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Dealing with a Pandemic: How are Aston Villa coping with the huge repercussions of COVID-19?

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic asks countless questions of football clubs and there are huge operational issues raised by such a mass disruption. Liam Rowsell speaks to Aston Villa’s First Team Operations Manager, Matt Bennett, to gain an insight into what is going on behind the scenes of a Premier League club in these challenging circumstances. 

Aston Villa have enjoyed a fantastic start to this season, having won all three of their opening Premier League games. To do this in the current climate takes a lot of work both on and off the pitch, and no one knows this more than Matt Bennett.

Having worked under Nigel Adkins and Leonid Slutsky at Hull City and taken care of team operations and logistics at MLS club Minnesota United, Matt has plenty of vital experience to use in his role at Aston Villa. The operational department of a football club will always be busy, but Matt and his team have really had their work cut out this year.

How has the build-up to a match been affected?

A key part of the resumption of the Premier League in June was a regular testing procedure. To begin with, everyone inside the club was tested twice a week, but this has since been reduced to just once. They’re still just as significant though as anyone who cannot return a negative test cannot enter the ‘First Team bubble’. As with most workplaces at the moment, Aston Villa have implemented the use of temperature checks on arrival and hand sanitising stations around several areas of the building.

Matt and his team have attempted to minimise the impact this pandemic has had on the players and to keep preparation towards a match day as ‘normal’ as possible. However, inevitably there have been changes caused by the closed bubble they’re now confined to. This involves splitting the changing rooms into two to maintain social distancing and changing policies regarding other individuals at the training ground. Sadly, players have also been instructed not to sign memorabilia or have photos taken with fans, but this is understandable in the current circumstances.

When Premier League teams were first able to train again in May, small group non-contact training was encouraged, but now players can train properly, which is much more useful for match preparation. Although things are different at the moment, Premier League players are in a fortunate enough position to do what they love and play football and Matt claims “the players are well aware of the restrictions and their responsibilities during this time and have to comply with our internal policies”.

What’s done differently on a match day?

Matt’s role as First Team Operations Manager has changed drastically this year and as a result he attends meetings a day or two before the game to discuss the logistics, expectations and operations of the match day. The biggest change to a match day has been the limit of the number of sporting staff permitted to attend the game. Now only 12 coaching and medical staff members, four essential staff members, three analysts, two press officers and 10 directors are permitted, and some are limited as to what areas they can enter.

They split the stadium into red, amber and green zones. Staff with authority to enter red areas are allowed anywhere in the stadium, they allow amber staff members in places such as the gantry, press areas and director’s box and green zones are areas are not in direct contact with the players on immediate staff. They give all players and staff members ‘clinical passports’ which contain QR codes to prove they have returned a negative COVID test and they will allow no one who cannot show this entry.

For away games, it is Matt’s responsibility to ensure that the coach company, flight provider and hotel are all able to accommodate the team safely. They must all follow Aston Villa’s risk assessments and complying with all the Government’s COVID-19 guidelines. Health and safety is a priority, and any organisation used by the team must have adequate social distancing, hand sanitising facilities, food hygiene procedures, and more in place before Matt allows the team to use them.

When travelling to games, social distancing between all players and staff is carefully observed where possible, and so the team now travel in three coaches to ensure more space between individuals.aston villa

How is on-the-pitch success influenced by the behind-the-scenes activity?

These carefully considered procedures have all helped to keep the team safe and comfortable, ready for maximum performance on a match day, and a look at the Premier League table will tell you that’s worked wonders for Aston Villa. Matt acknowledges the impact he’s been able to have on the team’s performances levels and says “by ensuring I have thorough planning in place to create the safest and best environment possible and working with the team behind the scenes, we have contributed to the current success of the team”.

Every member of staff within the club has worked incredibly hard during the recent months, but Matt realises that this hard work will need to continue.

“We all as staff and players have ‘upped our game to give our all to provide the best match day experience as possible but we are under no illusions we need to carry on this work until the end of the season”.

Without this acute attention to detail and hard-working attitude of Matt and his team, there’s a good chance Aston Villa would not be in the position they are at the moment.

How are the players coping without fans?

Speaking on behalf of the Aston Villa squad, Matt says the players are missing the fans immensely, especially during a time where they have just enjoyed one of the most memorable Premier League results in history. An empty Villa Park for that 7-2 win over Champions Liverpool was “devastating for the fans not to have seen it in the flesh”. As any member of staff within a football club will recognise, fans contribute so much to a team’s success on the pitch.

Matt ends with a message to all Aston Villa fans – “The buzz around Villa Park with 43,000 die-hard fans every week is irreplaceable but the players are well aware of the fan’s fantastic contribution and that is in their thoughts as they step out on to the Villa Park turf before every home game. The players and everyone at Aston Villa can’t wait to have the fans back at Villa Park in the very near future cheering on the team!”

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