Whisper it, but Cork City played Ross County behind closed doors the other night.
No, you’re not hallucinating and, more importantly, there was no breach of the FAI’s cessation of football involved. Nor was government advice on quarantine and social distancing placed in any kind of jeopardy.
The match was played on a computer, with winger Daire O’Connor representing the Leesiders in a Fifa 20 tournament, organised by Leyton Orient, involving over 160 clubs worldwide.
But, sad to report, it was not a good night for Daire or the Rebels.
“No, it was a 3-0 l thrashing,” the man himself concedes.
To be honest, I was more nervous playing that game than I would be ahead of some of the games at Turner’s Cross purely for the fact that I wasn’t used to this whatsoever.
"It was live-streamed and I think close to a thousand people were watching so it was like making your debut (laughs). It was surreal.
"You’re in your room alone and yet a thousand people are watching you play a game of Fifa. A weird experience. But also an adrenaline-pumper, something I haven’t had in a few weeks.”
Back in the real world of football, the 22-year-old admits it has taken time to adjust to the changes in lifestyle and habits enforced by the pandemic.
“I suppose structures are important in all jobs but for footballers in particular there is a rigidity about when you wake up, when you need to eat, when you need to train,” he reflects.
“You’re also immersed in a team environment where everyone is doing it, which makes it easier.
"I was living with four other lads so we were all on the same page — we had meals together, we’d go to the gym together, do recovery sessions together. Everything was in unison.”
When the league initially shut down on March 12 — the day before Cork City were due to play Bohemians — the club provided the players with a fitness plan designed to last two weeks.
But with the resumption of football now put back until June 19, at the earliest, O’Connor reports that each player has this weekend been e-mailed “a big 18-page document” from Joe Gamble — manager Neale Fenn’s assistant and the club’s strength and conditioning coach — detailing, in four-week blocks, a fitness and recovery programme to cover the next few months.
But since nothing can properly replicate full training, O’Connor still foresees problems if the league resumes without some kind of additional ‘pre-season’ preparation.
“I’ve spoken to a few people about this,” he says.
“The majority of us are professional footballers and probably could slot in but we’d only be at 50 or 60% fitness levels in terms of sharpness.
"Personally, I’d do it but I’d feel guilty for the people paying to come and watch us play. The standard would reflect the fact that in two months we wouldn’t have kicked a ball in a team unit.
“But if we could condense things into a mini pre-season then, on the basis that everyone does the work we’ve been given now, you’d like to think we’d come in with a decent base.
"We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it. But I think players would actually relish a pre-season for once.”
The son of parents who both hail from West Cork, where he spent his childhood, O’Connor is now back in the family home in Arklow, which he regards as one personal upside to the
“It’s actually great for me to finally move home because I haven’t been here for nearly five years since I went to college,” he observes.
“But I did think we’d be back in training soon enough when I left Cork so I only packed a bag for one week and I’ve been rationing my clothes since!”
As well as keeping his body fit — he was just back from a run when we spoke on the phone — he is keeping his mind occupied by, among other things, getting through a pile of sports books.
“I love reading autobiographies,” he says.
“I’ve just reread the Roy Keane one for the third time. I think that’s done for good now (laughs). I’ve also read Peter Crouch’s one, Alex Ferguson, Didier Drogba, Jamie Carragher…”
Indeed, the thought strikes him that the shock of the new might even be that bit more bearable for footballers.
“Weirdly enough, we’re nearly used to this kind of quarantine life, on a lower scale. On a normal day we’d finish at one or two o’clock, hours before the normal worker.
"So then you come home, sleep for an hour and when you wake up you play a bit of PlayStation or watch Netflix. You can’t go out and be mad socially Monday to Friday.
“Of course there are much bigger restrictions now — we can’t go out for a coffee like we used to — but it’s not a million miles away from the world we used to have.
"It might sound strange, but for us, it’s not as big a culture shock as it is for other people.”
And, of course, he continues to maintain contact with his City team mates through WhatsApp.
“We’re just trying to keep ourselves entertained,” he says. “We’re actually depending on each other more than ever now. So the team spirit is still there and that’ll stay.”
- Republic of Ireland captain Seamus Coleman yesterday helped to push an emergency fund for League of Ireland players over the €30,000 mark. Last week the Donegal native also donated to a fundraising drive for Irish frontline workers battling the coronavirus.