On the 31st of December 2019 the first known case of COVID-19 was detected in Wuhan, China, and little did we know how much of an impact it would on us have here in Northern Ireland. With the death toll ever-increasing, the UK government took action on the 16th of March 2020, enforcing a lockdown that saw all “non-essential” businesses and organisations closing in an attempt to combat the spread of the virus. Football clubs fell under the ‘non-essential’ category, and while the impact that the pandemic had on major football clubs has since been well documented, little has been said about the impact it has had on the smaller, local clubs.
Grassroots and semi-professional football are the building blocks at the core of the sport, and clubs at this level give budding players a chance to play the game they love in a competitive manner, whilst also giving the locals a team to get behind and support during their campaigns. Armagh is home to an array of youth teams that help develop the local players of the future, as well as having multiple clubs of both amateur and semi-professional status for those players to represent. One of which is Armagh City FC.
Armagh City Football Club (formerly known as Milford Everton) is a semi-professional team founded in 1964. The club is managed by former club and Northern Ireland U21 striker, Shea Campbell, and they are currently playing in the NIFL Premier Intermediate League. Following the suspension of the league in accordance with government guidelines, team training has been cancelled with club facilities having been forced to close, and according to City assistant manager, Alex Clifford, the time apart has had a negative impact on the club.
“It’s been extremely difficult. On the pitch, everyone is missing the physical activity associated of playing our sport right the way from our under 7’s to our senior squad,” says Alex. “Trying to keep that team dynamic going virtually has been very difficult. Financially the club has been hit hard with little-to-no income in the past number of months, (we’re) relying on government grants. Luckily our 2020 sponsors helped us get through the games which were allowed to be played, however, I think 2021 is going to be even more challenging for a lot of clubs across different sports,” said Clifford.
The Eagles have always been represented by a large fan base at every game, and in 2010 (due to constant pitch damage), Sport Northern Ireland approved City’s request of a grant to install a brand new 3G pitch. Following the £425,000 makeover, in 2015, the new-look Holm Park was revealed, with a fan capacity of 3,000. However, due to current restrictions, fans are not allowed into stadiums, and this has proved to be an odd dynamic for the NIFL Premier Intermediate League club.
“It is a very strange feeling if I am honest,” says Alex. “From all of the COVID-19 protocols, where our committee has worked very hard to ensure everything has been done right, we are having to use sections of the stands as changing rooms and with having no spectators in and around the ground, it doesn’t feel like a typical game.”
As well as being the assistant manager for his local team, Alex is also the Community Sports Development Officer for the Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon council, and he urges supporters to shop in local supermarkets, as he believes that the magnitude of the financial impact suffered by these local organisations and how they bounce back from the pandemic will have a domino effect on Armagh City FC over the next two years.
“We are a community club who are supported by local businesses and fundraisers supported by the community,” he says. “It’s how society itself recovers in the next 12 to 18 months and how the local businesses will survive and in-turn, support us once again in the long run. Obviously without spectators it has been very challenging to bring in revenue, so a big thing for us is to try and encourage the community to support each other with the bounce back, by getting people to stay local, shop local and support local businesses. We will hopefully see the benefits down the line but the months ahead will be challenging,” he said.
Another team that has openly showcased their support to local businesses throughout the pandemic is Mid-Ulster Football League Intermediate B side, Markethill Swifts. The amateur outfit did their part in helping the community by delivering food parcels to the vulnerable during the first lockdown.
Swifts’ social media spokesperson, David Andrews, said: “We got involved very early in delivering food parcels to the local vulnerable community, using our own money and also funding that was provided to us. In total, we have provided over £2,000 worth of groceries and we have worked closely with three local businesses in doing this. Off the pitch, I think the club’s reputation has grown throughout the local community”.
Both Armagh City FC and Markethill Swifts have revealed that the staff and players have found it difficult to adapt to the ever-changing restrictions associated with the coronavirus outbreak, however, they have offered both physical and mental support to them via social media, to help them through this challenging time.
Armagh City’s Alex Clifford said: “The players have their own WhatsApp group which we keep on top of to try and keep them all updated, motivated and in high spirits, and the players know they always have the ear of the coaching staff if they need a chat about anything. As coaches we have been setting small fitness challenges and our fitness coach has been running some online Zoom bootcamp sessions. The club has also been running some online learning courses with the Irish FA, giving players the option of getting some extra education to put them on the pathway for their own coaching journey”.
Dungannon Swifts, Orchard United FC (Newry), Armagh Celtic and Armagh Blues all declined to comment on the impact that the pandemic has had on their clubs.
Journalist/Featured in @ArmaghI, @UlsterGazette, and more/BA with First Class Honours and MA @UlsterJournos /Co-host and Producer of @BottomBinsPod on @PRLYSports and @Spotify /Primary School Teacher✍️