It will have been missed by anyone not present, and possibly most who were, but the teams sheet for Lincoln City’s match against Accrington Stanley in the EFL Trophy in midweek threw up a noticeable omission. Lincoln manager Michael Appleton chose to leave three spaces vacant on the substitutes’ bench, naming only four instead of seven replacements.
Whether or not Appleton intended to use them is not the point, it was an opportunity missed to give academy graduates some senior match day experience. For all that the Covid-19 pandemic has ripped through the football industry, there has been one bright silver lining. Never have so many youngsters been given an opportunity to make their case. Many have been promoted before their time, but all are much better individuals for this unexpected chance.
This point was brought home while watching the opening session from the first test match between Sri Lanka and England in Galle early on Thursday morning. The only new cap was for Dan Lawrence, who had spent the entire summer in the England bubble and was selected on the back of his performances for England Lions the previous winter. English cricket has been forced to stand still for 12 months. With no first class cricket, a year has been lost for youngsters hoping to make a breakthrough in county cricket and beyond. Outside a handful of test matches there was only a summer of T20 cricket on these shores. We know as much about the England test side now as we did 12 months ago.
Contrast that with football, which found a way to continue with a full league and cup programme in place at elite level through the most recent two lockdowns. The brutal fixture schedule and the susceptibility of so many players to the virus has resulted in managers turning to sections of their playing staff who would otherwise have been ignored.
Now, at times, there has been a strong hint of farce to proceedings. Aston Villa’s side against Liverpool a week last Friday reduced the FA Cup match to a mere training exercise for Klopp’s men. Similarly, Chorley became favourites to win their third round tie against Derby County once it became clear that the entire Rams first team squad would be self-isolating.
But both Villa and Derby’s makeshift XIs would have learnt so much from their respective experiences. Are they ready for regular first team football? Clearly not. Yet within the defeats there was valuable experience gained. And for a few minutes at Villa Park, the youngsters even matched the title winners.
There was a nice line from Jurgen Klopp about Villa’s goal scorer Louie Barry, in the aftermath of Liverpool’s win. “The boys did really well,” said Klopp. “Little Jamie Vardy was a proper threat.” Barry will cherish his night and those words. It might never get any better than this. Whatever the future holds, he has had this moment.
Speaking with Klopp this week, there was a chance to ask him about his own club’s situation. The relentless schedule has led to many injury problems, forcing his hand with team selection and contributing to a downturn in form. But Klopp was glowing about the opportunity – and in an ideal world it was one he did not want to present itself – for his own youngsters to emerge into the first team reckoning.
“In our case a lot more got the chance, we had three or four wonderful examples,” he explained. “Nathaniel Phillips, Rhys Williams, Neco Williams and Curtis Jones all did incredibly well. And the next ones are coming with Jake Cain, there are a lot of good players. As always in life, it’s about timing. It’s like driving a car; it would be nice to do it at 16 but it’s just not allowed.
“But for the boys it was really positive, it helped us and we would have struggled without them. They are all in a better place now. It was really exciting and satisfying for them. An important marker in their career where they saw that they were ready, still had to learn a lot and stay humble, but they saw the future could hold some really nice things for them.”
That is perhaps the key point. At every level of the elite game, youngsters have been shown what could lie ahead if they continue to develop. That will focus the mind more than any amount of coaching. Of course, Phillips and Williams will be nowhere near Liverpool’s defence when Virgil Van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Joel Matip are all fit. And they may well have made mistakes whilst deputising for the first choice regulars, but they are unquestionably better professionals and people for having this huge opportunity.
Football has been hanging by a thread in this dreadful period of life. There has been little to cheer for many months now. But, if there is one positive to come out of these dark times, it has been the opportunity given to the youth. Those who, in normal times, are rarely trusted.