Adjusting to life working from home is a challenge in many industries right now but for footballers the now popular Zoom video conference comes with a twist. This is not an office meeting but a training session being coordinated remotely. Clubs up and down the land are having to find a way to make that work, League One side Oxford United included.
The meeting on Zoom has become a staple of daily life for the club’s players, although not everyone was ready for all that it entailed on the first day of training from home.
“A couple of the lads were still in bed on the first day that we got it,” club captain John Mousinho tells Sky Sports. “They didn’t fully realise that it was a serious meeting and we had to be ready to train straight away. So we got that out of our system.”
Since then, everything has been going smoothly. “We have a structured training plan,” Mousinho explains. “Last week, we were effectively ‘in’ every day.
“All the players were on there, the manager and the staff. Anything that we wanted to get across we could get across and then the sports science team put us through what we needed to do for the rest of the day. That was a work out and then a run. If we could find a football pitch that’s great but otherwise just go and do it on the road.
“We are all connected on the UnderArmour app and everything is fed back. Technology these days means that everything is instant – you can’t get away with not putting it in.”
Finding a way to continue the camaraderie that is a hallmark of life at a football club can be tricky when you are ostensibly working alone but Oxford are managing it.
“Seeing those 25 to 30 faces on the screen means you can have a bit of a laugh as well. On the Thursday, we did a miniature gym session together and we had to stay online while we did it and make sure we were filmed so that was quite amusing.
“We did some skipping, some work with the kettle bell and then some core work. You could see yourself doing it on the screen and all the other lads with the manager shouting a few things down the line. The fitness coach was shouting things to keep us going as well.
“It was so novel that it’s actually quite an interesting thing to do. To be fair, the players have all embraced it. They have all made sure they are on the app at the same time. They have done all the running at the right times. I know that might not seem like much to ask but it’s such a strange time that it is good to see everyone cracking on and in good spirits.”
Mental health concerns
For Mousinho, 33, the lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis has at least allowed for some quality time with his wife and two-year-old daughter. He has kept himself busy with some projects around the house too. But as a member of the PFA management committee he is acutely aware that not everyone’s circumstances are quite the same as his own.
“Most are enjoying being around their families but there are some who aren’t as fortunate,” he says. “One of our foreign players is at home alone with his family back in Spain. The reality for him is that he is on his own for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, he’s a good lad, he understands the situation, and he seems to be handling it relatively well.
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“At the minute, the novelty factor of being at home, having these meetings, and not being able to leave the house, has kept people going as strange as that sounds. It has not taken too much of a toll. But it will be a challenge if it goes on much longer. That’s the real danger.
“One of the responsibilities as club captain and as senior players is to make sure that we keep everyone in the squad healthy mentally. That’s the main priority for us. Fitness we can always get back but in terms of keeping everyone sound mentally, we will do our best and try to keep some modicum of team spirit – albeit virtual team spirit.
“The PFA are trying to let the players know that they are available. I know the head of player welfare Mickey Bennett does a really good job of running that department and makes sure that all the players’ calls are answered and there is counselling available at any time. There’s no stone that is left unturned. We need to ensure everyone has people they can talk to.”
Questions over conditioning
The uncertainty is a mental challenge and it is also a physical one. For now, players continue to tick over but Mousinho, who has also studied sports science, feels that is not sustainable.
“We are in the third week of not training as we normally would and you are going to reach a point where the bodies start to detrain. The lads are not going to be close to match fitness.
“You don’t want to flog a dead horse. As much as the lads enjoy keeping fit, if this is going to be a prolonged break then a complete rest for our bodies would not be the worst idea.
“At the minute, it is hard to do that because we still have that uncertainty over the return date. But whenever we return there has to be some sort of pre-season to get match fitness back. Just from an injury prevention point of view that will need to be factored in.
“Obviously, the lads talk and there’s no stopping that. There is so much speculation right now. Ultimately, we will just have to wait and see until we have a realistic date. For now, we are doing the right thing, ticking over so we don’t lose our conditioning completely.”
The financial question
The prospect of the season running well beyond June brings with it further complications for those players who are out of contract. Mousinho has nothing but admiration for those who have donated their salaries to the coronavirus effort but the financial realities for footballers further down the pyramid are rather different to their illustrious counterparts.
“I think it’s great that a lot of the top players are deferring wages,” says Mousinho. “You can’t speak for everyone but a lot of those players can afford an unpaid holiday.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the players in the lower leagues, regardless of what the perceptions may be, they are not paid huge amounts. The average career of a footballer is seven years so if you are not paid a huge amount then it can be difficult.
“I know there are players who cannot afford unpaid leave because they live to their means. They have never factored in that this might happen. They literally cannot afford these cuts.
“That applies to everyone in all walks of life, of course, but it would be wrong to think all footballers can afford it either. There are mortgages to be paid and mouths to feed. It is a very tricky time for everyone and footballers are certainly not excluded from that.
“If the season starts before the end of June and contracts have to be extended that is probably more straightforward. It is a lot trickier if contracts run out and we are still not back playing. I don’t know what will happen then. Will clubs let players’ contracts run out and not be paid? That will make for very muddy waters, I think.”
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