Windsor Park has played host to many special and memorable occasions in the past but on Monday night, the famous venue was the setting for one of the most welcome, yet strangest occasions in the long history of the stadium.
Linfield had not played a game at our Windsor home since February’s win against Crusaders and so Monday’s training game against Bohemians was a welcome first step in the road to a return to some form of normality, after the lockdown brought on by the corona virus pandemic.
In many ways, Monday’s match was a game like no other, and in many ways it was a sign of some things to come In the weeks ahead.
Government restrictions mean that all games at present have to be played behind closed doors, with no spectators in attendance and it was hugely disappointing (although regrettably understandable) that our supporters were not able to witness what was an entertaining, competitive friendly game and an impressive Linfield display.
Future Linfield friendly games, next week's Windsor Park Irish Cup semi finals and final and Linfield’s Champions League preliminary tournament games will similarly be played behind closed doors, without spectators.
Monday’s empty and somewhat surreal Windsor Park experience will have been excellent preparation for what’s to come when Linfield return to the European arena Behind closed doors against the champions of San Marino on August 8.
Monday’s first game in the hopefully not too long road to a return to normality, was only able to be attended by 22 players, 10 staff, 3 club officials and 5 stewards, along with the opposition squad and staff, as well as the 4 match officials and stadium and ambulance staff. All in line with recently issued IFA return to play match protocols.
On entry at the main South Stand players entrance, there was a temperature check and hand sanitising measures for every person gaining admission, as per the entry list.
Social distancing guidelines meant that time in changing rooms had to be kept to an absolute minimum and so players and staff congregated on / beside the pitch, or in the stands while maintaining the required social distances.
Team talks were conducted in the open air prior to the game and the visiting and welcome Bohemians team arrived on their bus, already changed for action.
Face coverings / masks were the norm - with the medical team in full PPE attire.
Playing Kit was issued pitch side, to minimise time in the dressing room area, to again comply with social distancing guidance.
Prior to kick off, there was no walk on to the pitch from the players tunnel, as the players hadn’t been in the dressing room area.
There were no pre match hand shake formalities but thankfully, once referee Tim Marshall blew his whistle to start the game, the normality of a football match broke out.
Social distancing was maintained in the dug out area, with staff and the 11 Linfield subs seated well apart across the South stand.
At half time there was no return to the dressing room, with sub players already kitted out to take over for the second half and the players who’d already done their shift, getting changed in the South stand.
The 5 stewards in attendance were effectively taking on ball boy responsibilities and sanitising the balls any time they were replaced by balls located on the side of the pitch and the stadium staff were regularly and thoroughly sanitising the seating in the South
Stand, as hygiene requirements were rigourously adhered to.
Post match, there was no return to the dressing room for feedback from the manager (and showers) and indeed, David Healy gave an upbeat appraisal of the teams performance to the players who were (socially distanced) seated apart in the South Stand.
Overall, it was a very different experience to what we are all used to but after the lockdown of the past 4 months, we have to start somewhere on the journey to an eagerly anticipated but gradual return to a much sought after normality.
A huge amount of effort and preparation went into getting football started again on Monday and hopefully, this will assist with similar preparations for upcoming games and of course the Champions League game(s) on August 8 (and hopefully 11).
There are huge implications with regard to hygiene, dressing rooms, social distancing and finance, going forward with the return to football across the entire league and indeed, at all levels of football across the country. However on Monday, Linfield and Windsor Park took the first step in our return to match day football and while the circumstances and restrictive measures in place were far from ideal, thankfully everything seemed to pass off smoothly.
The first step had been taken and as in all these types of scenarios, we hope that further strides can be taken in due course, to help return us to what we recognise as normality.
Most importantly, we hope that football can return safely and we are mindful of the suffering that has been endured by many across our country, as a result of this terrible virus that has raged havoc on the lives of everyone over the past number of months.
Linfield would therefore respectfully ask for the patience and full cooperation and understanding of our supporters, in adhering to government guidelines and regulations, while we continue to prepare for the upcoming Champions League game on August 8.
The club looks forward to the day when government restrictions will be lifted and supporters can return to matches and as media director, I long for the normality of the day when the secretary of the Ballymoney LSC emails me with details of when his club are travelling to one of our games from Matthewsons car park in the County Antrim town and I long for similar requests for publicity from our clubs in Lisburn and Bangor.
We will get there - we know it's been tough coping without football for so long but we somehow need to be patient for some time yet and the return to football and normality will be worth the wait, and no doubt we won’t take our simple pleasures and routines in life for granted, once they are restored to us.
Being ever mindful of the more important issues of the past few months, deepest sympathy is extended to everyone across the country who have suffered loss, pain and heartbreak, as a result of this unprecedented and cruel health crisis.
Audaces Fortuna Juvat