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'It’s a matter of staying indoors, it’s as simple as that' - Irish abroad on life in lockdown

While English football still allows its teams to train, players on the continent have a vastly different experience. Aidan Fitzmaurice speaks to two Irishmen in Europe – Conor Henderson in Bulgaria and Ryan Nolan in Italy

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Irish abroad: Ryan Nolan is still hopeful of making a name for himself at Inter Milan. Photo: Emilio Andreoli - Inter/FC Internazionale via Getty Images

Irish abroad: Ryan Nolan is still hopeful of making a name for himself at Inter Milan. Photo: Emilio Andreoli - Inter/FC Internazionale via Getty Images

FC Internazionale via Getty Imag

Irish abroad: Ryan Nolan is still hopeful of making a name for himself at Inter Milan. Photo: Emilio Andreoli - Inter/FC Internazionale via Getty Images

Conor Henderson (Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)

The border is sealed, travel is cancelled and no one is able to tell him when he can leave.

For Conor Henderson, a one-time ­Ireland youth and U-21 cap now based in Bulgaria, the comfort of being on ­lockdown in his place of employment is that he's not alone. His partner ­managed to get over from England to visit last week, with their 12-week-old baby daughter, just in time.

"They arrived last Wednesday. On ­Friday, the club's owners asked the ­foreign players at the club if we had our families here as the borders were about to close, so the timing was good," he says. "They told us that if any of us had gone back home, the risks of us not getting back into the country were high."

So as the Henderson clan begin adapting to life in Bulgaria's 15th biggest city with the place on lockdown, life goes on and, with baby Kaya to look after, he's kept busy.

Last week, his club, Pirin ­Blagoevgrad, were one of the first casualties of ­coronavirus after a game was called off due to a cluster of Covid-19 cases in the city where it was due to be played.

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Conor Henderson is adjusting to life in Bulgaria

Conor Henderson is adjusting to life in Bulgaria

Conor Henderson is adjusting to life in Bulgaria

"That was last Tuesday when our game was the only one off; by the Friday the entire league was off," he says, that division now postponed until April 14.

Blagoevgrad, a town of around 70,000 people (around the size of Galway), is closed for at least two weeks.

"Bars, cinemas, all public places are closed, and there haven't been as many cases in Bulgaria as other countries, but they acted quickly," he says. "It's only the bare minimum that's open, pharmacies and supermarkets."

Trained

The squad trained last Friday and the players had been told to report back on Tuesday, but that was changed and they are told to stay away, with no date for a return to training.

Calm is key. "The number of cases here compared to England is small; last time I looked they had 92 cases declared in Bulgaria and they have reacted quickly," he says. "The city I am in is big in terms of space, but the population is small, so they hope it will be easier to contain here. The city centre is quiet, everything is closed, people do go out for a walk, but there's no full-scale panic, there has been no panic-buying in the shops like I saw in England."

The former Arsenal man, who ­qualified for Ireland through the ­parentage rule and played in the same U-21 side as Shane Duffy and Conor Hourihane, is a long way from his native London, but he has enjoyed life as a ­footballer in the Balkans.

Now 28, his career had failed to progress after he left Arsenal in 2013, a series of ­unconvincing spells across the lower leagues in England followed, but a move to Pirin Blagoevgrad in 2017 revived him. They were relegated after one season and he moved on to a club in Romania, Dunărea Călărași, who were also relegated but last summer, he returned to second-tier side Pirin and he's one of seven foreign players in a squad managed by Belfast man Warren Feeney.

In Ireland, players are concerned about their futures and the ability of clubs to carry on paying wages during the lay-off but even though Bulgarian football lives in a chaotic world at times, he's not too concerned.

"There's been big changes in the past six months, we have a wealthy owner and the club president is English, so we are confident enough," he says.

The local equivalent of Deliveroo keeps him fed and the club's own ­restaurant in the city provides lunch and dinner every day for players and their families.

"It's good to know we are looked after," he says. "We don't know how long this will last, but we'll get through it, we all know that football's not too important now, it's about people getting through this."

Ryan Nolan (Gorgonzola, Italy)

A city in complete lockdown, police cars driving through the streets telling residents to stay indoors, and all the while a concern about his family back in Ireland: a month after he turned 21, Irish-born, Italian-based defender Ryan Nolan is having to grow up fast.

Nolan expected this season to be a challenging one in his career as last summer he left the relative comfort of Inter Milan, where he had spent three years in their academy, and tried to make a name for himself, also push on with an international career that had stalled due to the lack of game-time.

The football part has not gone to plan as the club he joined, Serie C side Arezzo, struggled, as did Nolan, and in January he moved to another third-tier club on loan, Giana Erminio, to try and get games. Now, no one knows when matches will be played again.

Football in Italy is no longer important as the nation battles with Covid-19.

"It's a matter of staying indoors, it's as simple as that, there's no talk about training or matches," Nolan says, from his home in the town of Gorgonzola, a 30-minute drive from Milan.

"Supermarkets and pharmacies are open, but that's all, the cafes and bars are closed, we really are in lockdown. And it's starting to become normal. I have had this for about a week now and you just get used to it, get used to not going out. We've had the crisis here for a month or so, but it's only in the past 10 days that it's got more real.

"Up to 10 days ago it was probably like it was in Ireland, not that people were joking about it, but people thought it was just like the 'flu. But you see the death rate going up day by day and you see how serious it is. No one is out on the streets, the police are on the streets in their cars using speakers to tell ­people to stay in and stay safe."

Nolan was born in Co Clare, but moved to Spain with his family when he was young. Spain was the place where he was spotted by Inter Milan's scouts. He was a regular in Inter's youth team, but making the first team was impossible so he had to move on, hoping that a summer move to Arezzo, on a two-year deal, could spark his career. But a six-week lay-off due to injury set him back and he was unable to get into the side; hence the loan move.

"I was looking forward to a good year, playing men's football and going on to bigger and better things next year, but it hasn't worked out that way," he says.

"It's been stop-start and now I don't know if I will play again, but it's not only me. There is a possibility that we won't play again this season. That's one of the hard things."

Nolan is keeping up to date with the situation in Italy, Spain and Ireland.

"I'm on my own so I am OK, but I have team-mates here in Italy worried about their ­parents and grandparents, passing it on to them," he says.

"But I am worried about my ­grandparents back in Clare, in ­Shannon, and my parents in Spain. It's hard for everyone."

Irish Independent