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Barry Robson on the agony of Aberdeen’s 2019-20 League and cup double dream derailed by Covid

Aberdeen U18 coach Barry Robson cheers on the young Dons.
Aberdeen U18 coach Barry Robson cheers on the young Dons.

Aberdeen U18 coach Barry Robson had to pick up the club’s youngsters after the coronavirus pandemic denied them the opportunity of an historic league and cup double last year.

Sitting joint top of the U18 league with Rangers and set to play in the  Scottish Youth Cup final the Dons were on the cusp of a majestic double.

There was also a potential Euro adventure as the U18 Youth League winners also qualified for the Uefa Youth Champions League alongside super-powers like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and Scottish football was shutdown at all levels from March 13.

To Robson’s frustration and the agony of the Pittodrie teenagers so close to a double Rangers were eventually awarded the league title on goal difference.

That was despite Aberdeen having played the tougher games before the shut-down.

As if that hammer blow of having the double dream denied the youngsters then had to endure lockdown and no football for a year.

The U18’s finally returned to action last month  – and Robson has high hopes for the emerging crop of young talent.

Barry Robson, whilst interim Aberdeen manager, with coaches Scott Anderson and Neil Simpson during training.

He said: “The hardest part was that they had done so well to get to top equal in the league with Rangers and also the Youth Cup final.

“Had we won the league we would have gone into the qualifying rounds for the Champions League.

“However they ended up giving it to Rangers because their goal difference was better than us which was unfair and frustrating as there were still nine games to go.

“We had already played Celtic twice and Rangers hadn’t played them yet.

Even if these boys didn’t go on to have professional careers, to actually play in a final with a lot of fans there or win the league at that age- it stays with you for life.

“They worked hard to get to where they were.

“The boys were gutted and it was so hard to see that.

“Then on top of that we got locked down for almost a year.”

 

“We had played the harder teams but they gave it to Rangers which was really frustrating for everyone concerned.

“Obviously we couldn’t even have played a one off game against each other as we couldn’t go from Aberdeen to Glasgow or anything like that.

“The first teams in the other leagues were shut down as well – so it was outwith our control.

“There was nothing we could say or do – we just to grin and bear it.

“In the Youth Cup we beat Rangers in the semi-final to reach the final against Kilmarnock and were hot favourites to win the trophy.

“Then the cup final never took place.

“It was really hard on the young players as we had a good chance of winning both and then taking the club into the U19 Champions League for the first time

“Even if these boys didn’t go on to have professional careers, to actually play in a final with a lot of fans there or win the league at that age- it stays with you for life.

“They worked so hard to get to where they were.

“The boys were gutted and it was so hard to see that.

“Then on top of that we were then locked down for almost a year.”

The Scottish Cup final that never was

Aberdeen defeated Rangers 2-1 in the Youth Cup semi-final at Cove Rangers’ Balmoral Stadium on February 2, 2020 to set up a final clash with Kilmarnock.

There are no plans to reschedule the final now that U18 football has returned.

Robson insists the problem is that some of the players involved in reaching the final are no longer with the two clubs.

Aberdeen coach Barry Robson during a training session. Supplied by Aberdeen FC

He said: “The problem now is that lockdown happened and then a lot of the players were coming out of contract.

“Some of them have left the club.

“We found out around summer there wouldn’t be any football until closer to January so these guys were going to be sitting about for  a year with nowhere to play.

“We tried to look after as many players as we could but there was no football for them.

“That was the real hard part for me.

“Some of the boys might have been able to stay on and have a better chance but because of the lack of football it wasn’t fair for us to keep them here.

“We had to try to let them go to other professional teams as the Highland League and lower divisions were going to be back sooner than we were.

“So It was a chance for them to go there.

“Obviously that didn’t happen too much either.

“It has been a really tough time and the ones we have on long term contracts have missed a good year of football.

“You could see that in them because as much as we tried to give them programmes and look after them at that age they lost a lot of their muscle, speed and endurance.

“They just looked like young kids coming out of school again after what they had been built up to.”

Aberdeen U18’s route to the Scottish Youth Cup final

  • Aberdeen 2 Rangers 1. Balmoral stadium, February 21st, 2020.
    Scorers: Michael Ruth (20, 29).
  • Aberdeen 3 St Johnstone 1 (aet). Balmoral stadium, January 24th, 2020
    Scorers: Kevin Hanratty (77), Michael Dangana (99), Connor Barron (116).
  • Aberdeen 4 Montrose 2. Cormack Park. December 6, 2019.
    Scorers: Kieran Shanks (13), Michael Ruth (79), Connor Barron (90, 90)

    • Aberdeen 11 Clachnacuddin 0. Balmoral Stadium, November 11, 2019.
      Scorers: Connor Barron (5), Kevin Hanratty (9, 78), Max Barry (28), Michael Dungana (29), Kieran Shanks (40, 41), Calvin Ramsay (65), Jack MacIver (82, 86), Andrew Paterson (50).
Pittodrie training session with Barry Robson instructing the players. Supplied by Aberdeen FC.

A year lost due to the coronavirus pandemic

Aberdeen’s U18’s played just one match in 13 months due to the pandemic with that sole game a 2-0 defeat of Inverness Caley Thistle in November 2020.

More than a year of frustration finally ended on April 9 this year when the U18’s returned in a Club Academy Scotland campaign–  a nine team mini league.

The winner of the league qualified for the Uefa U19 Champions League.

All the games were  behind closed doors due to Covid-19 restrictions.

The Aberdeen U18’s concluded the Club Academy Scotland campaign with a 3-2 loss to Hibs at the Oriam in Edinburgh this week.

It was not only the physical well-being Robson and the club had to try to protect during the coronavirus lockdown but the mental health of the young players.

Isolation, separated from team mates and friends, the inability to play football or train as a group – they could all take a toll.

He said: “That was the tough part.

“As they were placed on furlough we couldn’t do much with them.

“We couldn’t set up conference calls as that would be classed as work.

“What myself and Scott Anderson (U18 coach) did was put welfare calls in every couple of weeks to see how they were doing.

“We just let them know our number is there, that we are there and the club are there for anything they need.

“We put up a pick up point and gave them all markers, balls and cones.

“They did all their programmes through online but it was tough because we couldn’t really interact with them.

“We just made sure we put phone calls into them now and again as a club to make sure we looked after them as best we could.”

No change in youth football philosophy under new manager Stephen Glass

A League Cup winner with Aberdeen in 2014 Robson was put in interim charge of the Aberdeen first team with Reserve Team coach Paul Sheerin when Derek McInnes was axed as manager in March this year.

Falkirk are reportedly closing in on appointing Sheerin as their new manager.

Robson and Sheerin oversaw three games, two draws and a loss, before Stephen Glass arrived as manager from Atlanta United 2.

Robson returned to his role as U18 coach with a young squad who were thrown straight into the nine team mini-league with no pre-season training.

Barry Robson (l) and Paul Sheerin (r) whilst interim managers in the 1-0 loss to Dundee United in March.

The 42-year-old insists there will be no dramatic philosophy change in the football he teaches at U18 level now that Glass is at the club.

Glass wants high tempo, pressing, entertaining football and that is what Robson instils in the emerging talent as it is the philosophy of the club.

He praised the U18’s for their performances in the recent mini-league in what was a steep, but invaluable, learning curve for the youngest in the squad.

He said: “We came back at the end of the last season and played 10 games.

“The boys had no pre-season and it was a case of individual training and then straight into 10 games in four weeks.

“They really hung in and did well.

“We managed to take up some younger ones and they probably learnt more in that four weeks than they did in their whole career.

“Just playing two years above themselves.

“That was pleasing.”

Aberdeen coach Barry Robson oversees a training session at Pittodrie. Provided by Aberdeen FC.

Robson will challenge youth to test themselves

Robson has drafted 16-year-olds into the U18 squad to take them out of their comfort zone and push them.

He wants the Reds youth to ‘play up levels’ rather than controlling games against players of their own level.

Only through pushing the boundaries can there be continual progress in the ultimate pathway to the first team.

He explained: “Next season our U18 team will be really young.

“We have taken in a lot of the 05 age group so  a lot of them will be playing two years above themselves next season.

“That is what we have tried to do because we are trying to get them to play up levels rather than winning  and controlling games and being stronger than everyone else.

“They are going to have to go up and play harder.

“They are going to learn a lot more in the games as not everything goes your own way.

Pittodrie training session for U18 coach Barry Robson. Supplied by Aberdeen FC.

“They will take a few defeats playing against stronger, bigger, quicker players.

“That is what I am looking forward to because that is when you see them improving more than anything.

“Rather than just being a good side playing at your own level.

“They are actually going to be playing against boys that are a lot bigger, stronger and a lot more tactically aware.

“It will be a good learning curve for them next year.”

Target to get rising youth ready for first team

Ultimately the goal for Robson is developing talent strong enough to go into Stephen Glass’ first team.

Stephen Glass will try to play as many of the young boys as possible.”

Barry Robson

Robson and Sheerin, as interim managers, gave first team starts to 17-year-old right back Calvin Ramsay and 21-year-old left-back Jack MacKenzie.

They also started attacker Ethan Ross, 19, in the 1-0 Scottish Cup defeat of Dumbarton.

All three produced impressive performances.

Aberdeen’s Calvin Ramsay (44) dribbles with the ball against Dumbarton.
Aberdeen’s Jack Mackenzie (left) is challenged by Jackson Irvine in the 1-0 loss to Hibs.

Robson said: ” Stephen Glass will try to play as many of the young boys as possible.

“However the  manager cannot play them unless they are ready and that is where myself and Scott Anderson have to try to prepare them as much as we can.

“We have to get them ready to compete in the first team, make their debuts and when they do perform well.”

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