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Whirlwind prep, testing, protocols and a relegation battle: Irish striker set for Bundesliga return

‘At the end of the day, this is why we do it. It’s for the games,’ says Köln star Amber Barrett.

Amber Barrett.
Amber Barrett.
Image: Imago/PA Images

IT’S FAIR TO say that Amber Barrett is delighted to be one of the first Irish players back for competitive action after the Covid-19 enforced lengthy lay-off.

Donegal striker Barrett, who plays her football with German top-tier side FC Köln, is one of three Irish stars lining out in the Frauen-Bundesliga this weekend, as the women’s league follows the lead of its male counterparts.

After two weeks of small group training, Barrett and her side returned to full team, full contact training last Wednesday with the league resuming on tomorrow. 

“It’s good to be back,” Barrett told The42 yesterdayreflecting on a whirlwind time. “Since we’ve been back with the team, obviously it’s been completely different.

It’s great to be actually back in training, seeing everybody again and doing things together. When we were in group training, we were saying that one of the things we always look forward to is playing the match against each other at the end. For the first two weeks, we weren’t able to do that and we missed the competitive side of it.

“It makes a huge difference when everybody’s back in together.”

There have been no shortage of adjustments through the return. Even things as simple as not being able to hug team-mates when they reconvened was a weird one to get used, but that’s life for everyone at the moment.

The mood in the set-up is really upbeat though, and everyone is just delighted to be back.

“I think that’s just how it’s been for the last couple of months,” 24-year-old Barrett nods. “Last Wednesday, the only way to describe it was everyone was in such a good mood and excited to be back.

“The only thing is we don’t have a three- or four-week period to get up to speed, to get used to everything so quickly. Today is only a week from when we started back team training. We have had literally just over a week before we play our first game.

I think everybody was well aware of the task at hand and how we had to mentally be switched on from the word go.

That will be the case for the next month or so, with six top-flight match days and two catch-up games to complete. Barrett knows more than anyone how focused and ready she and her team-mates must be, compounded by the fact they are in relegation danger.

These circumstances are still all very new, though.

amber-barrett-celebrates Barrett stars for Vera Pauw's Ireland side. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

A run-through of match day protocols was expected at the club today or early tomorrow morning before they face league leaders Wolfsburg [KO 2pm local time], with regular Covid-19 testing in full flow throughout.

“The testing, I must say, has been second to none. We were tested on Sunday just past and we’re tested tomorrow before training, before we leave for Wolfsburg. They’re covering themselves extremely well and we’re making sure that everybody’s 100% so there’s no risk or potential threat of it coming in or coming out.

It’s been interesting to see how it’s being done over here. Obviously it’s brilliant to be tested and to be tested so frequently. Nearly now, it’s just like another part of your day. It’s good on that front, to know that we’re going into the games with everybody 100%.”

Having watched the men’s Bundesliga closely like the rest of us, Barrett is well prepared for the new normal of playing behind closed doors through this pandemic. 

“To be honest with you, I think it was a surprise for everyone with how the game was laid out with the social distancing and all that for the subs and then obviously with the celebrations. That was something that I wasn’t aware of myself until I watched Dortmund-Shalke in the first game of the weekend.

“For everybody, that was a surprise. I think they’re just taking all the necessary steps. Football is one of the things that everybody is going to be looking to, they’re just trying to promote the importance of social distancing and everything like that.

“Of course it’s going to be difficult to get used to because it’s not anything anybody is used to at all but it’s going to be important that we set aside all of the outside parts of it and do what we have to do; just play the game and play as well as we can.”

You can almost hear her smiling down the phone at the thought of being back on the pitch, despite how difficult the challenge ahead may be.

At the end of the day, that’s why we do it. It’s for the games,” she adds. “We get straight back into it now on Friday.

“We probably have the toughest game you could have asked for to come back to, but at the same time, that’s not something we’re looking at like, ‘Oh God, this is going to be terrible.’ We’re really positive, we’ve had a good week of training.

“Obviously we’re going to do our best, set up well and make it really, really difficult. I know from before, being involved in games where you’re very much the underdog but you still come out on the right side of the result. We’ll be hoping for the same.”

Barrett has had her feet firmly in her German base since the Covid-19 crisis really took hold across Europe. After helping Ireland to crucial, back-to-back Euro qualifier wins, she returned to Cologne though others quarantined on home soil.

amber-barrett Barrett in Ireland training in March. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Initially, she asked to be let home to Milford, but Köln decided they wanted to keep their players there through uncertain times as they waited to hear more about a return to training.

Should the green light have come suddenly, there would have been serious concerns around getting everyone back to base and following two-week self-isolation periods.

“The first few weeks were the strange ones because nobody could fathom what was actually happening,” Barrett recalls. “I don’t think anybody could have made up what actually was going on.

“It was important that I kept myself busy throughout. Knowing that I wasn’t going to get home, it was obviously tough for the first few weeks because I was on my own and thinking, ‘There’s no way that we’re going to be playing any time soon.’”

But looking on the bright side, it gave her an opportunity to work on her German further, to focus on following the training schedule set out by her club and still have plenty of free time for Netflix and whatever else.

Obviously it was a very, very strange environment to be in but at the same time, it’s exactly the same same for everybody else. I can’t imagine quarantine has been easy for everybody.

“I suppose it is a little bit different when you’re in a different country and not 100% understanding of the language but I kind of just accepted it straight away that I wasn’t getting home and then I was like, ‘Right, you have to use this time to get better at something.’”

The former Donegal Gaelic football star has spent plenty of time staying in touch with her family and friends and keeping an eye on what’s going on back home, too.

“I don’t think people realise how lucky we are with the fact that we have such easy access with FaceTime and Whataspp calls and that,” she notes.

I ring my mum every morning and we’ll have a virtual coffee. I ring her again later on in the day when my dad’s home to get the news and the craic there as well. I’m ringing my friends all the time as well. Little things like that, it all makes it easier.

“Yes, of course, it’s not the same but how lucky I am to be able to still see them although it is over the phone. I think that has also made it easier for me, knowing that I’m going to speak to them, see them, keep them up to craic.

“There’s probably a little bit of hair-pulling-out with the fact that GAA pitches still aren’t open. My brothers are going a little bit mad but as dad says, there’s a goal out in the garden and plenty of room to do all the practicing you want!”

amber-barrett Facing Italy in a friendly last year. Source: Matteo Ciambelli/INPHO

She’s done plenty of that herself through individual training, but the team environment certainly can’t be replicated, Barrett assures.

“Ah, it’s good to be back,” she stresses. “Ideally, everybody would like to have had a little bit longer [training together]. Ideally, everybody would not have to play so many games in such a short space of time but to be honest with you, if it means playing, at the end of the day that’s what we want to do and that’s what we’re here for.

Yes, it’s going to be difficult. Physically and mentally it’s going to be extremely fatiguing but that’s something that everybody is just going to have to adapt to. The important thing for us as well is to really ensure that we’re keeping ourselves as fresh as possible going into every game because there is going to be such a short window of recover.

“It’s really going to be the teams that do the best recovery and get themselves prepared for the next game quickly that are going to do well and going to be on the right side of most of the results.”

Elsewhere, Barrett and her Ireland team-mates are pleased with the news that the Women’s Euros have been postponed until 2022 — though it was just announced yesterday that they’ll play their remaining three qualifiers in September, October and December.

Currently unbeaten and top of Group I, Vera Pauw’s side are in good stead to qualify for a first-ever major tournament.

“To be honest with you, I suppose in many ways we’re happy it’s been pushed back,” Barrett said of the Euros. “I don’t think it would have been ideal if we had to come back, playing so many games in such a short space of time, having to prepare to squeeze everything in.

“I think things will be much improved when it comes to August and September time but I still don’t think we will be 100% over this. It will take us a little while to adapt.

For me, it just gives us a little bit more time to prepare and get everyone to 100%. We’re in a very good position in the group but obviously we still have three huge games to go.

“We’ve had a couple of injuries as well and hopefully by the time we get back playing again, those girls will be a little bit closer to returning as well. When you look at it from that point-of-view, it’s a positive.”

The side will surely take confidence in the fact that three of their stars — Barrett and defensive duo Diane Caldwell and Claire O’Riordan — return to competitive action in Germany this weekend.

Barrett’s Köln face O’Riordan’s SC Duisburg next week, and they finish the season against Caldwell’s SC Sand in late June. They’re two ties Barrett is certainly relishing.

amber-barrett-and-diane-caldwell In training with Caldwell in 2018. Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I’ve been speaking to Claire and Diane over the last couple of weeks as well, over lockdown, just checking in with them. More so with Claire, we’re in a relegation battle against each other at the minute. But I’m always going to be checking in with her to see how she’s getting on. She’s lucky though, she went home after the Montenegro camp.

“She’s only back from her holidays there! She came back and she was dreading it. I was thinking, ‘How do you think I’ve felt, honey?’

Ah, it’s been good. The girls are in good form. I’m looking forward to seeing them and looking forward to hopefully being on the right side of the result over both of them.

It’s all about Friday first though, and the interest is huge.

“With the English league getting cancelled as well, I think the German league is the only major women’s league in Europe that is going ahead,” Barrett concludes.

“Very, very strange times, I must say.”

Indeed, but she’ll certainly roll with them.

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Emma Duffy

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