On the day when many Irish retailers raised their shutters for the first time after the long lockdown, League of Ireland football got itself back in the shop window too.
Or, at least, there was something like a glimpse of normality for the TV cameras to record as, under blue skies and blazing sunshine, players and staff at Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Derry City, and Bohemians returned to the training pitch for the first time in nearly three months.
Rovers skipper Ronan Finn admits he got out of bed in the morning with an added spring in his step.
“I did. It was just dawning on me the last couple of days that you knew you were coming back. It was different to what we’re used to, of course. We had no dressing room, we walked in separately as individuals, we got our bit of testing done. And then you have your boots in your hand and you walk onto the pitch — not much hanging around or chit chat. We were there to do business.
“The manager (Stephen Bradley) was just keen to get our legs back going, to get a touch of the football. It was good for us to be back in small groups, good to be able to see each other. It was different because it wasn’t competitive, there was no contact.
“It was more tactical, touching the ball, passing drills. But it was just good to be back in that environment, back with the other players. You’re not on your own with a bag of footballs or running around a park. Now, you’re working in a little training unit. That was the main thing to take out of the day: That it was just good to be back.”
Finn reckons there wasn’t too much rustiness in evidence.
“It’s not like a pre-season where you’ve had a long hard season and when it comes to November/December you’re not even interested in looking at football. This is different. We’ve been keeping ourselves ticking over. Your touch is still there. It’s not like sometimes when you come back for pre-season and it looks like you’ve never played football before (laughs).”
The weather agreeing to play ball was a nice bonus too.
“It was great. The training ground up in Roadstone was immaculate. The sprinklers were on, it was a bright summer’s morning, everything was all laid out for us. We just had to walk in with our boots in our hand.
“Hopefully now there’s an end in sight and we can start focusing on getting matches played and getting the league back. That’s what it should be all about.”
An upbeat day at the Rovers training ground was not without its poignant moment, however, as the players and staff stood for a minute’s applause in tribute to Declan ‘Big Dec’ Keogh, one of the Hoops’ best-known supporters, who sadly died on Sunday. Around the country other clubs also took to social media to mourn the passing of the one of the league’s most recognisable faces.
“There have been a number of Rovers fans who have died recently,” Finn observes. “I’m sure the club will do something on a bigger scale when the football is back to honour them in the correct way. These people are really important members of the football club and Shamrock Rovers are a massive part of their lives.”
Yesterday’s training sessions at the four clubs took place after players and staff underwent their third round of Covid-19 tests. No positive cases had been recorded in the first two sets of tests.
The players and first team staff at last season’s top four finishers were always scheduled to be the first League of Ireland sides to return to training, ahead of a planned mini-tournament at a neutral venue in July which is designed to help them prepare for European qualifiers and also function as part of a pilot programme for a return to football for all.
Last night the FAI issued a ‘Safer Return To Training’ document for the other SSE Airtricity League clubs and Women’s National League clubs, based on the new government guidelines for group training for sports teams involving up to 15 people. That could see those clubs return to training as early as next Monday but, given that, up until the end of last week, they had been targeting a return at the end of June, it remains to be seen how many will feel they are in a position to comply with the health and safety regulations which need to be in place to facilitate an earlier restart date.
A document was also published explaining the pathway permitting all adult amateur and underage football, including underage National League clubs, to return to training on or after next Monday, June 15.
The FAI have said that clubs must appoint a Covid-19 compliance officer and carry out a risk assessment before any return is authorised.
A match officials’ protocol document is also being prepared.