us before Covid-19 did, and so it feels like a very long time since we were last playing matches. As a result we are extremely excited both as coaches and players about the return to action, it feels like such a long time for me as an adult so it must seem like a lifetime for junior players who have a different perspective of time generally.

We are cautious and slightly nervous about one or two aspects of playing, but it feels like another step on the road back to normality so we are very excited indeed and this emotion helps override any of the concerns we might be worried about. 

It's hard to know whether this feels like the right stage to be at or not. It's obviously in our thoughts that we want to get our lives back to how they were as quickly as possible, but we have all seen how devastating the pandemic has been on so many aspects of our lives and so I think it is right to be cautious but equally we cannot wrap ourselves entirely in cotton wool forever and those activities where the risk is relatively low, as it is with junior football played in the open outdoors, I think it’s right that we seek to return as quickly as is practicable.

With schools returning at the start of September and more people finding themselves returning to full-time work as a result (where their jobs have not been affected) then I think we will start to feel as though life has gone back to how it used to be. 

I don't think that the return of junior football represents a threat to public health in the way that the return to other activities do given how the disease is transmitted. The basic use of public transport for instance offers a far greater risk. I think Junior Football, as has been argued quite rightly by other figures including Robbie Savage in his question to the Chief Medical Officer, represents a low risk activity and so it is right that it is given the green light to return along with the training and match regime that is the fabric of Junior Football.

Naturally it is right that we do so cautiously and we have safeguards in place and we respect the dangers that the pandemic represents but equally, Junior Football is widely recognised as a force for good in lots of obvious ways such as physical health and well-being, but also around mental health in young people and the friendships and bonds that they form with others. To have those taken away unnecessarily through being over cautious I think would be a mistake and it is right that we are actively seeking a return to normal Junior Football activity. 

I think there is a mixed range of views amongst parents albeit the consensus is that they themselves would like to see a return to normality. It has been a difficult period of time for everybody, particularly those with young children who have been in lockdown and trying to balance work, home-schooling, keeping young ones entertained and so the return to normal

Junior Football activity I think has been welcomed by the majority of parents. There are those who still have concerns about the pandemic, and we have left it entirely up to them naturally to decide about whether they wish their child to return.

Everyone has their own views in respect of the pandemic and the national response to it and these feed into their views on the return to Junior Football although there has been a broad consensus that it is the right thing to do. 

My hopes for the new season are that we play football in a spirit that shows just how valued it is. We have all missed the game that we love so desperately during lockdown and we’ve all been so very keen to get to the stage where we can start to think about playing matches again, that we should try to find a way to express that in the way that we play the game.

Hopefully we will see less of the poor behaviour on the sidelines and in matches that can sometimes blight us and hopefully we will play with a new found appreciation for the game that we all love. I also hope that we are able to find our way through the season successfully without the need for any further curtailment. It would be tragic if we started our League fixtures again in October only to find that we are having to press the pause button again at Christmas.

The fear of a second wave will obviously be hanging over us but having had the experience of lockdown and all of the national response that went alongside that, hopefully we have learnt sufficient lessons that would enable us to proceed with our lives in a relatively unaffected way if it were to happen again. 

There are a whole host of additional precautions that we are putting in place for the return to action. These have been put together by our Covid-19 officer and collated within our Covid 19 policy which all clubs are required to have. Obvious stand out changes include: 

- The Covid-19 officer of each club must ensure a safety briefing is provided before the commencement of any fixture. 

- Team talk huddles should not take place. Team talks can take place, as long as social distancing is observed and held outdoors. 

- Set plays – free kicks: referees and coaches should encourage players to get on with the game and not unnecessarily prolong set play set-up, such as defensive walls. Corners should also be taken promptly to limit prolonged close marking. 

- Goal posts should be wiped down before matches, after matches and at half time. 

- Goal celebrations should be avoided. 

- When the ball goes out of play it should not be retrieved by non-participants and should be retrieved using the feet rather than the hands where possible. Where there are breaks in the game, or training, if throw-ins or handling has occurred the ball should be disinfected. 

- If possible, players should therefore avoid shouting or raising their voices when facing each other during, before and after games. Coaches should model this and not shout information or instructions. 

There are certainly some big changes in there! I'm not sure there will be too much change as to how the game is played at our level. Hopefully there will be some evidence of the newfound respect that we have for Junior Football as something that we all cherish and a recognition of the fact that it can be taken away from us against our will. Certainly not being able to shout encouragement or instructions from the sidelines will be a big change for lots of people, hopefully for the better in some cases!

Our team and players have definitely benefited from the small group work we did and the technical exercises we practiced when we first returned to training and hopefully there will be the opportunity to put some of this technical work into the matches. Fingers crossed that some of the pitches that we play on will have benefited greatly from the rest that they have had since February / March time and that they will be in a better state for having better quality football played on them. That would be a significant benefit of the time we have had away from the game in my view. 

I think my own perspective on the game has been altered a little bit by the experience of lockdown. I have come to value the game more and not take it for granted. I recognise that it is a wonderful opportunity to do spend time with my son doing something that we both really love. I was never a “win at all costs type” coach anyway, it was all about encouraging Junior Footballers to enjoy what they were doing and to try and improve as they went about it, and I think that the experience of lockdown has only enhanced this view. 

I suppose there are some dangers to not having played for so long. Football is a physically demanding game and whilst stress related injuries are relatively rare in Junior Football, in theory the chances of them happening are increased by a return to action having not played for so long. Our team ethos has always been to rotate anyway but we will be doing so more than ever during the build-up to the League season starting in October with friendly games and a phased return to action.

Going back to something after a period of time is never easy, I have my own experience of returning to work after furlough ended to draw upon for that, and it will take Junior players a period of time to find their groove again and to get their game back to something like the level that it was before. Again, I hope people are understanding and consider the huge impact that this has had on young people and not expect too much too quickly but give them the breathing space to be able to find their way again. 

I think it will start to feel like normal again relatively quickly with League fixtures kicking off in October and the second half of September taken up with friendly games. It will start to feel like a normal season virtually straight away. With schools returning at the start of September and something like normal life if coming back, it will not feel different for long.

When the referees whistle blows and the kids start chasing after the ball and the rain starts pelting down whilst you're trying to put the nets up and the subs are trying to ‘megs’ you with the ball they are warming up with as you're walking up the touchline, it will start to feel very much like normal straight away. 

The threat of a lockdown on a local level or even a second wave is the biggest fear we have at the moment as we start to take our first few gentle steps on the road back to normality. The idea that we could go back to square one is one that we all fear and is not something that would be welcomed at all.

We're all desperately keen to keep the momentum and the progress moving forward. We have built up over a period of several weeks a phased return to action and we are ready to get back to playing and training properly on a regular basis. We would not enjoy the idea of having to go back to the beginning again.

Junior Football is something we all enjoy and cherish and it has been a big miss. The impact on physical and mental health of young people is yet to be measured and it will be sometime before the full extent of the Covid-19 lockdown is clear but common sense would suggest that for all the good that Junior Football does, our young people deserve it not to be taken away from us again.

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