The academy coaches and players have not been at Oakwell since March – with most of the staff put on furlough leave – and are not expected to return until July at the earliest, with the remainders of their seasons cancelled. This is the time of year when players are released but, although the under 16s and under 18s will be told if they have become scholars or first year professionals, the usual tweaks to the younger age groups will not be made and the squads will stay the same for the 2020/21 season.
Hassell told the Chronicle: “From under nines to under 15s, we won’t be releasing anyone now. I made the conscious decision that it is not right tell a young player who is sat at home in the middle of a pandemic that he has been released and, potentially, his dreams of being a footballer are over. They wouldn’t have a fair opportunity to get another club. “For the scholars (16 to 18-year-olds) and under 23s, we have to make a decision because you are getting to professional level then.
“I would love to give them another six months or year but that wouldn’t do anyone any good. Before the lockdown, we had a very good idea of which ones of them we were taking forward for next year and who we would let go. We are finalising those decisions and communicating them to the players and their families. It’s a sensitive issue. I would like to think we do things with integrity and honesty and, normally, we would always tell players and their families that they are not getting a contract face-to-face. But, in this situation, we can’t do that.”
Most of the funding for the Oakwell academy comes from the Premier League, with Hassell insisting the Reds have to put ‘minimal’ amounts into the youth system each year. That means he believes there will be no long-term consequences for the academy caused by the coronavirus although he admits that, across football, investment in youth teams could be one of the first things to be cut back as other clubs tighten their belts following the lockdown.
“There are clubs who spend a hell of a lot more money than we do on their academy and they could cut back a lot. A lot of category two academies spend £1million per year but we’re absolutely nowhere near that. It won’t have a long-term damaging impact on us. In the short and medium term, players will have been out for a lot of months so we will have to be careful in pre-season and treat each player as though they have been out with a long- term injury. But it won’t have much of an impact in other ways.”
The Oakwell academy usually employs 20 full-time staff and 30 to 40 part-time coaches but they are currently working with a skeleton staff of five after Barnsley put workers across various departments on furlough leave with the government paying 80 per cent of their wages. Hassell said: “Most of the staff are furloughed but we were set a mandate by the Premier League, in order to keep their funding, for five key positions that still had to be filled. The decision was made way beyond my payscale. The furlough scheme has been a great idea by the government because it safeguards businesses and means people can still put food on the table. I am sure all employees would want to be working but it is not possible. We are abiding by what the Premier League and EFL have told us to do and we are still operational and still busy.
“I am glad to be busy because I don’t really watch TV shows or do anything like that. I have set up an office at home and I am pretty much working 9-5 every day. We are talking regularly and planning the curriculum for next year and discussing a change in formation. We have been engaging with the players regularly, monitoring their training loads on the Strava app and they send in videos and data every day. They have been doing yoga sessions via Zoom.”
Hassell has spoken recently about the mental health issues he and many other ex-players face. He believes the lockdown will only make this worse. He said: “If you’re locked in for months, it is probably like being in prison. Then, when we come out of lockdown, a lot of people will experience anxiety because people are going to be scared and paranoid. It will definitely have an impact on players. They do know that they will come back into football so they can treat it like a long-term injury.
“But it could be a lot like when players retire and don’t have another job lined up. They will just be at home with nothing to do and will miss playing, training, the exercise and the dressing room as well the normalities of seeing your family and going out with friends. The mental side could be a worldwide problem, not just for footballers but for everyone. I have hundreds of players and staff to think about, so it is hard. I am trying to get sessions lined up where the academy players can talk to the first team players and ask them questions. They all have an app and get different challenges each day, with technical work and work from the educational department to keep them engaged.
“I would just tell anyone who is struggling to speak to as many people as possible, try to get into a daily routine and try not to drink too much. We will get through it, however long it takes.”