ALEX FERGUSON made a point of getting to know the names of each of his players' parents. It wasn't missed on anyone wherever he managed. Michael Appleton, who worked under Ferguson at Manchester United, once said “it was one of the things that makes him stand out from a lot of people. It shows how much respect he has for everyone”.

It is a technique that has been credited for helping to engineer much of Ferguson's success.

At Aberdeen, another of his old clubs, they have been following his lead and taking the practice two or three steps beyond. Not least in lockdown during which they held regular parent meetings as they rolled out a 16-week programme aimed at furthering not just the technical and tactical abilities of the 103 youth players in their system, but also equipping them with the tools to make them more rounded individuals.

In terms of the traditional – the football side of things – there was a rigorous testing system, broken into 20 parts. Over the course of 112 days, more than 4200 technical skills videos were submitted by the youngsters and reviewed by coaching staff who awarded a pass or a fail. One set dealt with ball mastery placing a heavy emphasis on playground-style football; the other on more obvious stuff such as passing, chipped balls and control.

But there was an educational dimension, too; the purpose of which was aimed at developing the person as an individual. Eight theoretical tasks spanned leadership, nutrition, cooking, mental resilience and wellbeing and there were more than 800 educational projects submitted by all players from the age of nine right up to pre-contract age.

Children and their parents were not under any obligation to fulfil every criteria and there was an emphasis on family wellbeing at the heart of the message conveyed by Aberdeen. WhatsApp groups were created to foster team spirit and a community atmosphere, regular meetings with first-teamers were held via Zoom, players had personal development plans to complete and writing projects were set.

It left parents, children and even the coaches themselves gobsmacked by the results.

Sarah Phillips, mother of Rory, who plays for Aberdeen's 2010s, admits the programme was as good as anything provided by her son's school during the period. An agricultural contractor she says her and her husband were concerned about the pressure they might be under trying to fit in work, home schooling and football commitments but that those concerns soon melted away.

The amount of outcomes that they've covered throughout it far exceeds the amount of outcomes that Rory had covered through the school work that was issued

“The thing that struck me most was how closely it was linked to the curriculum for excellence and I don't know if that was something that they had done intentionally, but because my background before agriculture was teaching I was aware of it and the amount of outcomes that they've covered throughout it far exceeds the amount of outcomes that Rory had covered through the school work that was issued - which was just quite spectacular.

“They had writing to do in various pieces of homework. There was a week when they were looking at creating their own meal and their own recipe that they had to go and explore healthy foods, then they had to go and prepare the meal, cook the meal and present it. That covered their functional writing, it covered nutrition aspects within their health and wellbeing, they had to write a development plan for themselves at the beginning for their own personal reports based on what they got not long before lockdown which then covered the mental and emotional wellbeing part of the curriculum for excellence as well – it was just unbelievable.”

Meanwhile the technical and tactical aspects required significant amounts of application. One boy, a regular goalscorer throughout the age grades for Aberdeen, took 46 hours to complete a single training drill while another Findlay Marshall, the captain of Aberdeen's Under-15s, says the frustration of attempting to beat a challenge was outweighed by the delight of achieving the aim.

“There is one test where you volley the ball off a wall, chest it, and volley it again for a minute, that's the toughest one that I had to dig deep [for]. It took me a couple of weeks to do it. It got me angry and when I found out I had passed [the test] it was just such a good feeling and I just wanted to keep doing more to get more passes.

“We were doing a lot of group [meetings]. I'm a captain so they were pushing me to lead some of them. It has helped me with some of my leadership skills just to take control of it. A couple of years ago I would have been quite nervous but now I have grown into it and I'm not finding I'm worried about it, it's fine to do.”

The programme was rolled out by Liam McGarry, the children's programme manager, Neil Simpson, the head of academy and Gavin Levey, the head of coaching education, who says he went into lockdown not knowing what to expect. Now at the end of the process, Levey admits he has uncovered a new sense of what young players are capable of and says that many of the initiatives introduced during the phase must now be incorporated into the club's youth training methods as a matter of course.

The emphasis has been on pushing players, providing them with regular feedback and a platform for interaction with first-teamers who have been through the pathway.

One ball mastery test, for example, involves a minute of alternate keepie-uppies with a tennis ball. It's one what Levey calls a “level 2 drill” out of 10 but is actually much more difficult than that.

“The reason we put it at level two is because it's a really hard challenge and it allows them really early on to understand what practice is. It's harder than level three, level four and level five and we have been asked why is it level two and it's because it makes them understand what it takes. We've had to be creative on top of that.

“The first-team players were magnificent. We didn't want it to be touristy, something you could just read in a match programme or Wikipedia. This is about things that relate to players, the hard times, their setbacks, how do you overcome them, how much practice did they do.

“We had Connor McLennan and Dean Campbell with our pre-Academy kids and it was great for them to come out and say 'the work that you are doing now is the work that we did at your age'. We have league tables that go out every Monday. That is not something that we are pushing kids to climb because every kid during lockdown has got a unique experience.

“Some players are driven by that competition and climbing a level, some are driven by being at the very top but there might be someone near the bottom of one of those tables who could be compared to a guy who is trying to get into the special forces – he's at the back of the pack and his lungs are bleeding but he might be on level 1 or level 2 of our programme and he might have put in more effort to get that stage than someone at the top has.”

Ultimately, Levey says children have been forced to think on their feet. In a domain where coaches are always mindful of coaching creativity out of kids, their methods have actually fostered greater freedom of thought.

“[For] some of the challenges we've got, the kids have had to go to car parks that are empty or find walls that they can at the side of a school building and some of them are going out on a bike at a young age, taking a phone with them and they go until the battery runs out.”

“We've gone back to the days of what kids used to do and I don't think kids fully appreciated what real practice was and as coaches we haven't appreciated what kids are capable of. We are going to come out of this with so many more competent two-footed players than our academy has ever had.

“We asked these young people to write down their 12-week lockdown experiences and some of the stuff in there would bring a tear to your eye, in terms of the family values that they have learned to understand, what they say about the relationships they have built with brothers and sisters and how they have come together, what the football club has meant to them during this time.”

For all the negative connotations associated with lockdown, Aberdeen's youth academy made the experience positive. For Sarah and Rory Phillips, who commute an hour from Angus each time there is a training session in Aberdeen, it was summed up thus: “Rory actually said about four weeks into it 'do you know, mum, I have always had team-mates at Aberdeen but I feel as if I have got friends now' and I thought that was so powerful, for me as a parent I thought 'gosh'. It was so easy to think of the lockdown as a negative experience on the whole but I just don't think Aberdeen have done that at all, they've managed to turn it on its head.”