Preston North End manager Alex Neil has had his squad back in training for two days and says that the squad have returned in good shape after the enforced two-month lay-off.
The Lilywhites were back at Springfields in small groups from Monday, with strict protocols in place, with the full squad and staff given the go ahead to return after testing negative for Covid-19 over the weekend.
“The fact we have had eight weeks off, everybody was looking forward to coming back in - everybody has missed it,” the gaffer told iFollow PNE. “Lockdown and isolation, for some of the lads who have been on their own, has probably been a difficult period for them. They have all looked forward to coming back in, getting back with each other – albeit at a distance – and they have coped well with it. The lads have kept them ticking over during this period, which has been good.
“The most pleasing thing is the trust that you can put in the squad. We have not been overbearing with them [during the lockdown period], doing daily checks on them. We have given them programmes, kept in touch with them, made sure that if they need anything, we were available to help and then touch base as and when needed, to make sure that everybody had carried out their programmes.
“We had a logging system as well, so that everything they had done, we would log it to make sure we could keep track of the work they were doing and make sure they were doing the right sort of stuff. That has been organised very well with the sports science team and the medical team and the players have been first class.
"They have taken that all on board and looked after each other and themselves to make sure they are in good shape.”
With the negative test results behind them, the PNE boss admits that extra sacrifices will be necessary from everyone over the coming weeks, to ensure they are all ready when the games restart.
“You can catch Covid in a variety of different ways,” continued Alex. “You don’t need to be out searching it or ignoring lockdown. You can get it at the supermarket, but thankfully everybody tested negative and that showed that our lads abided by the rules and they made sure they tried to isolate as much as possible.
“The instruction I have given them over this period, is that it is so important that we get the games finished, for the clubs, for the league and for the sake of everybody; that within this period, they will basically isolating themselves in their house with their families, apart from coming to training and getting their work done, so we can hopefully get through these last nine games. And then after that, we are a lot freer to do as we please.
“It is quite strange, when you are in the training ground it is quite easy to know if you can trust them, because you give them an instruction and they carry it out. It is when they are away in their own surroundings and they have time on their hands, that when you give them instructions you hope they are going to follow it and make sure they carry out all the things that you would want in the manner you would want them to do it and over this period the lads have certainly shown that they are trustworthy, that they are good professionals and that they have a pride about themselves, in how they behave and how they go about their business and that has been a massive bonus.”
Whilst training has got back underway, the date of the fixture has not yet been confirmed and this is something Alex, and his fellow managers in the Championship, are hoping comes out very soon, so they can focus their planning.
“This is the biggest frustration for every manager up and down the leagues, from the Premier League to the Championship.
“What you would generally do, when you get your fixtures, is to look at the list, look at your first game and work backwards and plan your training schedule accordingly to make sure that you are hitting peak fitness and peak game-readiness for that first game.
“At the moment we are training hard, but we have still not got a start date and still not got that first fixture set out. I am just hoping that they don’t let us train for a week or so and then spring an early date on us where we basically have a week and a half or two weeks to get started.
“I would be really thankful, and I am sure every manager would be, if we got a start date ASAP, so we can really start to plan. The biggest worry for me going into this, I am sure this will be for every team, is picking up injuries, because regardless of how much work the lads have done, running up and down in straight lines, round a pitch or 5K and 10K, does not get you ready for football.
“All the football movement we have done in the last two days, has really taken its toll on the players and we have to make sure that we want to do enough to get them ready, but not too much to overwhelm them and I just hope that the games don’t start too soon, because they are going to be hitting that full tilt for 90 minutes.
“You also have to consider that we are going to have to fit nine games into a very short space of time, so not only are we going to condense games, we are going into it where lads have not played any real football for eight weeks, straight back into it. So, if we got a start date as soon as possible, that would certainly help,” he added.
There is a lot more from Alex in our extended interview that you can watch by clicking on the video at the top of the page, as he discusses how he had had to adapt the training given the social distancing rules, the return of football in Europe and whether he will have to adapt his plans and style in the remaining games given the things he mentions above about fitness.