By Dave Donnelly
A LONG five-month wait came to an end for underage clubs across the country last week as children under-18 were allowed to return to organised sport.
A vital outlet for the health and social well-being of the nation’s youth has been on hold since Christmas following the most recent spike in infections over the Christmas period.
Sports clubs had barely been open three weeks when they fell victim to a sharp rise in Covid cases following government’s decision to re-open the economy ahead of the festive season.
That meant all but the small number of footballers in the elite League of Ireland academies have been unable to play organised sport for all but a few weeks of the past 13 months.
Clubs have muddled on regardless, in spite of the straitened circumstances, developing robust strategies to prevent the spread of disease and designing return-to-play protocols.
The sight of thousands of girls and boys across Dublin once again socialising with friends – at a safe distance – and getting much-needed physical activity would warm even the sternest heart.
For Corduff FC director of football Daniel English, the appearance of smiles on the faces of youngsters as they realised they could meet their friends again was just the tonic needed.
“That’s always been the most satisfying thing for coaches and parents,” the former Shamrock Rovers academy coach tells the Dublin Gazette.
“When you went up there, everyone was buzzing – it was sunny weather and everyone was delighted to be back. As soon as the kids came back in and see their teammates, you could see the excitement.
“After being in lockdown for so long, I think everyone appreciated it more than they would have previously, because it’s taken so long. Everyone was in flying form.”
The justified frustration for English – and countless other clubs around Dublin and the country as a whole – comes from the fact this could have happened far sooner.
Clubs surveyed by the Gazette have reported a decline in the physical health of children since lockdown began in March last year, as well as a drop in the self-confidence of kids used to mixing with their peers.
The re-opening last year saw clubs the length and breadth of the country adopt exhaustive Covid safety protocols, with every single club appointing at least one Covid safety officer to ensure compliance.
Clubs, including Corduff, implemented a strict drop-off policy with no possibility for parents to congregate, and those who chose to watch the sessions were required to wear masks and keep a safe distance from one another.
English vented his frustration at government’s unwillingness to keep outdoor sport going, as a vital social outlet for children, in an open letter to government earlier this year.
He added: “I felt the clubs weren’t trusted.
“Outdoor and indoor sport can be managed if you have the right protocols in place.
“If you have a Covid officer, for example, in a gym, or indoor karate or basketball, you can do that if you practice civil hygiene.
“If we had trusted clubs in the first place, we wouldn’t have been in this situation for so many months.
“There was zero transmission in the clubs – and any cases clubs had they locked them down for two weeks – so I didn’t think it was fully engaged with on that front.
“I don’t think they could really see how we could prevent Covid.
“There was no checking, it was just we don’t trust you, and that’s basically it for a couple of months.”