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Dublin: 8°C Wednesday 21 October 2020

'We're all missing social contact, gatherings and friends now. Football will be important on our way back'

John O’Sullivan looks at how this unprecedented period will affect Ireland’s top clubs and the people involved.

Cork City's Dylan McGlade is tracked by Dean Clarke of St Pat's.
Cork City's Dylan McGlade is tracked by Dean Clarke of St Pat's.
Image: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

IT FEELS STRANGE to write a column about League of Ireland Football during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Football seems silly in a way. People have died, are dying and will die. Who in Italy is worried about Serie A? Atalanta were experiencing a historic season, they now lie in the epicenter of the crisis in Bergamo.

People are more important than football, but football is made up of people and as restrictions on gatherings and sports grew our focus rightly switched from the next game to the players and staff at our clubs.

Friends and former colleagues in the game across many clubs have been frantically trying to balance what could be offered in wages against their very existence.

Some clubs including Cork City FC, who I support, have already stated they cannot pay wages in the absence of match income. The lack of a TV deal has long been a bugbear, but even with one in place it is unlikely it would have maintained matches behind closed doors.

It hasn’t for the ‘Big 5′ leagues with Bundesliga players taking wage cuts this week.

Interviews and pieces by Dylan McGlade, Ronan Hurley and captain Gearoid Morrissey have been reassuring to Cork City fans, and those by Jack Byrne and others likewise outside the Cork City bubble I occupy.

Supporters had already accepted club limitations. Sligo Rovers were the first club to acknowledge their struggle, there was understanding without banter or criticism. We know they would be paying everyone if it was possible. That there is similar acceptance from players and staff, even while there is uncertainty and worry is hugely appreciated.

In his Independent interview, McGlade highlighted the impact on his brother’s job and the sense that everyone is in this together. This isn’t mismanagement, bad faith on the part of a dodgy owner or an ‘FAI issue’. The FAI have been straightforward, honest, listening to the experts and have for the first time I can remember, have prioritised LoI employment.

Some clubs have come out and stated that they will maintain wages in conjunction with the governmental support package announced earlier, which is brilliant, but the uncertainty around how long this current crisis will last is uncertain.

The FAI have announced the suspension of all football until 19 April at a minimum, the league is penciled in for a return the following month, but the truth is that we just don’t know what the future holds.

What the present holds we know, to a degree.

League of Ireland clubs are locked down and are a non-essential business. Those still working in the LoI are doing so from home and remotely, those volunteering to get through the crisis doing likewise.

The government support packages allow some relief, all LoI clubs will easily meet the criteria of the pandemic causing a 25% drop in income.

Work continues; matches and income have vanished, it doesn’t mean issues have. Sponsors who made commitments may no longer be able to honour them given the new realities. Clubs must weigh up the right response, balancing income and relationships.

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We are all in this together and that must mean something where we owe, or are due, money. Cork City have worked hard to build relationships over the ten years of supporter ownership following the crash and burn of the late 2000s which left debts all over, most never paid. We need to remember that now when others face their own struggles.

Suppliers must look after their own staff and businesses. Credit previously extended to a club may need to be called in and companies are making calls to collect invoices to keep themselves afloat.

Security and stewarding companies, catering businesses, printers for match programs and countless other businesses have had their income decimated. People rarely recognise the importance of LoI clubs to the wider community, but the contribution to the economy is certainly in the tens of millions.

Clubs are doing their best to bring money in while giving value to supporters rather than looking for charity. Supporters are answering the call. Cork City FC have launched a €25 per month Patreon scheme showing old games and exclusive content. At the time of writing 104 people have signed up, giving €2500 per month between them.

Online club shops are being creative, getting new items in and out. One Bohs fan has launched a GoFundMe campaign to fill Dalymount virtually with proceeds going to the club.

I’m lucky that I can work from home for what is classified an essential industry, so I’ve been trying to support my club and local businesses. It’s important those that can afford to, to support their club.

This is unprecedented for all of us. The players you worship are doing solo training in their own back garden, their diets are probably being impacted out of eye of their clubs, sharing lunch with family rather than team-mates.

They’re likely having a few beers at home watching Netflix, like many of us, as we look for distractions or try to get our heads around today and what tomorrow looks like. If the league does come back, they’re not going to have a pre-season or friendly games behind them when they take the pitch, they need support now and they will need it on our return.

The future return is important even though football may not be right now and might never seem as important again. But it’s part of us, sport, the arts, music and all those current non-essentials put on hold are where we share experience and joy, where community comes from. It’s what we’re all missing now, social contact, gatherings and friends. Football will be important on our way back.

I can’t wait to be back in a crowd of my fellow fans, cheering on the team I’ve always supported and always will. In the meantime, I’ll do my best to be patient, listen to the advice from the experts and support my club however I can.

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