Dundalk interim head coach Filippo Giovagnoli has admitted he is massively concerned about the possible impact Covid-19 could have on his squad’s schedule over the coming weeks.
Last Friday’s game against St Patrick’s Athletic was postponed after a Pat’s player was diagnosed with Covid-19 while the Republic of Ireland national team were also severely disrupted by the pandemic at the weekend.
While largely out of his control whether it gets into the Dundalk group or not, Giovagnoli said the club were taking every precaution possible to protect themselves.
“It’s a massive concern,” he said of Covid-19.
“We’re taking all the precautions possible with our players. We meet almost every day and we make sure that we are following all the procedures. Everything is in the protocols but it is a concern.
“We control what we can but this virus is crazy and you don’t know what could happen. In the majority of the cases as well you are asymptomatic so you don’t feel anything and that’s the problem.
“In this situation you just have to lower the percentage of risk in your daily life and be smart. This is what we’re telling the players but also we do a lot of tests so that we stay really controlled.
“We’ve created a sort of bubble in our group. Until now it has gone well so we have to keep on going even though it’s getting more difficult because the cold weather is coming. It’s going to be tough for everyone.”
Dundalk’s latest round of Covid-19 tests took place on Sunday.
With cases building in Ireland there has been speculation that the country could yet move to Level 5. This could lead to the league here being halted with the possibility that Dundalk may have to play their home Europa League matches at neutral venues abroad.
While not ideal, Giovagnoli said he would not be losing sleep over the prospect.
“I hope that that won’t happen but it is what it is. If we have to do that, we’ll do that.
“The world has massively changed and we have to be ready for everything and adapt and be flexible. Until they can get a vaccine to fix this situation, it’s going to be our life and even the lives of the players has changed so we have to be patient and take each day by day or you’ll go crazy.
“If I start to think what could happen I’d go crazy but I can’t do that. We just have to stay aware, cut our contacts and wash our hands and hope it will be enough.”
Dundalk may well have to do things the hard way on and off the field if they are to retain their league title this season.
On Friday, the FAI and the National League Executive Committee held a teleconference where it was decided that the weekend of June 19th was the new target date for the resumption of the SSE Airtricity League, with the league set to conclude on Friday December 4th.
In order to accommodate this the league will be reduced to 27 games in total with the fourth round of games removed from the schedule.
While most people would be happy to see the resumption of games on that date as it would mean the end of the current Covid-19 pandemic, it does throw up problems both on and off the pitch for Dundalk FC.
Firstly, the removal of the final round of matches would mean that it would be advantage Shamrock Rovers in the title race as they would play Dundalk twice at Tallaght Stadium – one of which they have already won last month – compared to just one game in Oriel Park. Dundalk would also face the prospect of two trips to Dalymount Park to face last season’s third best team in the league, Bohemians.
While the side’s away form is generally strong and they have good recent records at both Tallaght and Dalymount despite defeats on their last two visits there, it does make things that little bit trickier if they are to make it three league wins in-a-row come the end of the season.
Then there is the financial implications as well. The removal of the final series of games means five less home games at Oriel Park with the visits of Shelbourne, Shamrock Rovers, Finn Harps, Bohemians and Sligo lost.
To put that in context, two of Dundalk’s three biggest gates last season were for home games against Rovers. The match on April 26th was the only game to break the 4,000 mark with 4,026 in attendance while the game that wrapped up the league title last September brought in 3,634. The only game in between was the early season meeting with Cork City which attracted 3,783 to the Carrick Road venue.
The fourth highest attendance the club recorded was for last season’s league opener against Sligo Rovers when 3,347 turned out for what was Vinny Perth’s first league game in charge since replacing Stephen Kenny. While that undoubtedly led to a larger turnout, losing a potential bumper crowd for a final league game of the season is also a blow as, barring any changes to the fixtures, Dundalk will now finish their season away to Sligo in The Showgrounds.
While Shelbourne were not in the league last season, it’s fair to say they would be expected to bring more than the 1,843 who turned out for the visit of the side they replaced in the league, UCD, last season. That was the club’s lowest gate of 2019.
Similarly the last visits of Finn Harps (2,217) and Bohemians (2,312) brought decent crowds with a larger crowd due to be expected for the visit of the latter only for the fact that game was played on a Monday.
Even taking into account Dundalk’s average attendance of 2,753 last season, the loss of five home matches would mean around 14,000 less people through the turnstiles of Oriel Park this year. At an average of €15 per ticket that is a sizeable chunk of revenue lost to a club with the highest wage bill in the league.
Admittedly, a large number of those attending would be season ticket holders and therefore not be paying for their day to day admission but when you factor in the additional revenue from the club shop, the bar, lotto sales etc, it is a sizeable blow to the club coffers. Factor in that the EA Sports Cup has been axed and it is another potential source of revenue gone.
Given Dundalk’s position they will get little sympathy from around the league – especially given the fact that just about virtually every other club is in the same boat. Some, most notably Sligo Rovers and Cork City, have already had to lay people off for example with others bound to follow.
Having bigger commitments creates bigger headaches though.
Make no doubt about it, Dundalk’s wage bill both on and off the field is sizeable. While the club are fortunate to have money in the bank from their historic Europa League run in 2016, they now face the prospect of paying staff for a period of around three and a half months – at best – to do virtually nothing. Of course, players are still doing their own bits and pieces to maintain their fitness but with the Covid-19 pandemic likely to get a lot worse before it gets better, it will be some time before the side are back training together again.
The word behind the scenes are that owners PEAK6 will continue to honour contracts during this unprecedented crisis and, if so, that is admirable.
Yet, given there has always been doubts about their long-term intentions from a certain element of the Dundalk support, you can’t help but feel they are missing a trick by not going public now to back the club, the community, their staff and supporters in these very worrying times.
That may well come or maybe they will let their actions do the talking.
There are bigger concerns for the people of this area, of course, but either way Covid-19 presents a unique challenge for the club off the field and will again on it whenever football resumes. Getting back to a game at Oriel will no doubt feel as good as any title win though and, hopefully, we are all there to see it.
For pretty much every Dundalk player, staff member and supporter, the decision to postpone last Friday’s game at home to St Patrick’s Athletic was a huge blow.
For some time now a trip to Oriel Park has been a release to get away from life’s worries but the threat of the spread of the Coronavirus means there will be little or no sport played until early April at best with this Friday’s trip to face Bohemians in Dalymount Park and the following week’s clash against Waterford FC already definitely off.
While everyone is sorry to see a season that was just getting going halted in its infancy, the current shutdown has proved a particular headache for Dundalk captain Brian Gartland.
While the centre half is very much in favour of people following the Government and HSE instructions to protect themselves and their loved ones, the unprecedented situation thrown up by the spread of Covid-19 has impacted him in more ways than one.
While his day to day job with Dundalk FC is on hold, the current situation has also led to him temporarily shutting down two of his other business ventures. His basketball coaching business had already been halted before schools were closed on Friday while his latest venture, The Recovery Room in Abbotstown, had only just opened when it was forced to close its doors at the weekend.
Given all that you can see why he is glad of being at a club with the kind of security that Dundalk FC offers.
Speaking about his situation, Brian said: “I’ve just set up a business and opened the doors last weekend. Saturday, Sunday and Monday were brilliant and then it just stopped and I had no one in so I’ve had to shut the place.
“Part of it means you’re cursing your luck but at the same time you can’t do anything. I need to just see what happens when this blows over but it does tend to come all at once when you factor in a couple of other untimely situations at home but at the same time I could be worse off so we just have to deal with it.”
Had the League of Ireland gone ahead last weekend, it would have benefitted Brian in more ways than just the possibility of being involved for the club he has represented now for almost seven years.
“I had three teams booked in for Saturday morning and a few other bookings as well. There were a couple of Dublin GAA players booked in as well and I had been building up a little database of people coming in but it’s just all on hold now. That’s the least important thing at the minute though.”
The one plus side is that he is at the most financially of stable clubs in Dundalk, who will continue to pay wages during the current downtime in the league.
“It’s my saving grace now because with the situation I’m in right now with outside stuff, I’m more vulnerable than I’ve ever been just because of putting investment into the new business and Bronagh on unpaid maternity leave but at least I can take a bit of security from the fact that I’m at a solid club who do things right,” said Brian.
“It’s nice to have that bit of security behind you in these uncertain times.”
By his own admission, Brian has become a “bit of a nerd” in reading up on Coronavirus in recent weeks and feels the current measures taken by the Government to effectively close the country down is the correct method to take.
“I suppose like anything you hope for the best and plan for the worst and that’s what we’ve seen. I was happy to see our Government’s actions the other day with social distancing and closing the schools and everything and hopefully that is effective. People might say in the end that it was too severe but it’s better to be too severe than under severe and then regret it.”
While the Dundalk squad are among the fittest of men in the country, he says it is only right that players do their own training at home right now given the risk to those they come in contact with.
“The experts in the field are learning as they go so it’s still a bit of an unknown going forward but from our point of view as footballers nobody is immune to this.
“You might be fit and healthy and we might get it and it might be just like a flu or fever but it’s also who you affect and what connection on the chain do you affect if you keep acting as normal. That’s not just for us to consider, it’s everyone, but we’ve four lads at the minute whose partners are pregnant so there is worry with them.
“There’s a few lads who have people at home who are bad asthmatics. There’s even a few players who are asthmatic. You don’t know the half of it either because every family has some kind of health scare or recent health issue that they might be going through. You never know what is going on behind closed doors. There was a lot of concern among players but our concerns were aired and the right decision was made to take the weekend off.
“If it comes to it we can work from home and do our own stuff but I think it’s just a case of wait and see on it.”
Unfortunately Brian feels that the current league stoppage until the end of March will proceed much longer.
“I don’t like to be pessimistic, I’d hope we would be back as soon as possible but I can see this going on a good while just to slow and steady the rate.
“Behind closed doors wasn’t an option for the league here. You might say there’s an opportunity for a streaming service and if it had gone ahead behind closed doors you might have had a lot of people willing to buy it because there is no sport on telly but also you’re playing in a lot of dilapidated stadiums with no crowds so are you doing the product a favour then?
“There are different ways to look at it but gate receipts are a big thing for so many clubs. We’re lucky at Dundalk that they’re not as important as elsewhere but we still need those gate receipts for the club to run.
“The PFAI, the FAI and the NLEC are going to contact the Government and UEFA to see what can be done whether that be interest free loans to clubs or what. UEFA are usually very good at that and understanding and in the grand scheme of things our league is small money compared to the money that would be needed to tide clubs over elsewhere. You’d hope we will be okay in that way but the uncertainty is scary. Being at Dundalk though does give you that little bit more reassurance.”
For now Brian has just urged that everyone play their part to ensure whenever normality does return, there is more reason to celebrate than just results on the field.
“Community is responsible for stopping the spread of this now and we just have to help out in doing our own bit.”