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Small steps towards league resumption

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Conor Hoey. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Conor Hoey. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Conor Hoey. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Drogheda United chairman Conor Hoey has given a cautious welcome to the FAI's new policy document which spells out a timeline for the resumption of the League of Ireland.

What the Association are describing as a 'pathway for a safer return to football' includes regular Covid-19 testing for players and a behind-closed-doors tournament for the League's European representatives - Dundalk, Shamrock Rovers, Derry City and Bohemians - 'as part of a pilot programme for a return to football for everyone'.

Covid-19 tests for players/staff from those four clubs will begin next Tuesday and they will be able to train collectively from June 8th ahead of that mini tournament, while Drogheda and the other clubs in the Premier and First Divisions will begin collective training from June 29th, again with regular testing for players and staff.

No definitive date is included in the document for a return to league action, but it's believed that mid-August is the target, just after Phase Five of the Government's Reopening Ireland plan comes into effect.

While the devil is in the detail, there is more optimism now that a timeframe has been mapped out and other leagues around Europe are beginning to resume playing. Crucially, the players themselves seem to be on board, with 87% of those who took part in a PFAI survey saying they were in favour of returning to action if it was safe to do so - even behind closed doors.

Reflecting on where Drogheda and other League of Ireland clubs now stand, Mr Hoey told the Drogheda Independent: 'You could sum it up by saying every club wants to get back once it's safe and it doesn't disadvantage us financially.

'We are awaiting details of those financial plans from the FAI - funding from different sources and how streaming is going to work - and I'd hope we'd have that information by the end of the month.

'The clubs need to have a good think about what is a fair system to make sure players are not out of pocket and we'll be doing our best to make sure we do the right thing for the players and the volunteers.

'From what I can see at the moment, you might get players back training at the beginning of July and start playing again in mid August with streaming facilities at neutral venues like Abbotstown.

'But then again, it's a moving feast with these things and there's no way you can make things completely safe for people. All it takes is for someone to touch a door handle [that's infected]. What we can do is follow all the guidelines.'

In the meantime all the clubs are meeting with the FAI every Thursday to discuss their ongoing fears about safety, finances and playing matches behind closed doors.

Among the other items on the agenda is to agree what format the two divisions will follow when the league does resume. For example, will it be possible for each First Division club to play their remaining 24 matches or would they complete just two rounds of fixtures - 18 games each in total - followed by promotion play-offs.

The Drogheda chairman has been keeping the players and staff informed of recent developments.

He said: 'We got together with all the players, staff and volunteers on a Zoom call last week - there were 45 people on it - and I went through loads of stuff with them that we'd been doing. It was great to see them all again and everyone was pretty positive and keen to get back playing.'

With Covid-19 testing to be in place before the anticipated return to competitive football, some of the concerns over player safety have been alleviated, but still there are problems to be overcome.

'You would think if we get back training we will use United Park,' Hoey said.

'We'll shut the clubhouse, players will arrive one-by-one in their kit, go training, not shower afterwards and then go away. A number of people will stay behind to clean the balls, the cones and the posts. But a number of our players would share lifts to training, so how will they get there and home safely? There's logistical problems, but using neutral venues takes away the hassle of managing the Covid-19 situation because United Park would not be suitable.'

To that end, the Drogheda board are still working on plans to boost facilities at their home ground, the assumption being that the proposed new stadium won't be completed until at least 2025.

'We have to improve facilities for players in terms of the showers and dressing-rooms post Covid-19 and we're trying to raise funds and talking to the FAI around that,' said the chairman. 'But we also need to improve facilities for supporters and I want to see new toilets around the ground and if we start next season with that work done then it's a good boost to the club.

'In a funny way, playing at neutral venues [this year] will allow us to do stuff in United Park and you don't get too many opportunities like that.'

No decision has yet been taken on whether to replace the grass surface with an all-weather pitch that could generate income for the club. If Drogheda did go down the Astro route then that work could be done long before the 2021 season starts, but what division will the Boynesiders be in by that stage?

'When you look back to our last game when we beat UCD 5-1, we were just starting to see the serious potential of that squad,' said Mr Hoey.

'We should have beaten Longford at home - everybody felt that - and if they hit the ground running when we come back they can do something interesting this year.'

Meanwhile, the Drogheda chairman's personal preference to move to an all-island league format in the near future has received cautious backing from his counterpart at Dundalk FC, Bill Hulsizer.

The Florida-based businessman said: I think that the all-island league is probably the best way forward for the future, but my personal view, not as Dundalk chairman but looking at what I see as a businessman, I think we're two years away at a minimum.

'There are lots of things that need to be done in the interim to make that league successful and the worst thing that could happen to Irish football is to jump in prematurely and have it fail.

'But if you had told me that a company that makes vacuum cleaners could re-engineer their production line in a week and start turning out 500 ventilators a day, I would have said that's crazy.

'If everybody says let's do it and let's make it work, then it greatly increases the chances of it working.'

Drogheda Independent