RONAN Hurley has experienced the strangest pre-season of his career ahead of the new SSE Airtricity League of Ireland First Division campaign.
The former Bunratty United and West Cork Schoolboys League graduate, and his Cork City team-mates, is ready for the 2021 kick-off following an intensive final month of preparations.
Four pre-season fixtures against Premier Division opposition have been completed but in the most unusual of circumstances. City defender Hurley is grateful for the opportunity to train and play with his club at a time every other non-elite sport in the country lies dormant.
‘This pre-season has been completely different to any other I’ve been involved in before,’ Hurley says.
‘From day one, the club has been very strict on players maintaining the proper Covid-19 protocols. For example, we have our temperatures checked first thing every morning. At the gym, everyone is spread out and you must be extra careful when washing your hands and cleaning the equipment. Each member of the squad had to work away on their own individual strength and conditioning programme before pre-season even started.
‘Every player must wear a mask and maintain social distance whenever we are at the training ground. The squad is spread out across different dressing-rooms as well so we never gather in the one place until out on the pitch. Once we get out on the pitch, we can remove our masks and then training is the same as it would normally be.
‘It has been a case of going to training with City, coming home and attending my online college classes. Footballers are like everyone else in that regard. We cannot go out and meet up with other people to stop the spread of the virus. I am glad to have the opportunity to train and play for Cork City during the lockdown though.’
Results are not the be-all and end-all during a football club’s pre-season. Receiving sufficient playing time, catching the manager’s eye and reaching the requisite fitness levels are what this time of the year is all about.
‘For me, pre-season has been all about getting my fitness levels up,’ Hurley says.
‘That’s why our recent games have been so important. Colin’s training sessions are always intense but playing pre-season friendlies bring up you match-level fitness. We lost three of our four friendlies but have been able to take lots of positives from each of the games.
‘Against St Pat’s (2-1 loss), I thought we defended well in that game. I also managed to get on the score-sheet which was pleasing. I thought we played very well against a strong Shamrock Rovers line-up before going down 2-1. They had a lot of the ball but we remained solid throughout and threatened on the counter-attack whenever we got the opportunity. Beating Waterford 3-0 was probably our best performance and getting three goals was a plus.
‘We were disappointed to lose to a late goal against Finn Harps (1-0) last weekend but like all the other games, it was more about the performance than the result. It is all about getting your match fitness and sharpness back. We need to be ready to go for the first game of the season.’
City boss Healy has put together a youthful squad containing a sprinkling of experience as City look to regain promotion to the top tier.
‘Pre-season has been important and our training sessions have been getting better with each passing week,’ Hurley says.
‘I feel we are all at a good level of fitness right now. That’s down to completing the individual programmes we were given by the City management. As the weeks go by, everyone’s standards improve thanks to all the training sessions. Everyone is pushing for a place in Colin’s starting team.
‘There is a terrific bunch of lads involved this year and a good mix. A lot of us would have played together last year and there are some newcomers from our Academy. Having more experienced players like Gearoid Morrisey, Steven Beattie and Mark McNulty involved is a bonus. Colin has developed a positive environment and everyone is raring to go for the first game.
‘As for my own fitness, I played 60 minutes in our opening game. I played the full 90 minutes against Shamrock Rovers and Waterford before getting 25 (minutes) against Finn Harps. The main thing is to get match sharp and I believe we have achieved that.’
The SSE Airtricity League First Division fixture-list has thrown up a mouth-watering opener for Hurley and his team mates. In normal circumstances, a home game against local rivals Cobh Ramblers – on Friday, March 26th – would attract a large attendance to Turner’s Cross. Focussing on attaining three points, Hurley is looking forward to the season opener but admits not having a crowd present will detract from an otherwise special occasion.
‘Playing Cobh in a local derby is always a massive game,’ Hurley says.
‘It is going to be far from easy. We know form playing Ramblers in the underage and academy sections that it is going to be a real battle. Both teams will be up for it and want to give their supporters something to shout about and getting the local bragging rights.
‘I presume, if it were allowed, the ground would be packed out for a Cork versus Cobh league match. Our focus is on starting our season with a win. Getting three points on the board is the main thing and starting our season on a positive note.
‘We just want to get going now. This pre-season feels like the longest one I have ever had. There is no better feeling than playing that first game because we have been off for the last few months and miss the cut and thrust of competitive football. You’d even miss the butterflies in the stomach on match day. Everyone in the squad is buzzing now and looking forward to getting started.’