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Dublin: 8°C Sunday 29 November 2020

‘It’s weird, you can hear Wardy’s voice echo through the whole of Dalymount’

Bohemians defender Rob Cornwall on life during the pandemic and adjusting to the new normal.

Bohemians' Rob Cornwall (file pic).
Bohemians' Rob Cornwall (file pic).
Image: Bryan Keane/INPHO

BOHEMIANS TRAVEL TO play Cork City today, nearly five months, and 149 days to be precise, since their last Premier Division fixture — a 2-0 win over Shelbourne.

The phrase ‘raring to go’ is used to the point of cliche in sports journalism, but it would be an adequate description of Bohemians defender Rob Cornwall.

“It was very, very long,” he says of the enforced break owing to the coronavirus crisis. “When we got our [fitness] programmes, it was only a couple of days when we went into lockdown after our last training session.

“We were looking at a running programme we had to do on our own. We didn’t know it was going to be months of it. It was fairly nasty, it was like another pre-season.

“It was just good to be getting back into the big groups and now finally, playing a competitive game, which we’re all delighted to do.”

A naturally competitive person, Cornwall particularly missed the challenges of playing week in week out in the League of Ireland, as well as the dressing-room banter at the club he has represented for the past three-and-a-half years.

“It’s strange doing it now. You come up in your car and it’s straight onto the pitch. You  can’t go to the dressing room. [Keith] Wardy’s still doing it in Dalymount, he’s shouting abuse at the top of the stands and across the whole stadium.

“It’s weird, you can hear his voice echo through the whole of Dalymount.”

In addition to the endless hours of running, table tennis out in the back garden “with my old lad” helped stem the boredom during the pandemic. There were a couple of Zoom quiz nights with the team too, though manager Keith Long and his staff ensured the break was far from an extended holiday.

Before lockdown, Keith Long said it’s a good time to look into yourself and see what you want to do outside football and see how you want to actually upskill,” he explains.

“So I enrolled back in college. I’m doing a bachelor’s degree for strength and conditioning.”

The 25-year-old Dubliner also works as a personal trainer and while the circumstances during the lockdown were far from ideal, he was still able to maintain this work in the form of online Zoom sessions.

“For my gym personally, it went quite well. It was the kind of thing, they had no choice, people had to get behind it if they wanted to maintain their fitness and didn’t want to de-train.

“And with our Zoom sessions with Bohs, the lads bought into it. They were actually very tough. Most of the lads didn’t have any equipment, I was lucky enough I did.”

One of the few positives to be derived from the last couple of months is the chance it has given many people to focus on fitness, with plenty taking the opportunity to run, cycle and exercise on a daily basis.

“Through social media as well, everybody was putting up their 5k times. I was a bit suspicious of a couple of people’s 5k times, I think they were cheating.

“But to be fair, everyone kind of got into it and the amount of gym equipment bought, I don’t know how many people asked me: ‘Where do I buy gym equipment?’ And I hadn’t a clue. Everywhere was sold out.”

jack-byrne-and-rob-cornwall Cornwall pictured competing for the ball with Shamrock Rovers' Jack Byrne earlier this season. Source: Brian Reilly-Troy/INPHO

And Cornwall plays down suggestions that the team may take a few games to reach their peak fitness, given the chaos of the last few months.

“It was one of the hardest [de facto] pre-seasons I’ve ever done. I know it wasn’t supposed to be pre-season, but I did a serious amount of running.

“I feel fit and I think all the lads do. I feel we’re a stronger team this year. Even when you look at us now physically, we’ve brought a couple of lads in like Ciaran Kelly and Dan Casey, they’re big boys. So it gives a bit of strength to our squad.”

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Given the recent decision to turn the Premier Division into an 18-game season, including nearly a third of the matches that have been already played, it is not the way most people would have wanted proceedings to unfold. There is consequently an even greater pressure placed on each fixture, owing to the campaign’s brevity.

However, Cornwall likely speaks for the majority of Irish footballers in explaining he is relieved simply to be lining out at all. In an interview with RTÉ last April, his team-mate Keith Ward expressed concern that the campaign would be scrapped outright amid a period of deep uncertainty.

“That was probably the worst part of it,” he recalls. “At the start of the whole lockdown, you’re thinking to yourself, you only have maybe a 10-year career, you’ve [potentially] lost a full season, so a year of your career. It was mentally tough thinking about that.

“It’s probably one of the reasons why some of us were looking into what we were doing after [outside of football]. It was tough, especially going out, doing your runs and not knowing if you have to actually do them, or if you’d have nothing to come back to. Luckily enough, we do.”

And in contrast with the likes of Waterford, St Pat’s and Sligo, Bohemians were one of the clubs in the fortunate position to be able to honour player and staff contracts during the pandemic.

“It was a lot of stress off all of our backs that they did that and we’re all very thankful. It shows how well the club have been going for the last few years. I don’t know if it would have been the same five or six years ago. But it’s definitely on the up now.”

While hailing the new League of Ireland streaming service as “a brilliant idea,” Cornwall acknowledges it won’t be quite the same playing upcoming games in near-empty stadiums.

Obviously, you’re used to going out against Rovers, and it’s 5,000-6,000 there. But that’s the situation at the moment. We’re going to have to create our own atmosphere and intensity as fast as we can. We can’t rely on the fans to make that noise for us.

“At least we’ll know that the fans are there behind us, even if we don’t hear them. We know they’re there and that’s something to motivate us as well.”

Prior to the prolonged break, it had been a decent start to the season for Bohs. They currently sit third with nine points from five matches, picking up wins over Waterford, Sligo and Shels, while suffering defeats against Shamrock Rovers and Derry.

“It’s kind of strange. Five games in, you still haven’t really got your rhythm.

“We’ve got a decent enough start. There were a couple of results we think we could have done better on. But we’re still improving, we’re still very young. Hopefully, we get a bit of rhythm when we come back in.”

keith-long Keith Long helped guide Bohs to a third-place finish last year. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

In general, with Long at the helm, the club have been one of the league’s success stories both on and off the field. While not boasting the resources of Shamrock Rovers and Dundalk, in addition to often losing key players along the way, they have consistently competed well in recent times regardless, as evidenced by their third-place finish last year.

“The main thing I think everyone knows is just the dressing room. Everyone gets on and even though the team has changed a lot over the last few years, it’s still the same atmosphere every year. I don’t know how [Keith Long] does it, or how he picks the players. Technically, they’re quite good coming in, but they’re all right for the dressing room. I don’t think many of us had any big barnys yet. So it’s quite strange in that sense. It’s the dressing room and the club in general, how the fans are. I remember saying to one of them, I think it was my first year in Bohs, we lost 3-0 against Sligo at home and we were awful. I was stinking as well. But the fans clapped us off. I thought they were nearly being sarcastic, but it was just their support. 

From an outside perspective, it probably does look like we’ve overachieved. But when you’re in and around our group and you see how hard we train, it’s not a shock to me and I don’t think it’s a shock to anyone in our group [how well we've done]. It’s a serious amount of hours and when we do get to training, it’s all work.”

Work is something Cornwall is no stranger to. He admits there were plenty of more technically gifted players than him growing up, joking that the call to England never came owing to a “wrong number”. But as could be said of the team in general, the player’s attitude and approach to the game cannot be faulted.

“My main thing was the amount of hours I put in, the honesty I had growing up, just doing my work. You see lads coming back from England, they’re unbelievable technically, but maybe they don’t have the mental aspect of actually putting in the hard work. If you’re playing for anyone now, even when you’re young, just because lads are going over to England [doesn't mean they'll be better off in the long run]. The main thing is getting your hours in and trying to improve until you finally get something.”

Today’s Premier Division fixture:

Cork City v Bohemians (17.00)

About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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