Cork City won’t be taking advantage of the easing of Covid-19 restrictions to return to training on Monday.
Instead, manager Neale Fenn says they plan to adhere to the original roadmap which means the players continuing to work on their individual home fitness programmes before, hopefully, resuming collective training at the end of the month.
“When the original government/FAI guidelines came out, the date for us going back training was June 29 and, with a provisional restart of the season on August 14, that tied in nicely in that we’d have a six-week pre-season,” said Fenn. “And that’s what we’ve agreed to stick to. We feel six weeks is enough. The lads have got their work at home programmes that they’ve been doing, they’ll continue to do those up until June 29th, and then we’ll start training collectively from that point.
“The lockdown has been tough on the boys because everyone is desperate to get back. As footballers and football people, we work on deadlines – start of pre-season, end of pre-season, first friendly, first league game. So you’re always aiming for something. We want to be back doing what we do. We didn’t have the best of starts but we felt we were getting better. And it was unfortunate to see young lads who were gaining experience having that disrupted. So, of course, we all want to get back but the players understand and I understand that it’s not as easy as that.”
Fenn says that he is not anticipating “major changes” in his squad.
“There might be one or two ins and outs but not wholesale change. We expect to be working with more or less what we had when we left off. I hope to be able to retain the loan players but, when I’ve spoken to their clubs, it’s been a case of ‘get back to us when you have a definite date’. But the clubs were happy with the way it was going for the players, so if it can be done they would definitely be willing for it to happen.”
On the big question as to whether a return of the League of Ireland will prove feasible this season, Fenn confesses to fluctuating between feelings of optimism and pessimism.
“I’m up and down about it, to be honest. Some days I’m optimistic about it and some days I wonder will we ever get back. There’s a lot to be sorted out. Each club has its own challenges. For us, we definitely want to get back but we just have to wait and see what the FAI can put in place to help us do that.”
Clubs are expecting that, at a video conference meeting on Thursday, the FAI will present details of a funding package designed to enable the League to resume behind closed doors. Cork City’s position is that they will only return to action if it is medically safe and financially viable to do so.
In the meantime, the League of Ireland and the National Women’s League are digesting the contents of the FAI’s ‘Safer Return To Training Protocol’ issued in response to last week’s easing of government restrictions which permit a return to training from Monday onwards.
All clubs must first carry out a risk assessment of their training facilities, and a Covid-19 compliance officer – appointed by the FAI – must also be in place. While there is much for players and staff to take on board in the detail of the document – right down to a ban on practising free kicks and corner kicks because such set-pieces “contribute to 95% plus of contact in football” - conspicuous by its absence is any mention of a widening of the Covid-19 testing programme which is already ongoing at Shamrock Rovers, Dundalk, Bohemians and Derry City.
Under what has been presented as a pilot programme for football's return, these are the four clubs who, as the league’s participants in European competition – and as preparation for a mini-tournament set for next month – were given the green light to make an earlier return to collective training last Monday, prior to which they began a testing regime on May 25.
Responding to a query from this newspaper about the status of testing for other senior teams, an FAI spokesman said: “The FAI continues to examine testing procedures for SSE Airtricity League and Women’s National League clubs, in conjunction with the Government’s Return To Sport Medical Advisory Group.”