Shamrock Rovers’ return to training: ‘We have to do things right’

At Roadstone, elaborate preparations have been made to ensure player and staff safety

Shamrock Rovers players, including Joey O’Brien and Rhys Marshall, training at Roadstone on Monday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Shamrock Rovers players, including Joey O’Brien and Rhys Marshall, training at Roadstone on Monday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

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It seems unlikely that the birdsong ever completely eclipsed the background rumble of traffic out at Roadstone, but the noise from the N7 on Monday morning certainly provided a sense of returning normality. Inside the Shamrock Rovers training ground, though, things can surely never have seemed more surreal.

“Are you trying out for the next Ghostbusters movie?” shouts a grinning Joey O’Brien at groundsman John Cregan. “Joey’s gas,” says Cregan, his own smile obscured by a face mask. It’s not hard to see what the former international is getting at, anyway. Cregan is covered from head to foot in protective clothing and has a tank of disinfectant strapped to his back. He has just used it to spray balls used by the now-departing goalkeepers before they are given to the day’s first group of five outfield players.

He sees the funny side of his appearance, happily enough, but concludes: “We have to do things right. It’s no fun and games if someone was to get the virus.”

The effort to prevent that happening is apparent all around us. Small groups of players arrive at specified times for weekly coronavirus testing and those heading straight on to training have their temperatures taken at a checkpoint manned by club physio Tony McCarthy, who is himself just about recognisable behind the PPE.

Shamrock Rovers’ director of football Stephen McPhail. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Shamrock Rovers’ director of football Stephen McPhail. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
You do miss the group atmosphere – coming in and having a laugh with your team-mates and friends

There are tables with hand sanitiser and the like at regular intervals, and everyone bar the players, who have already taken their own temperatures at home and filled out online questionnaires at home just to get this far, is wearing a mask.

“If they’re 38 degrees or over then that’s that,” says McCarthy, who has landed the role on the basis of having some experience already with the protocols required having returned to private practice a couple of weeks ago. “Obviously none of us wants another spike but it’s different; it’s difficult and we are learning all the time.”

First group

Out on the pitch, the first group of players to actually train includes O’Brien, Roberto Lopes and Danny Lafferty, and they are barely through the warm-up when the next group start to arrive, get past McCarthy and head to the ground’s outdoor gym area. It all feels very strange indeed, but there’s no mistaking the fact that, on a warm and sunny morning, after three months away, everybody is glad to be there.

“Yeah, I’m excited to be back,” says Lopes. “I found it [lockdown] okay but after a while it is hard to keep yourself motivated. I really enjoy training. I’m fairly well motivated, even when I am on my own, but you do miss the group atmosphere – coming in and having a laugh with your team-mates and friends, then getting out on the pitch and working hard. I know I enjoy that myself a lot.”

The club could have had larger groups training together in light of Friday’s redrawing of the roadmap, but has stuck to its original plan, in part to guard against the muscle injuries that have apparently been common in leagues that have come back quickly. Strength and conditioning coach Darren Dillon says the players at Rovers have done their bit so far by keeping themselves in pretty good condition, and returned in better shape than they would normally have after a close season; but some, it seems, may have gotten slightly carried away.

Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers in training on Monday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Ronan Finn of Shamrock Rovers in training on Monday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
It has given us a chance to look at the things that we can improve, how we can be smarter with our time

“I’m good friends with James McClean,” says Danny Lafferty, who has just returned from a prolonged spell back at home in Derry with his wife and two young children, “and we set each other challenges every week. There were eight or 10 of us in the group chat. It was just something to reignite the motivation, to keep people active.”

It all sounds like fine until he mentions something about doing a four-mile run every four hours for 48 hours at one stage. He looks and sounds genuinely thrilled to be here, though, which is hardly surprising if he has been pushing himself that hard during his time away.

Weighing up

Stephen Bradley has been spending his time reviewing the small portion of the season already played with his coaching staff and club officials, and weighing up the wider way in which Rovers do things, he says.

“I’m not saying there are going to be big changes or anything, but it has given us a chance to look at the things that we can improve, how we can be smarter with the way we use our time.

“You get a lot of data these days and get caught up in it without actually seeing the finer detail. So we have been lucky enough to sit down with the people who run the company and ask questions about how we are using what they give us. That’s been really good.”

Despite there being no agreement in place to get the league going again, he firmly believes it will happen – the ambition being a mid-August restart then early December finish – and is grateful, he says, for the work they have put into trying get the required agreement in place.

“The four-team tournament is a good idea. People have worked very hard behind the scenes to get that set up, to put plans in place, to persuade the FAI to pay for the testing, which is not cheap [very fractionally short of €500,000, it seems]. Alan Byrne and his working group deserve massive credit. I think Niall Quinn and Gary Owens do too.”

At League of Ireland level, several clubs still have to be convinced, but the association, which has two staff members at Roadstone on Monday, is watching how Rovers and the other three clubs who have qualified for Europe get on in the hope that any lessons might be applied to a much wider restart.

The idea that anything like this could be applied to the amateur or underage ranks seems fairly fanciful, to be honest, and so the return of the grassroots game, most likely in September, seems to depend on continued progress in the wider battle to contain the virus.

In the meantime, though, playing professionally just acquired a very different look.

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