With around three weeks to go until the highly anticipated start to the 2020-21 season, pre-season training is well underway.
It has been confirmed by the EFL that the season will begin with Round One of the Carabao Cup, followed by the first EFL Trophy matchday before a ball is kicked in Sky Bet League Two, such is the necessity to fit fixtures into a season that is kicking off five to six weeks later than usual.
Teams can expect an increased number of matches on a Tuesday night too which will push players to incredible fitness limits, making pre-season all the more important than usual. However Graham Alexander feels that the players have returned perhaps in better condition than they would have done after a normal season.
He said that after the suspension of the season in mid-March the players were all provided with fitness programmes which continued up until the end of June, then after the season was ended they were given July off before returning at the beginning of August.
“I think it was strange for everybody, we all began to miss each other quite a bit. We enjoy each other’s company as staff and players and a big part of football is the togetherness, the unity and bouncing off each other so we’ve missed that, it’s all been done remotely over the period so we were really looking forward to coming back in once we got the green light.
“It’s great to be around the boys again, a few new faces, obviously a lot of the boys from last year, but we just wanted to get back out on the grass and feel like we were in football again.
“We’ve worked hard, the players have worked exceptionally hard, but there’s a new feel about it because we’ve been away for quite a few months.”
“It’s different from years before because we didn’t play a full season, but we had a training programme from when we broke up in March all the way through to the end of June so we were working them three, four, five days a week, remotely obviously.
“We gave them July as a break and then we’ve hit the ground running from August 1st so we actually think CV-wise and fitness-wise that they’re probably back in better shape than they would have been if we had played a full season then just down-tooled for six to eight weeks.
“I think we kept them in really good shape even though we didn’t have eyes on them, but the players approached that programme we put in place really well.”
Return to Training
In-line with the strict EFL return to training procedures, the whole squad is safely back in training and testing has been conducted compliantly.
While pre-season is usually very fitness-focused, because of the circumstances and the condition the players have returned in, plus the short turn-around into the season, the Gaffer says that this pre-season has a different focus.
So far there has been just the one pre-season friendly against Crewe Alexandra, promoted from League Two in 2019-20, and result aside it was a useful game for squad and staff.
“The biggest thing for us is getting as much ball work into them as possible; not kicking a ball for five or six months is a considerable amount of time for a professional footballer so we’ve had to adapt our pre-season programme a little bit, add a lot more ball work into it.
“We had an in-house 11 v 11 last week, like I said we wanted to try and get them into games as quickly as possible but manage and control their minutes.
“Crewe was the first game against an outside opponent and we wanted 45 minutes from them, we’d already had an extensive training session in the morning, we trained again the next morning, so we see these early pre-season games as they are, they’re training sessions really.
“But we want to get into good habits and see where our weak spots are, what we need to improve on and work on, and when you play an opponent like Crewe that’s what’s going to happen; any things you need to improve they’re going to be exposed.
“I thought it was a brilliant game for us, it was the first game for a long, long time for a lot of the players, and I thought we did some good things but obviously there are some improvements to make and that’s the plan all the way through pre-season, to keep improving, because when the season kicks off in September that’s when we need to be ready.”
The 2020-21 season begins on Saturday 5th September with the Carabao Cup, although some ties involving clubs with players away on International Duty could be brought forward a week.
For clubs who progress to the next round it will be played just a week and a half on, then Rounds Three and Four follow on the next two mid-weeks which means the first month could be inconceivably congested. There is not much let up afterwards either with six mid-week league games scheduled for the remainder of 2020 in addition to the EFL Trophy mid-weeks, although to ease some congestion there will be no FA Cup replays.
Without doubt it will be a unique season and one that will present different challenges in terms of planning and preparation, but the Gaffer feels the squad will be as prepared as they can be, as well as the staff where there have been a couple of new additions.
“I think we’re all in uncharted territory that’s the thing, no one’s been in a situation where your whole squad has had six months off then all of a sudden you’re thrown into two games a week straight away for a considerable amount of time.
“Obviously it’s not ideal if you’re playing in mid-week straight away all the way through September after such a long period of time but we’re not the only club that might have to face that schedule so we’ll still carry on what we were doing and we have to just make sure we look after players, get them as fit as we possibly can then look after them in the time in between games when they come around.
“This time is really important for us because it’s probably the only time we’ll get once the season starts to get real training time into them consistently, day-in day-out, and work on the things that we have to do tactically and prepare for the season.
“I don’t think anyone can really give you a definitive idea of how it’s going to look once it starts, and with no crowds being there as well. We’ve obviously had a game against Crewe the other night behind closed doors, and halfway through we actually realised this is what it’s going to be like when we come back, so it’s a strange time but we have to get used to it as quickly as possible.
“We’re in this game because we love the game, we love being on the training pitch, we love being in the game situations, we love being in the team and the squad, and when that’s taken away from you you do feel like something’s missing, so certainly towards the end everyone was itching to get back in and even though the players knew it was going to be pre-season training I’m sure they were looking forward to coming back and getting amongst it again.
“For us we can’t wait for the games, there’s a lot of preparation and hard work to do before we get to them but we’re glad to be back.
“We’re constantly trying to improve everything that we have, we understand what’s going to happen next year with the games and a smaller squad, we’re determined to make sure the Development Squad pays dividends with players coming through and we wanted to strengthen the staffing around that and bring people in.
“We’ve brought in Youl Mawéné who I know very well from Fleetwood, he was a fantastic Strength & Conditioning Coach and he’s come in this week, so between him and Rob Williams they’ll look after all the professionals that we have at the club.
“We’ve got Callum Davison who’s come in as well to help on that side, I think the players need that support for the physical preparation that you need to get through 10 months of football and I think the additions we’ve made in the summer will certainly enhance the staffing off the pitch for the players.”
The draws for the Carabao Cup and EFL Trophy Group Stage take place on Tuesday 18th August on Sky Sports News at 10am and TalkSPORT 2 at 1:30pm respectively.
Sky Bet League Two fixtures are released at 9am on Friday 21st August.