Friday night blues as Covid safety is forgotten in the hills of Donegal

It’s a Friday night in Donegal and around 3000 fans have packed into the little Finn Harps soccer stadium in Ballybofey for the very last game of the League of Ireland soccer season. The town is heaving.

The visitors are Longford Town, already relegated from this top tier of domestic football and followed on the night by only a handful of loyal fans (including my 16 year-old son, who has been an enthusiastic fan for three years now). We queue up with hundreds of others outside the grounds to display our tickets (bought online) and try to gain entry to this modest theatre of dreams in the north-west.

Getting into the grounds for kick-off was the first challenge on Friday night. Being accustomed to driving into the car park on the Strokestown Road outside Longford at the very last moment for the home games every other week (without any delays, because of the relatively small crowds there), we arrive at 7.40 pm for a 7.45 pm kick-off. But this game is a real ‘life or death’ relegation-avoiding occasion for the home team – still perilously within sight of going down to the First Division – and the queue is already stretching to a hundred metres away from the turnstiles.

Finn Harps is a long established League of Ireland club with a fan base built up over many decades in the top flight. They love their soccer here, so the crowd is immense and every car park in the place is jammers.

We take our place in the queues and immediately become conscious of another ‘long established’ procedure over the last 18 months that is perhaps not being fully adhered to in the cool Donegal air on this Friday night – the wearing of masks to comply with Covid-19 guidelines.

In the course of our 10-minute progression from the street to the grounds, we notice that only every 2nd or 3rd person around us is actually wearing a mask. Inside, the problem escalates even further. The two sections of the stadium behind the goals at the town end are absolutely packed – hardly a place to be found – and we face the prospect of walking through the throngs to find the few away fans on site here, Longfordians who had been told to assemble under the media gantry to our left.

In fairness to the steward at the gate, he didn’t even bother scanning the match ticket on the phone as he said it would only prolong the waiting. Instead, he waved us onwards. From there it was a case of ducking and diving your way along a terrace of hundreds of men, women and children – and the mask-wearing stats were not getting any better the further one went.

The fans were tightly packed in here, so much so that at points along the journey, we contemplated turning back or even moving away from the ground altogether. This is a new feeling for me – growing from week to week. Covid Infection Consciousness I call it. I’ve had it on more than one occasion in recent days.

Describing Covid Infection Consciousness in print is not easy. A growing feeling of uneasiness that comes upon you when in the company of very large crowds, an over-heated venue or lack of ventilation in a confined space, is at the heart of how it feels. For a moment or so, the gut is wrenching and a voice is saying that we should not be doing this. We genuinely considered turning around altogether and just leaving the ground. In the distance, however, we could see our son had found the gap through to the small away section, so we tightened the face masks around the ears again, put the heads down, and once we had negotiated our way under the gantry, there was indeed a very decent section of the mounted terrace area at that end of the ground that was far from congested and quite safe to stand in. It even had a coffee stand and two local women who were not only keen to sell a few mugs of hot chocolate or steaming tea to warm us up, but even had time for a chat about the last time yours truly appeared on the national TV news – so the ego was well catered for too!

Our 16-year-old son would prefer if I didn’t dwell on the game itself from this point onwards, but suffice to say that by the 91st minute of the match, Finn Harps had eradicated any possibility of being relegated this year. They did so in fairly devastating style as far as poor old Longford Town were concerned. A few moments saw the place turn from an ordinary League of Ireland Friday night venue to an end-of-season celebration party – and this is where the real problem began.

They came from every corner of the ground, hundreds of teenagers leading the march. Within two minutes of the final whistle the pitch was covered in celebrating fans – young and old. It was a scene that would remind you of the All-Ireland finals at Croke Park in the old days – the multitudes pouring across the walls and the fences and swarming around their heroes as the party got well and truly underway.

The problem at this point was that all social distancing rules and regulations had gone well and truly out the window. Masks were missing everywhere and, instead of leaving the ground after meeting their team, the fans seemed to surround them like bees around honey. The fans basically corralled the players into a corner or an area near the dressing rooms where they could get as many selfies or photos as possible while enjoying this evolving party.

Tunde Owolabi seemed to be the young Finn Harps man who was most in demand. He has been one of their best performers this season, but as the crowds swarmed around him and his colleagues, it seemed as if they were pushing him away from the dressingroom area and towards the wall in front of our own terrace. At this point there was easily 200 fans around him, many of them celebrating in his face. Again, very few if any of them were wearing masks. But for the intervention of some very swift-moving stewards the player could well have been brought even further on his unscheduled tour of the grounds.

Without wishing to sound like a party pooper, or a Covid rules lover, there was only one word to describe these scenes on Friday night. That word is ‘scary’. In a week when the virus seems to be spreading in a rampant fashion again – among the vaccinated and the unvaccinated – scenes like these make the hair stand on your head. One can only wait and see if mass gatherings of this nature will lead to a further outbreak of the virus in this region in the next ten days.

The irony of how others are coping with it in other parts of the world was not lost on us either as we subsequently drove home from Donegal – listening to media reports that Austria had become the first European country to make vaccinations against Covid-19 mandatory for every member of its population, while deciding to go into its fourth nationwide lockdown for at least a 10-day period.

“For a long time the consensus in this country was that we don’t want a vaccine mandate,” the Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said on the radio, “but in spite of months of persuasion, we have not managed to convince enough people to be vaccinated”. Tightening vaccine certs and pass controls had started to make a difference for the Austrians apparently, but still the situation was deteriorating – so they went even further. “We don’t want a fifth wave, we don’t want a sixth or a seventh wave” the Chancellor said. Yet, here are we apparently sleep-walking into it in our own little country. The mind boggles.

Granted, Austria is in dire straits, with 990 cases per 100,000 people over seven days. The country has a population of nearly nine million people and has the lowest vaccination rate in western Europe – with only 66% of its population fully vaccinated – but we have also seen an alarming rise in the number of daily cases here in Ireland, and must surely take urgent steps to ensure this life-threatening virus does not get to a  point where we will have to close down the whole country again for weeks.

Worrying times – on and off the football terraces.