Why 2020 could be the pre-season without trialists


From Sasa Curcic and Daniel Amokachi to Jonathon Tehoue and Pascal Chambonda. Tranmere have had hundreds of trialists in the last couple of decades as they looked to earn deals, but this year it may be different.

None of the players named above went on to earn deals from their brief stints with Tranmere, but plenty have in past years. John Achterberg, Georges Santos, Eugene Dadi, Adam Mekki and Harvey Gilmour (above) are just some of the names who have gone on to earn full-time deals with the club following a trial.

However, as EFL clubs try to return to training ahead of the proposed 12th September season start date, putting together a squad during the pre-season may be tougher than ever before.

Clubs in League One and Two often rely on trialists to come in and show themselves worthy of a contract. A player’s fitness, application and ability will all be trialled at no cost to the club, while coaching staff can also analyse if a player’s personality is a good match and would fit into the existing squad.

Trialist Kai Tonga runs with the ball during the pre-season friendly match between Tranmere Rovers and Liverpool at Prenton Park. (Photo by Richard Ault/talru.com)

However, despite there being more professional footballers unemployed than ever before at this point, that all important trial could be off-limits.

Will COVID testing end trials as we know it?

Currently, EFL clubs need to put their squads through three tests before the new season kicks-off. These are all at cost to the club, so that immediately begins to build cost against any trialist. 

Additionally, clubs are unlikely to know a player’s background in respect to his recent movements, his associates and who he has been mixing with. Therefore, bringing him into a group is risky.

Trials can last anywhere from a single day or two, right through to several weeks during a pre-season while management teams assess them. Short trials are almost certainly likely to fall by the wayside due to the EFL’s testing protocol.

By returning to training, clubs are required to adhere to the following protocol:

Step One – Return to non-contact training: The first few days of pre-season training at stage one of the EFL Return to Play Protocol is socially distanced and in small groups. The EFL recommends that this lasts for a minimum of five days. This is a pretty impossible scenario when it comes to getting any meaningful insight into a trialist’s suitability for a club. 

Groups are capped at a maximum of five players and three staff members and those groups must be maintained with no cross-over.

Stage Two  – Group and contact training: For clubs to move to full-contact training, all players must have undergone – and passed – a COVID test within the five days immediately prior to the start of contact training. 

Ordinarily, this would be the stage at which you’d begin to see match play or really competitive technical sessions taking place. A key aspect of a trial for a potential signing.

There is also a second test players must pass at a mid-point during pre-season, the date for which we’re not aware has been set. 

So already, a trialist will theoretically need to train for five days non-contact before being tested and then moving into group/contact sessions.

Protocol 3 – Match play: Finally, matches will resume behind closed doors. This likely means players will need a third and final COVID test in the week before the opening game.

Trialist Franklyn Akammadu during the pre-season friendly against Rochdale in July 2018.

A tough summer for free agents

All of the above means that being offered a trial at a League One or League Two club looks more unlikely than ever before for those players who find themselves without a club. Players who are returning from a long injury, for example, may find it incredibly tough to get a club to take a chance on them without a trial. 

We may see clubs postponing bringing in new signings or even inviting out-of-contract players in for pre-season training so they can save costs and minimise risks to fellow squad members.

It’s going to be a pre-season like no other.

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