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'We have five games in 16 days after a four-month lay-off'

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St Patrick's Athletic manager Stephen O'Donnell. Photo: Sportsfile

St Patrick's Athletic manager Stephen O'Donnell. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

St Patrick's Athletic manager Stephen O'Donnell. Photo: Sportsfile

The competition which devotees call The Greatest League in the World has just had the longest break in its history.

Even through Civil War, The Emergency, The Troubles and numerous recessions, the League of Ireland managed to find its way onto the field of play without interruption.

But tonight, a full 146 days after a ball was last kicked in anger and without a face mask in sight, the 2020 season resumes.

These are unusual times for football everywhere. In Sweden last night, the first round of the 2020/21 Swedish Cup kicked off just as the final of the 2019/20 competition was heading into the second half.

For some, the 146-day delay in organising the League of Ireland's own Project Restart was a disgrace; for others, even having football back again in 2020 is an achievement.

An aggregate crowd of 11,091 paid into the five Premier Division games on the last weekend of fixtures pre-pandemic. Tonight, only a handful will be present in Derry for the north-west derby and in Oriel Park for St Patrick's Athletic's visit to Dundalk, a poignant evening for anyone attached to Dundalk due to the absence of the club's loyal servant, the late Harry Taaffe.

The new normal will take time to adjust to and a league which for decades has struggled to attract crowds now has to keep people away.

Redrafted

Dublin's soccer public feed off local derbies on Friday nights but the redrafted fixture list denies that to the capital, with just one Friday night derby for the next six weeks.

Managers, players, staff, media and supporters all have to cope with the unlikely face (with a mask attached for many) of the LOI in August 2020, games watched by fans not from their favourite seats in the stand but from a live stream on a laptop or Smart TV.

It's still a relief to be back as no one wanted that hiatus to go on any longer, yet it remains to be seen how it all works out.

RTE's head of sport, aware of charges that his organisation don't give LOI football the coverage it deserves or needs, is on record as saying the viewing figures, both for televised games and those streamed, will show just how much an appetite there is for LOI football here.

And then there are the men on the field, the players.

They are the ones most relieved to be back to work, but there are concerns over the workload being imposed on them due to a calendar which lost five months.

"Injury is the big fear but I don't know how you shield against that," says Pat's manager Stephen O'Donnell ahead of his side's game away to his former club Dundalk tonight.

"We have five games in 16 days, after a four-month lay-off and to me that seems unfair on my players, as it's they who will suffer. I hope we don't have injuries but it seems inevitable, with such a gruelling schedule.

"It's a balancing act, trying to work with the players while not tipping them over the edge and seeing them break down with injury. That's not been easy, to have them fit enough to start but not overloaded."

Heading up the M1 to play the champions is daunting for O'Donnell, yet he hopes that the enforced break will have given his new-look squad time to gel.

"It wasn't ideal, all the uncertainty, but the break did give us the chance over a few weeks to get non-competitive games and training in," he says.

"We had a lot of new faces at the start of the season, we have added some more in the last week or so, but on the whole it's been positive and the new boys have settled in well.

"Dundalk away is not easy. The two teams we play first, Dundalk and Derry, were back a month before us so they have a head start but these are the cards we've been dealt, and we'll go to Oriel and do our best."

Striker Georgie Kelly can't feature for Pat's tonight under the terms of his loan deal from Dundalk, but Jordan Gibson and Latvian U21 cap David Titov are in line to make their debuts.

  • Dundalk v St Pat's Ath, live, RTE2, 7.45

Irish Independent