Refused elite status by the respective governing bodies and ultimately the Northern Ireland Executive Championship clubs spent an entire season in the football wilderness once the 2020/21 campaign was officially declared null and void.
In fact it’s been 18 daunting months since those teams have kicked a ball competitively in the league resulting in ‘unintended consequences’ with players hanging up their boots and some facing mental health problems as a result.
Institute Football Club introduced mentor groups for its players during the enforced break but ‘Stute boss Connor admits he also found himself lacking motivation and worrying about the future over the past six months as the situation had a damaging effect on his own mental health.
“The unintended consequences of this last 18 months hiatus has been some players packing the game in,” explained Connor. “Some players have struggled with their mental health. Even myself to be honest,” he revealed.
“Initially, whenever I was doing all the fighting (for elite status) it was keeping me busy. But these last six months have been very, very difficult for me. I’ve found it very difficult to motivate myself at times. Very difficult to see where the future is.”
Pre-season has brought with it promise and the social contact and interaction with his players and coaching staff has brought renewed hope for the Belfast man who is delighted to be back talking about football again as opposed to being at loggerheads with NIFL or the IFA.
The former Dundalk, Bohemians and Sligo Rovers boss, who has over 15 years coaching experience, is delighted to be back on a pitch where he feels most at home and while there’s been no change in status for Championship clubs, focussing on football matters leading up to the new season has helped lift his mood.
“Big time,” he enthused. “It’s helped me. I missed it. I missed the engagement and interaction with the players.
“Trying to mould a group with 22 different individuals and trying to get them focussed and united on one goal. Or trying to develop a group’s values and belief systems.
“That’s what gets me up in the mornings. That’s why losing players and staff was so hard to take because we have such a tight group.”
Indeed, the club has lost three members of its coaching staff with Emmet Friars, Tony Blake and most recently Paul McLaughlin leaving for pastures new. The club’s most experienced defender Seamus Sharkey has also left and Connor has been forced to rebuild alongside his assistant Sean Friars.
So while it certainly hasn’t been an ideal return and the cloud of non-elite status and the ongoing pandemic still hangs ominously overhead, Connor is staying optimistic about the season ahead and aspires to get the club back into the Premiership despite his shoe-string budget.
“Last year we were talking about the IFA’s decision and NIFL’s decision. I’ll be honest, I’m still worried because we still haven’t got elite status.
“The way these numbers are going there’s nothing to say there won’t be a fourth lockdown come October, November time.
“So I think that needs to be sorted out as soon as possible so we can have a full year of Championship football.
“You got teams like Dungannon, Carrick Rangers, Portadown, Warrenpoint playing when losing had no consequence whatsoever. Suddenly if they’re in a league where it matters if you lose it will have implications on how they play and perform.
“We need to have something to aspire to. We need to aspire to get promoted. Whether that happens or not, you need to start the season hoping to play at a higher level.
“But you get back in and train with your players and start playing some pre-season games and that builds hope. It’s important that it’s more than hope because we had that before.”