Glentoran boss McDermott on challenges posed to Irish League clubs by coronavirus

By Matt GaultBBC Sport NI
Glentoran manager Mick McDermott says the pandemic could have a negative effect on players' mental health
McDermott lived through the SARS outbreak in 2003 when living in the Middle East

For Glentoran manager Mick McDermott, the current global health crisis stirs memories of living through the SARS outbreak in 2003 when he was working in the Middle East.

But while McDermott vividly recalls the impact of SARS - which killed almost 800 people worldwide - he admits it pales in comparison to the coronavirus pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of over 15,000 people worldwide.

"SARS hit the Middle East hard," said McDermott, who spent the majority of his coaching career in Iran before joining Glentoran in 2019.

"We lived through that, but I didn't know one person who contracted it.

"We obviously took great care with hygiene at that time, but this is a whole new scale."

Like his managerial counterparts, McDermott has spent the majority of the last 10 days trying to steer his club through the current health crisis.

It's been an intense and immensely challenging time. With no training or matches, his schedule has suddenly been filled with board meetings, as the east Belfast club tries to ensure they stay on sure financial footing during these deeply troubling times.

Sligo Rovers and Cork City lay-offs

Last week, Sligo Rovers became the first top-flight club either side of the Irish border to announce temporary lay-offs as the devastating financial impact of Covid-19 began to take hold and Cork City followed suit over the weekend.

While McDermott insists there has been no "unease" among Glentoran's playing personnel with regards to job security yet, he paints a sobering picture of how coronavirus will affect the financial health of Northern Ireland's leading football clubs.

"We're the same as every other employer, we're going to have to look at what to do," McDermott reflected, highlighting the example of the Beannchor Group - the group which owns the Merchant Hotel - being forced to temporarily lay off 800 of their staff.

"We have no income. We're the same as bars and restaurants. My question would be 'what category are we - are we hospitality, entertainment?'

"We still have massive outgoings, and it would be the same for other Irish League clubs. Some clubs are probably spending 90% of what they bring in just on player wages.

"Football clubs are communities and a lot of the fans supporting these clubs will be losing their jobs. If you're a Premier League player earning £50,000 a week while the fans are losing their jobs, it's going to turn a lot of people against you."

The 46-year-old added: "Look at Linfield. Some people might say they have money in the bank, but they're not going to want to burn through their cash reserves on operational costs at this point.

"There's talk of Linfield going full-time and getting a new training centre, so they're probably saving. But they didn't save for a day like this, they did so they could drive their club forward."

Former Fifa vice-president and Irish FA president Jim Boyce
Mick McDermott agrees with former Fifa vice-president Jim Boyce's suggestion that European money should be divided equally among Irish League clubs

Equal distribution of European money 'fair'

Despite an overriding sense of uncertainty, McDermott has been heartened by Irish League clubs presenting a united front with regards to completing the current campaign.

"That's the key here, we must have one voice.

"Uefa have said they want European leagues completed by the end of June, but that might be different from what the government decides.

"But it's good that the clubs here have said 'we want to get this finished', and I thought Jim Boyce's article [calling for the equal distribution of European money] was fair. I think the way it is sitting, it's probably fair, but if you ask Linfield they might disagree.

"You have six teams that can mathematically win the league and four that can win the Irish Cup, so if it all goes pear-shaped, you take the money and divide it."

With the future of the Irish Premiership 2019-20 season unknown, McDermott says that he has been making an effort to stay in touch with the Glentoran squad as the players follow individual training programmes.

Communication, he feels, is paramount at a time like this.

"We've just been keeping in touch with them.

"The players have a group chat. We're just trying to keep them informed. People in this situation just want to be kept informed. So, we told the lads that if they're not showing symptoms, they need to keep themselves fit and healthy.

"We've sent them through their individual training schedules, which includes running activities and gym-based activities. Some of the guys have gym equipment at home."

'Mental health timebomb'

As well as curtailing their physical activity, McDermott - who expects the Irish League to resume in late May/early June - believes the pandemic could have a major impact on the mental health of footballers, whose lives, he says, revolve around "routine".

"This is a mental health timebomb.

"You have elite athletes, in prime physical condition on routines - their lives are all based on routines. It's not just their job, it's their life.

"There's a group of men in the Irish League who have spoken out about mental health issues. And they're the ones who have said something, but what about the ones who haven't said anything and are just staring at the wall right now, grabbing a beer or something worse. Their stomachs will be in knots.

"I think physical wellbeing is important. These guys need a schedule. You can't go from having your life mapped out for you to no routine at all. All of a sudden, you're going to this, which is massive."

As McDermott helps plan for Glentoran's future, he hopes to ramp up his own physical activity after having drifted away from it during a hectic period.

If he finds the time, he might also revisit the highlights of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. He was 16 at the time of Italia '90 and remembers the tournament clearly, from BBC television using Luciano Pavarotti's Nessun Dorma to introduce their coverage, to Paul Gascoigne's tears as England bowed out in the semi-final to West Germany.

"I used to work out every day," said McDermott.

"I never missed it for years - it does help clear the head. I'm making an effort to get back into it. I have equipment in my garage, and I think that's important."

Top Stories

Also in NI Sport