Carlow man joins Cillian Sheridan as first Irish players to return to the pitch after Europe-wide lockdown
As football tries to inch towards something close to normality, things that once seemed mundane are important.
Carlow native Eric Molloy is one of the two Irish footballers who will be the first from this country to get back onto the field of play anywhere in Europe when the Polish leagues resume in the coming days. Ex-international Cillian Sheridan is due to play for his top-flight club, Wisla Plock, on Sunday week while Molloy should be involved when his side, second-tier outfit Stomil Olsztyn, play three days later in a live TV game.
Restricted numbers at training this week meant that striker Molloy wasn't seeing his buddies.
"As you are in a group of 14 you don't see some of the lads and that's strange, you miss seeing mates and chatting to them as we're in different groups," he says.
Travel is usually a formality that has to be dealt with for any footballer, but post-pandemic the logistics can be a nightmare. Molloy's club's first game (behind closed doors) after the re-start on June 2 is at home, but five days later Stomil are away to Sosnowiec, a six-hour drive away in southern Poland. Will the players travel in one coach, in a couple of buses, or drive in their own cars? That's not yet been worked out.
It's all still a learning process, with added complications for a foreigner in Poland like Molloy (27) to have to fill in forms related to health checks in Polish, with assistance from the club. But after a long spell in lockdown it's a relief for the striker to be back in training and to have an actual fixture to focus on in 11 days' time.
"Everyone wants to get back, everyone is losing out. Fans want to see football and we all want to play. Everyone is willing to get the ball rolling again but safety is important and as players we need to follow the procedures. I see everyone doing that as we want to get back onto the field," he said this week.
Molloy says the doors to sport's return in Poland were opened quickly by both government and football, as once group training was permitted they moved rapidly from groups of six to 14.
"Last week we got to train in a group of 14, so at first the coach worked with the defenders, then it was the attacking players, including me. Before that we could only train in groups of six, five players and coach," Molloy explains, happily settled in his home of Olsztyn, a city around the size of Cork.
"They'd planned to stick to that for a while but I think the Polish authorities followed what they did in the Bundesliga and moved quickly, we went from a group of six to 14.
"There was a testing process before we could even get on the field in groups so once we did our individual training in the park we had to fill in the questionnaire with our temperature every day, we still do that now.
"We had to get tested and once we all came back negative we were allowed to train in groups. We have been back training since Monday of last week. It's an unusual protocol. Before we even went back, we had instructions from the Polish FA over what we should be doing.
"It was changing from week to week, so you had to do what you could without breaking the rules. We did work on our own first, then had to start filling out questionnaires. Once the Polish Government opened up the parks here we were able to go and train in the local park.
"The last week we were able to go back to train. We did individual training with a coach, he'd put you through your paces and then other lads came along as you were finished. You'd do your physical work and strength exercises. It was like a boot camp," he laughs, noting that hand sanitizer is everywhere at training.
Training is one hurdle, the first match after the re-start (the Polish league had only played two games in 2020 following a mid-season break) is another, but Molloy wonders about the impact of fitting a season into such a short space of time. His club, aiming for promotion to the top flight, have two fixtures a week between Tuesday week and late July. And the physical toll could affect all players across Europe.
"The whole schedule has been compacted, two games a week for the next two months more or less. You have a game every three or four days and to do that over a few weeks will take its toll on everyone, not just our league," he says.
"We'll all be fine for the first two weeks but after that you'll see who were the players who were keeping in shape and putting in the work. I don't think I have ever been in a team where they did so much physical training, it requires a strong mentality to get through it. We're physically fit and it's a challenge now to be mentally ready to deal with what's to come. I think we'll be okay but I'm not sure about other clubs."
Apart from a worldwide pandemic, the move to Poland has gone well for Molloy, as Stomil have offered him a new deal when his present contract runs out in July. He's travelled before, having played in New Zealand, but Poland has suited him. "Football here is taken very seriously, it's a bit like the GAA back home," he says.
A move home to Ireland was possible last summer as he played for both Bohemians and St Patrick's Athletic, as a trialist, in friendly games against Chelsea, Molloy making headlines with a superb goal in what was Frank Lampard's first game in charge.
But rather than joining an Irish club in mid-season, he wanted a fresh start and after a successful trial he had a spell in the reserves with Stomil Olsztyn. It's worked out well, evident in the offer of a new deal with possible interest from other clubs.
And Molloy has plans. "I want to get into the Irish squad," he says. "I know that sounds ambitious but I have ambition, I know I'd need to play at a high level but it's something I want to do."