Coronavirus has had an unprecedented impact on every facet of life, but after months of lockdown, society is slowly trying to get back to normality.

While English football scrambles to get moving again, in line with its European counterparts, debates of safety, money and morality rumble on.

When the spotlight is firmly fixed at the top, with Premier League survival and multi-million-pound sums at stake, it is easy to overlook those outside of the mainstream.

I spoke to Kenny Brown, Head of Coaching at Millwall’s academy, to find out how coronavirus has impacted him and his staff, the progress of Millwall’s youngsters and the future of the academy at Millwall.

In usual circumstances Kenny has a broad role at the club, working with Scott Fitzgerald, Millwall’s Academy Director: ‘I oversee Under 9s to Under 23s. The remit is the running of all football activities: the games programme, tools, events, player registrations, all the stuff that lets the academy function behind the scenes.

‘A big part of mine is working with the coaches, making them better, so that we improve the players, which is the bottom line. That’s what we want to do.’

The uncertainty caused by the lockdown has been frustrating for Kenny, but the club have been clear in their communication from the outset: ‘We got emails sent out from the chief executive explaining the situation. Everyone was fine, and we’ve been constantly updated. Communication has been clear and obviously appreciated. The last thing you want to be doing is wondering what’s happening.’

With the majority of Millwall’s staff furloughed, the academy is operating a skeleton staff. Kenny is one of five academy staff still working from home, including Fitzgerald, Paul Tighe (Head of Education) and Alex Stefanakis (Head of Sports Science and Medicine). ‘It’s all distant communication, a lot of Zoom meetings. It’s hard for us because there’s no end date or start date.’

‘It’s been distant, no one has been in the training ground. It’s only been the injured and they come in one at a time for rehab, so it’s just Alex [Stefanakis] and the player. Apart from that, there’s been no training, so they’ve been doing it at home. They were given programmes initially as soon as lockdown happened.’

Despite ongoing plans to figure out a way to conclude the season at senior level, the academy seasons have been brought to a close. With no training or matches, Kenny’s role has become more pastoral, rather than a coach.

‘It’s more socially and with welfare. Kids of 17 or 18 keep themselves fit now…that’s all they can do, and we appreciate that. All the scholars were in constant contact with either myself of Paul Tighe, just checking that they’re all ok.

‘Everyone was keen to keep motivated as if they were coming to training every day, but when we realised we were in for the long haul rather than the short-term, I think you can have a bit of overkill with the players.

‘Instead, we give them time with their families because they’ve got different circumstances, some might be suffering from the pandemic and the virus.’

With so much focus on the top end of the game and the desire to get football matches back on TV, it is easy to overlook the young men that Kenny works with, facing such uncertainty at the start of their careers.

He explained that the staff are well aware of the slim chances his youngsters face of making it in the game. Less than 0.5% of boys from Under 9s make it in the game in England, so Kenny acknowledges the importance of developing the person, as well as the player.

He said, ‘We want to improve them both on and off the pitch. We want every academy player to get through and play in our first team, but of course that doesn’t happen. We are well aware of the percentage of players that get through, so we have to take the holistic approach and develop them as people and as young men. We have a massive responsibility with that.

‘They’re not all going to become footballers, but they can all become better people, so that is a big remit of not just myself, but for the club as a whole.’

Even while the game is on pause, the football machine has to keep churning. Last week, Millwall announced the departure of five second-year scholars from their academy. Despite the circumstances, Millwall’s academy staff still need to make difficult decisions.

‘It’s a difficult time for them, we appreciate that, normally you’d be in, training and playing but it’s also the time of retain and release.

‘Normally, you’d have them inside, talk to them face to face, but we haven’t had the opportunity to do that. Last week, again governed by the Football League, the retain and release carried on. We had to give decisions out through Zoom online, which obviously isn’t great, but it’s not a good situation anyway, so unfortunately, we still have to function, still have to go through the process.

‘Normally we would have done it a little bit earlier when clubs academies were still training, so they would have had an opportunity to go somewhere else and train and go on trial. That opportunity isn’t there for them, so along with everyone else, they can’t do much. We’re very mindful that the circumstances are weighed against them, so it’s important that we do keep in contact with them and all the staff have.’

It's a difficult time for these young men, who are left feeling as though their careers are over before they’ve begun. Kenny knows the difficulties that they face in these unprecedented times and is keen to ensure they received all the help the club can offer.

‘We understand that the situation they’re all going through, the second years, is [difficult]. They feel that their careers in football have ended. Far from it, their pathway is just different now, so we’ve got to make sure that support mechanism is behind them.

‘We’re very mindful of that, we have been all the time, not just this year but definitely since I’ve been at the club, and I’m sure before that.

‘There is that support and guidance and help, in any way we can provide for them, whether that’s an educational one, dropping back into school or whether it’s football related, putting them into clubs with the amount of contacts we have. We’ve got a lot of experienced coaches and staff at the club who know different people, and we’re here to help them.’

‘The boys got released for a certain reason, not because they’re bad footballers, or bad people, so we would be looking to recommend them elsewhere and there would be nothing better for us than if they do go and secure a professional contract somewhere. Hopefully, when football does resume, these boys can go onto other clubs and hopefully have some longevity in the game.’

Cancellation of the development leagues will have brought frustration on the pitch, to both the Under 18 and Under 23 sides. Both teams were enjoying their strongest campaigns in recent seasons, both on course for their division titles, with the Under 18s having reached the quarter finals of the FA Youth Cup.

I asked Kenny if there was any frustration, having lost the potential for silverware. He chuckled and said, ‘You’ll have to ask Larry [McAvoy] and Chris [Perry]’, Millwall’s U18s Lead Coaches.

‘It was a really healthy campaign for us at 18s and 23s, and first team as well, it’s just a shame it got cut short. That’s how it is, we’ve dealt with it, we’ve taken it on board and we’re ready to go again as and when we’re allowed to.

‘On our side, it’s not irrelevant where you finish, because you don’t want to finish bottom, getting beaten every week because that means as players and as a team, you’re not doing something right.

‘But at 18s and 23s it’s purely about development. I spoke to both Chris and Larry last week when decisions were made. We’ve looked and are hopefully getting four players through from second years [scholars] into first years [pros]. That’s a good number again, we took eight from within last year.

‘That’s the sign of their worth, not whether they got a trophy at the end of it. We could have won a trophy and not taken one pro, so for us the rewards are getting player in so that they get a professional contract.’

The strong performance of the development groups is not a one off. It is part of a consistent improvement at youth level during the five seasons in which Kenny has been at the club.

‘I’m not taking any credit for this,’ he joked, ‘I think that over a period of years, it’s the way the club functions. We don’t lose many staff within the academy, that’s healthy because there’s that consistency, our messages are consistent.

‘Millwall is a humble club. We don’t have loads of money, we don’t go out and spend, we don’t have superstars in the first team. It’s a very grounded football club from top to bottom and that develops the person.’

Kenny insists that the person is more important than the player. He explains that bad attitudes and big egos won’t be tolerated at Millwall.

‘When we’re on different sites, it’s even more important. As soon as they go over to Calmont and work with the 23s and are under the noses of the first team players and staff, the levels jump, and they have to be prepared for that.

‘If you’ve got someone coming in a couple minutes late frequently, we know that that won’t be accepted over there. That has to be squashed and if they can’t change that, we know there’s no longevity with us, so we wouldn’t keep them. We look at the all-round player.’

Kenny credits the introduction of a dedicated U23s side with the improvement at both age groups.

‘We were a little bit reactive a few years ago, the 23s were sort of a stopgap. We looked at where we can improve all areas of the club and I think the 23s was an area that could do with improvement. It was decided to hold them all in a bigger group, a more dedicated group.

‘The way we set up the academy…helps enormously, we got the benefits of that. We have a lot of second years now staying in the U18s, which helps the results and the strength of that team. We look back and know we made some good decisions this time last year with how we structured it differently.’

The eight scholars signed on professional contracts last year was the most in the club’s history. Kenny believes that provided a solid base for the U23 squad and allowed the U18s to stay together longer, aiding both groups’ development.

‘They’re still learning their trade, they’re still developing. There’s this mad rush to get players pushing up through, but they’ll get through if you’re patient with them, and you have to be.

‘The environment and the situation we created provided that. They were stable in the 18s, the 23s near enough knew what team would be playing every week.’

‘Bottom line is, we’re in a good catchment area, our recruitment is healthy, I like to think that our coaching staff are one of the best around and I think there’s that link all the way through to the first team.’

Kenny is aware of the competitive catchment area that Millwall find themselves in but backs his staff and the environment when it comes to signing talent.

‘There’s no getting away from it. On our doorstep, you’ve got Charlton, Palace, who’ve been in the Premier League for god knows how many years now, but we’re still competitive with them.

‘And that’s not including the top London clubs, your Arsenals, Tottenhams, West Hams, Chelseas, and they’ve all got eyes on South London.

‘It’s difficult, but we believe in what we’re doing. We haven’t got unbelievable facilities, it’s not the wow factor when you walk in, but I’ll back our coaches and our environment to really care for the boy.’

According to Kenny, players who have experience of other academies describe the environment at Millwall as ‘chalk and cheese’, praising the transparency, clarity, and positivity.

Many credit Neil Harris with re-introducing that attitude to Millwall. During his time as manager he re-established the pathway from academy to first team and created a positive culture around the club.

‘We had it, as everybody knows, with Neil [Harris] and Livers [David Livermore]. It was very strong; we were very close as a group. But nothing’s really changed, Gary’s come in and done excellently, he trusts the staff, he trusts Scott, who has obviously been at the academy and been academy manager for over 10 years now, so he knows how the club runs.’

Kenny has been impressed since Millwall’s new manager took over in October, acknowledging that coming into a club mid-season isn’t easy.

‘He’s obviously an excellent and experienced manager. He’s done only good things since he’s been at the club, including the link with the academy.

‘He trusts what we’re doing there and he’s not there to stop the growth and to stop the pathway. He wants the pathway stronger, so it’s our jobs to do that with his backing. If you’ve got that link, that pathway, clear from first team right the way through to the academy then it’s obviously a decent environment.

‘He’s not there to say, “No, I’m not interested in the academy”, he’s very much for the academy. He understands the constraints financially that we have, and other clubs don’t, but I think that breeds good values, we’ve got strong values at the club and they obviously sit with Gary,

‘He trusts the people who were in place. If we recommend a player for him to come up to go with the 23s or the first team, then he’ll take it on-board.’

Before his appointment as manager, Rowett spoke of his dedication to youth development. In an interview with the EFL, he outlined his belief in the important experience that loan moves provide young players.

This season, Millwall have had a number of youth prospects out on loan, including Junior Tiensa, Harvey Bradbury, Danny McNamara, and Jesse Debrah.

Kenny echoed the thoughts of the manager when he explained, ‘I think there’s a plan there now. You’ll come up into the 23s and find your feet. You’re over at the first team training ground so levels jump, standards jump up, and you’ve got to be there.’

‘Then it’ll be “How long?”. They might spend a season in the 23s, then the following season, it might be time to go out on loan, to play for points, to sit in a dressing room when you’ve just got beat in the last minute, or you’ve won in the last minute, playing for money.’

‘For them, it’s a different experience, it’s important that they get that experience before they jump up into the first team.’

He knows that the pathway isn’t the same for every player, however. He is aware of the likes of Billy Mitchell, who ‘may well jump through and go into the first team without going out on loan, with the way he’s been performing in training and games in the 23s and the first team.’

‘Everyone is an individual, like I keep saying, everyone’s pathway is different. We have to make sure we’re aware of it, they’re aware of it as players, and we do the best we can to give them all the experiences so that when they do go through to the first team, they stay there.’

Another change behind the scenes is the introduction of club legend and former captain, Paul Robinson, who joined this year as U23 coach, working alongside the experienced Kevin Nugent.

Kenny was full of praised for a man he knows well, ‘He’s brilliant, a top man.

‘We’re so happy that he’s on board, he works really well with Kevin Nugent. He skippered at Millwall, he’s a Millwall legend, he knows what it takes to get through to the first team.

‘If you’re a centre half, or any player, at 23s, you’ve got Kevin Nugent, with god knows how many years of experience as a player and as a manager, you’ve got Robbo, who knows what Millwall is about, knows what the traits are at the club; you’ve got two coaches there that you just can’t wait to go and learn from. For us, he’s been brilliant.’

Kenny is full of positivity for the future of Millwall’s academy. He speaks with pride about the structure, the recruitment of staff and players, as well as the environment he and his colleagues have created.

He is confident that the system will start bringing through some home-grown players to join the likes of Ben Thompson, Aiden O’Brien, and Billy Mitchell.

‘We’ve got some great age groups. I think over the next few years, you’ll see some players come through and hopefully they will carry on developing as they’re doing. Hopefully, there’s a future for them at Millwall. There’s lots of good boys in the system.

‘At the moment, the environment is good.

‘Over the last three or four years, we have got players in and kept them in the game. Hopefully, there’s more of the Billy Mitchells, that can break into the first team here and stay in the first team here, getting some games in the Championship and, touch wood, Premiership football.’