Before the start of the 2021/22 ESPFA Campaign, a fresh divisional structure was brought in as the programme reverted back to two regional divisions: The North and South divisions. So far, we have seen a high standard of football on display week in, and week out and the divisions have been as competitive as ever.
Ever since the new academic year started, and our partnership clubs were back on the training pitch and in the classroom, there has been a huge sense of excitement with the whole programme returning to a more structured model after two very difficult years due to COVID disruptions. Mark Baker, the Head of Programme for the ESPFA has seen this first-hand in the past few weeks. He said: “I believe there has been huge excitement in the first half-term from both students and coaches in relation to getting back on the training pitch. Due to the restrictions of the pandemic, the past two years have led to a very disjointed training and matchday schedule, which had a detrimental effect on the enjoyment felt by all involved. The fact there is now structure back in place has led to real enthusiasm throughout the programme.” This emotion has been shared by students who are equally as happy to be back training and studying with no restrictions. Harry Clements, captain of #ESPFADerbyshire side Belper Town has relished the experience of being able to return to playing football. He said: “I have enjoyed being back playing competitive football as the team we have now is very close knit which makes it easy to enjoy playing. I am definitely looking forward to the next set of fixtures for next term.”
Before the season officially started on 23rd September, pre-season was held to start integrating the students together before the academic year started. Since then, the coaches have been able to tailor their sessions to get the most out of their team. Jack Sanders, the #ESPFADerbyshire coach at Belper Town outlined he has been getting the most out of his sessions early in the season. He said: “The first month of training has been very much the students understanding what we expect from them, how we will play and what is demanded of them during training and games. We’ve spoke a lot about things may not go our way but it’s important that we continue to work really hard and stick together especially during difficult moments. We’ve had quite a few tough moments so far this season, but the attitude and energy has been second none in all sessions and games.”
This year the coaches get to spend three sessions a week with their teams where they can analyse each matchday they play in and tweak training sessions accordingly. This results in the sessions changing as the season goes on. Mark Baker described how the training sessions evolved as the teams started the season: “The coaches have all been assessing the group of players they have during the opening weeks and tailoring their coaching sessions to suit the needs of the collective. In the opening weeks of the academic year, staff were looking to build up the baseline fitness of their squads, allowing them to have a level of conditioning that would serve them to go deep into the season. The following weeks, centred around the tactical and technical needs of their respective groups, embedding the principles of play that each team would look to uphold throughout the season.”
As a result of the excellent coaches that the programme boasts up and down the country and the brilliant students that each of the ESPFA regions have to offer, the football programme is currently benefitting from having two very close, competitive divisions this season. In the South Division, six teams are separated by just four points whereas in the North, Runcorn Linnets are level on points with Brighouse Town at the top of the table, with only goal difference splitting the two sides. This is something the ESPFA takes great satisfaction in achieving this so far this season and it is something Mark Baker is very proud of. “The competitive balance within the games programme is a really important factor and one that we strive to achieve from year to year. There will always be a club every year with an outstanding group of players, however the gap can be bridged via a mixture of outstanding coaching and player conditioning. A scenario where teams have goals to aim for, whether it be league positioning or pursuing a cup run later in the season, will only increase motivation and enthusiasm for each training and game day throughout the academic year.”
Not only are the students benefitting from a strong, competitive divisional structure, but they are able to actively use what they are learning in class and put it into practice on the training pitch and in their games. Mark Baker detailed how the Units that the students have studied in class are being used in their practical football approach. “Throughout the season there are various units which can be directly linked into training sessions and data then be used to analyse performance of each individual. An example of this is Unit 8 (Fitness Testing), in which various physical metrics are recorded for each student, which can then be used by the coach to tailor specific programme extras for those who wish to utilise the data. A further example in the opening weeks has been Unit 4 (Nutrition for Physical Performance), which has allowed students to better understand the level of detail that goes into fuelling the body at elite levels, which again can be implemented into player's own regimes.” This area has also been highlighted by Jack Sanders, who believes it is essential for the students to know how to recover from games properly, to be able to perform to consistent high standards. He said: “It is really important the students start to understand that football is not just about what you do on the pitch but also how you apply yourself off the pitch and how you look after your body, how you maintain high levels of energy and what foods need to be eaten before and after games to help speed recovery”.
We are so pleased with the continued hard work from all the tutors, coaches and students that have helped kickstart the 2021/22 season off with a bang and we are looking forward to seeing you back in action over the next few weeks!