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How coronavirus forced WSL academies to step up

Last Sunday at the Academy Stadium, Alicia Window and Millie Davies laced up their boots for their Manchester City debuts. The teenagers were joined on the pitch by Aston Villa debutant Olivia McLoughlin.

At Damson Park, visitors Brighton had fresh-faced Libby Bance and Faith Nokuthula on the bench, while 16-year-old Abi Cowie was on Birmingham’s.

None is a household name in the Women’s Super League yet, but they had one thing in common. Across the 14 clubs who are part of the WSL academy system, there were 14 academy-registered players in the squad lists last week, the most since the league’s academy system was launched in 2018.

The trend emerged as a direct result of a disastrous previous weekend in the WSL, when five of six fixtures were cancelled – four of those due to coronavirus outbreaks blighting squads. The league’s integrity was called into question, especially after it was revealed by Telegraph Sport that a number of players had caught the virus following a Christmas trip to Dubai.

It prompted the Football Association to gently encourage all clubs to dip into their academy resources where possible, to boost their squads to the 14-player minimum required for matches to go ahead under Covid-19 regulations.

These developments could not have been possible just two months ago, when all WSL academies (for girls aged 16 and over) were forced to close under lockdown regulations, as the FA said they did not collectively qualify for the Government’s “elite sport” exemption.

The FA’s decision in November sparked an equality row as parents of academy girls called out the double standards. While their daughters were locked out of their performance pathways, boys’ academies at the same clubs – which operate under Premier League and English Football League guidance, not FA – continued to play as normal. The furore forced an about-turn from the FA a week later.

Academies with appropriate protocols were allowed to apply to restart, but even those that already met the criteria were still closed for nearly three weeks. Brighton was one. Last September, when planning the return of their academies which had been closed since March, Brighton implemented the same health and safety protocols for their girls as their boys – including an on-call doctor and daily symptom reporting. “We felt it was important to provide equality of opportunity,” Brighton’s women’s and girls’ general manager Polly Bancroft said. When their girls’ academy was forced to close in November, she says the club struggled “to justify the decision” for “dismayed” players.

This lockdown, lessons have been learnt. On Jan 6, days into the latest lockdown, 10 out of 14 WSL academies were already operating, and the other four were ironing out the details to return. Two weeks on, only one remains closed.

Looking at each academy case individually has spurred promising progress but it is not just quick-fix social-distancing measures, with a number of clubs locked out of public training facilities they relied on. The majority have adapted though, Reading for example moving their girls to train at their first-team facilities when their educational training site was closed. WSL academy programme manager Tony Fretwell says some boys’ and girls’ systems have become more integrated in the process.

“That closer working relationship is a definite benefit,” he says. “We don’t have 30 staff in each WSL academy, but we have seen an enormous upsurge in the amount of support from the boys’ side. I think that that’s progress that will benefit everybody moving forward.”

With the majority of academy players training consistently again, clubs have the option of adding those youngsters to their testing pools if they are short on players, and cancellations could become less frequent.

The FA is also understood to be discussing the possibility of extending testing to all academy players.

It feels necessary as, before this weekend, Reading were the only WSL club who had completed 12 rounds of competition, Birmingham and Aston Villa lagging three games behind. With the Women’s FA Cup postponement during lockdown only likely to aggravate the match pile-up later this season, more cancellations are not what the FA needs if it wants to complete all competitions.

In that vein, McLoughlin again featured on Villa’s bench on Saturday, Carla Ward had plans to include two academy newbies in Birmingham’s squad this week and Brighton are contemplating adding a third to their squad against City on Sunday. But manager Hope Powell was cautious. “Some of them are perhaps not ready,” she said on Friday. “It’s difficult, it might have to be an early baptism of fire. But we won’t field players that I don’t feel are ready for first-team football.”

Bancroft echoes Powell’s dilemma, saying player welfare had to come first.

She says Brighton’s initial request to delay their Jan 5 fixture against Bristol City, as a positive coronavirus test limited first-team numbers, was rejected by the FA because their academy players were “technically available”. The fixture was eventually cancelled following a second positive test, but Bancroft said it raised questions about grey areas in the 14-player rule, which they went to the FA for reassurance and clarity on last week.

To her, it is about balance. “We’ve shown lots of opportunities for players to make that step up from academy football,” Bancroft says. “But it’s not necessarily a player centric view to force an academy player into a women’s squad before their time. Yes, we really want to maintain the WSL, keep it going. But it has to be a balance.”

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