After 142 days away, it was good to be back in Oriel Park for last Tuesday’s friendly game against Bohemians.

Not since the 3-0 win over Cork City on February 24th had I set foot in the Carrick Road venue where countless hours have been spent down through the years.

Given there would regularly be training sessions that I’d attend or press conferences during the close season, it’s doubtful I’ve had such a long gap away from the place since first reporting on the club back in 2001.

As I parked up at Railway Terrace at around 7.15pm that night, some of the memories of great nights came flooding back but this had an altogether different feel.

Covid-19 has changed the world and the impact on football is no different. Rarely would I be as late for a Dundalk game, usually preferring to take my seat in the stand at or just before 6pm for a 7.45pm kick-off to soak up the pre-game atmosphere, prep for that evening’s coverage and, most importantly, have the craic with many of the regulars who play such a vital part in the overall Oriel experience.

On this occasion you wouldn’t even know there was a game on. There were no supporters hanging around, no sign of Eugene McGeough at the door of Kennedy’s Bar and no blast of whatever Mickey Duffy had chosen to play over the PA.

There was at least a friendly face waiting at the entrance to the ground in the form of Denis Molloy. The last friendly I had seen him at was way back in January at Oliva Nova in Spain when Dundalk were taking on CFR Cluj. Everyone was full of hope and excitement at what the new season would bring on that occasion but that was a pre-Covid world and the months in between have felt more like years.

On entering the ground there were a handful more of familiar faces, with some of the club’s long serving volunteers invited to attend the game as well. We were all a little giddy to be back but despite a few pleasantries the shine of shouting between one another due to the two metre social distancing seating measures in place quickly wore off.
Even the subs were separated from each other, with little conversation between them. After warming up Stefan Colovic briefly forgot himself and sat between two team-mates for a chat but he was quickly reminded of his responsibilities by Martin Connolly and promptly returned to his isolated seat higher in the stand.

In the game that took place, Dundalk played well. Jordan Flores had scored the last goal for Vinny Perth’s side here against Cork City and he got the first of the new era, so to speak, with a well struck penalty on 15 minutes after a handball by Kris Twardek.

In truth, Bohs looked a little ring rusty on the night but not even a 4-1 win – with goals from Dane Massey, Sean Gannon and Patrick Hoban in the second half, followed by a late consolation for the visitors from Promise Omochere – brought much elation.

A good result yes, but the usual buzz of beating one of your biggest rivals wasn’t there. That hallow feeling continued after full-time due to the fact there were no post-match interviews.

Usually there’d be a bit of a quip between the two full backs over whose goal was better or a look through the stats sheet to work out when or if the last time both had been on the scoresheet in the one game.

It’s the little things you miss.

It was back again on Friday for the visit of Drogheda Utd with Daniel Cleary’s 10th minute header from Stefan Colovic’s corner sealing a 1-0 win that was amazingly not by a bigger margin.

While two goals which were ruled out for offside undoubtedly added to the confusion, it said a lot about the concentration levels that I wasn’t the only one who had to ask as the game petered out if it was still only 1-0?

The bright spot on Friday was the bag of tricks that was Nathan Oduwa, with his rainbow flick over Jack Tuite the undoubted highlight. He’ll be a real fan favourite if and when supporters return. It’s sad really that they can’t appreciate his talents already.

For more than myself, the novelty of being back quickly wore off. It’s always good to see Dundalk play but part of the overall package is the craic with people, the atmosphere and the buzz.

The game itself might be back but it’s still missing some of the vital ingredients that make a match night in Oriel Park special.

One dreary sight summed it all up for me at half-time of the Drogheda game as I exited the toilets underneath the stand to see an empty Enda McGuill Suite.

There between roughly 8.30pm and 8.45pm is a room usually full of chat, debate and animation. It would be unthinkable under normal circumstances for it to be empty on a Friday night with a local derby taking place.

That’s a sight that is set to continue for some time sadly.

Football might be back but it’s definitely not the same.