Opinion: Football is back...if slightly different

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.

By Steven Crawford
Tuesday, 28th July 2020, 1:58 pm
Updated Tuesday, 28th July 2020, 2:02 pm
Coleraine and Ballymena United players take to the pitch
Coleraine and Ballymena United players take to the pitch

So after a hiatus of 142 days we were all thrilled as local football was ready to take centre stage again...but it was slightly different to the game we left behind back in March.

Packing up my bag to head up the road to Belfast for Monday's Irish Cup semi-final double-header I had to include one very important piece of kit alongside my usual tools of a laptop, notepad and pen - a face mask.

(No jokes about having a face for radio please!)

Laptop, notepad, pen and face mask

Bag packed it was off in the car for Windsor Park, the furthest I have driven since lockdown began.

Normally on the big days in the Irish Cup you'd expect to see a number of fans on your journey, but as we all know things are very different this year.

Arriving and parking up outside the ground there was very little buzz.

Even the arrival of the teams failed to muster any real excitement, which was unfortunate for one of the biggest days in the local football sporting calendar.

A sign of the times at Windsor Park

As the local media contingent convened outside the gates waiting on our chaperone from the IFA, we donned our masks and gave our thoughts on how the day's games would go.

There was one last check though before we were officially allowed access to the stadium...the temperature check!

Now I've been at a few games which threatened to boil over, but having my temperature taken at a game was obviously a first.

Thankfully all was good and we were off to set up with the countdown to the first game well underway.

Cliftonville players make their way pitchside

It wasn't long until the teams were out, but unfortunately it was a bit underwhelming.

If things had been different there would have been a wall of noise as Coleraine and Ballymena United took to the pitch.

But instead there was a ripple of applause and some loud music over the PA.

It is what it is though, but hopefully it won't be long until supporters are back in full voice supporting their team again.

In the end Ballymena held their nerve to see off their old rivals on penalties, before there was a quick turnaround for Glentoran to take on Cliftonville.

And it's the old adage of you wait ages on one bus only for two to come along together as we were treated to another 120 minutes and penalties!

This time the Glens emerged victorious to set up final showdown with the Sky Blues.

Credit to all four teams for their efforts. I'm sure it wasn't easy to come straight back into such a competitive game after such a long period of inaction.

A quick dash to get socially distanced post-match reaction after filing the match report copy, and finally we were heading out the exit doors close to 11.30pm.

A few die-hard Glens fans were waiting in the car park outside to cheer their heroes as they made their way home.

It had been a long day, but it was certainly an experience to be able report from two Irish Cup semi-finals on the same day - a Monday of all days!

We have heard the phrase the 'new normal' over the last few months, but hopefully this won't be the new normal for the game here as I feel it needs the fans there.

Games like Irish Cup semi-finals and finals especially.

When you win games like this you want to share that moment with the supporters and make memories.

Thankfully a small number of supporters will be present at the final on Friday.

It certainly won't be an occasion we will forget.