League of Ireland fans left in limbo over stadium return

DERRY CITY fans hoping to emerge from their enforced hibernation in the summer months won’t have been encouraged by Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s announcement that Ireland will remain in Level Five lockdown until ‘well into April’!

Tuesday, 23rd February 2021, 3:52 pm
HOPE . . There's brighter days ahead for Derry City fans who will hoping lockdown measures are eased in the summer.

As the opening of the new SSE Airtricity League season fast approaches, clubs and supporters are braced for another campaign of behind closed doors matches as it’s likely extreme caution will be applied to re-opening football to spectators.

A review of the Level 5 measures is expected in early April but it’s going to be a slow, gradual return to normality as the Irish government struggles to get Covid-19 under control.

It was hoped clubs would welcome reduced capacities into grounds around mid-July and in England it’s understood the government plan to allow crowds to return to football stadiums from May 17th - the final day of the English Premier League campaign!

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So let’s hope the Irish government’s stringent measures are relaxed by then and with the promise of vaccinations for all adults by the summer, perhaps transmissions and hospitalisation could fall sufficiently low to allow for the eventual return of League of Ireland fans through the turnstiles.

The economic impact of playing football without the fans has been devastating for clubs and, of course, other sectors which have been hit hardest like non-essential retail and hospitality must be given priority as they’re hanging by a thread.

The risk of becoming infected with Covid-19 while socialising outdoors is proven to be much lower than indoors and with social distancing restrictions reducing the risk of transmission, surely fans should be gradually permitted into the grounds before the season’s end.

Watching football behind closed doors is like going to a concert without the orchestra but at least the League of Ireland has got the green light to be played. Another WatchLOI streaming service would appease supporters somewhat while they wait patiently to be allowed back into stadiums.

Covid has brought with it an unprecedented upheaval of social isolation and football fans are missing that social interaction which comes hand-in-hand with attending matches.

As a sports journalist I’m among the privileged few permitted to attend games but the Ryan McBride Brandywell Stadium has been a soulless place without the fans. The manufactured crowd noise over the tannoy just doesn’t cut it.

While the floodlights will be back on full beam for Derry’s first home game against Shamrock Rovers on March 26th, Declan Devine and his troops will be once again sorely missing the support from the terraces.

The old ground is badly missing the traditional sounds and smells of matchday. The smell of burgers on a grill permeating around the ground, the familiar face in the seat next to you; the rivalry and banter with travelling fans and the usual suspects shouting expletives at the referee or opposition players.

The days when almost 4,000 supporters made their way through the turnstiles at the Southend Park end and on the Lone Moor Road are but a distant memory now.

But it’s about more than football and, for many, going to the Brandywell meant more than just how the team played. It’s about a shared history, an identity and a sense of belonging.

That sense of belonging and community has represented the lure of football for generations of Derry City fans who get to meet up with old school friends or acquaintances, share a joke or reminiscence over a cup of tea. It’s a meeting place as well as a football ground and a Friday night well spent with friends and family.

The football club is at the heart of the local community and when things are going well on the pitch it can be a special place. Attending games can glue families together. It can bind communities.

There’s now a huge social void. Who could’ve predicted that when the lights went off at Brandywell on February 28th 2020 after the 2-0 win over Bohemians it would’ve been the final time some of Derry’s most ardent fans stepped foot in the ground.

Since Covid shut the gates to fans, Derry has mourned the passing of club stalwarts like Brandywell Pride’s Hugh Curran, and co-founder of Pride of Northside Supporters Club, Hugh McMonagle, his fellow club member, John Campbell and lifelong fan Peter McSwiggan. The club also bid farewell to legendary Candystripe, Willie Curran during this latest lockdown.

When fans return, their glaring absence will be greatly felt. The grim reality is that there could be more loyal Derry fans who may never be back in the ground should restrictions remain in place for some time to come.

Until the virus is under control, there will be no burgers on a grill, no programmes, no half-time draw, no fathers and sons spending a Friday night together at Brandywell, no social connection. Just empty seats!

It will be a shame if Derry fans don’t get the chance to watch young Manchester City prospect, Joe Hodge strut his stuff and grow into senior football but the situation is unlikely to change drastically over the next six months.

The picture is far from clear and the future remains uncertain but football is a spectator sport, a form of social networking. The novelty of hosting Zoom parties or sitting in the comfort of your living room while watching single camera coverage with no replays and one commentator to recreate the unique football experience will wear off fast.

That’s not to mention the financial impact the absence of fans has had on the club’s coffers. The longer the restrictions go on the more likely clubs will fold.

Derry boss, Devine’s playing budget has already been hit hard but he’s done well to attract some top players to the club and with Will Patching, Will Fitzgerald and Marc Walsh the latest to join the club, there’s some fantastic attacking talent in the team.

Alongside David Parkhouse, James Akintunde, Joe Thomson, Joe Hodge and Patrick Ferry, there’s some exciting options in the final third should they live up to their potential.

Fingers crossed the Taoiseach’s next update provides more promise for League of Ireland fans and they can get to watch their hometown heroes from the stands.

Until then it will continue to be ‘tune in’ rather than ‘stand up’ for the Candy Stripes!