Crusaders will be back playing Danske Bank Premiership football this weekend but they are still coming to terms with a frightening Covid-19 health scare.
When the players run out to face Warrenpoint Town at Milltown tomorrow it will be a huge relief to the north Belfast side who were given a timely reminder that this pandemic is far from over.
The club has diligently put in place measures to minimise the risk of the virus penetrating the camp but when 11 positive cases emerged, four matches had to be postponed.
The one major plus to come out of the worrying episode is that the players who hadn’t received the vaccine now acknowledge its importance.
The NI Football League’s Covid-19 case policy dictates that matches will go ahead even if a player or players of a club test positive, provided that team has at least 13 players including a goalkeeper available for selection. If the club cannot field a team, the match is to be re-scheduled.
The Crues’ three Premiership matches this month against Carrick Rangers (away), Glenavon (home) and Dungannon Swifts (away) were called off as well as a County Antrim Shield quarter-final against Ballyclare Comrades.
Manager Stephen Baxter is relieved his squad are fighting fit again but it was a development that placed into sharp focus just how contagious the virus can be.
“It’s been a difficult journey for us the last few weeks,” he admitted. “We had 11 Covid cases at the club and several games called off.
“We don’t like to give names out but we couldn’t field a team. It was a hairy enough time for a number of people and a few of them were quite sick also. It brought the reality home that this thing hasn’t gone away.
“I’m glad to say that everyone has reported back for training this week and they are picking up again. We need to see the guys in a game and hopefully there won’t be more long-term side-effects.
“Saturday’s game will definitely go ahead and we will see how the team responds.
“I was all set to play the Carrick game on the Friday but the Public Health Agency got involved in the afternoon and the game couldn’t go ahead.
“It was all we could do as we couldn’t field a team. The people at other clubs including Ballyclare and Dungannon have been excellent in their response to it all.”
The Crues conduct Covid-19 tests twice a week and, throughout the pandemic, the health and safety of their staff has been their number one priority.
There was some disruption in the Irish League last season but all the clubs have implemented safety measures and, as society reopens, the virus will remain a threat.
“We have always been cautious,” added Baxter. “We test twice a week, we haven’t stopped testing players and it has allowed us to pick up on something quickly. If anyone fails a lateral flow test, they are sent straight away for a PCR test and a few cases have been picked up from that.
“To get the big number that hit us was a real shock to the system. It was a very timely reminder to us all how lethal this thing can be and how you still need to be on your guard with the correct measures in place to try to prevent a spread.
“It’s not easy but this virus can be on the rise and it can strike in certain environments. You can just be unlucky and one person can spread it to so many.
“I have always treated this virus with the greatest amount of respect regarding its severity and I’ve never taken anything for granted. We are trying our very best to work around it but it could have been spread on a bus to a game, who knows?”
Linfield manager David Healy told the Belfast Telegraph this month he would prefer if all involved in Irish League football were double vaccinated, adding his desire to see the same scenario across the whole of Northern Ireland. Irish League bosses have encouraged their players to get jabbed but there appears to be greater hesitancy among younger age groups.
Baxter feels the Seaview Covid outbreak has been an education for his squad regarding the need to be vaccinated.
“I think one of the big pluses from our point of view is that boys had to self-isolate because they weren’t double jabbed,” he said.
“Some of the boys who caught it weren’t double jabbed and that’s been the big talk among themselves — that necessity to get the jab.
“I think it has come home to roost for a few of them. There is that age group who are a little laissez-faire towards it and now, all of a sudden, when they see it up close and personal and how quickly it can spread and how ill a few of them became with it, there has been a mood change within the 30% who might not be vaccinated.
“I haven’t needed to force anyone to change their view on it. They have been saying ‘we have to get the jab’ so if there’s a positive out of this, it is the desire among them to get the jab and that is definitely a plus.”
The Crues have played seven league games — three less than Coleraine — and new dates have been finalised for their outstanding fixtures.
The Shield quarter-final at Ballyclare will be next Tuesday, while the Premiership clash at Carrick is on November 16. Baxter’s side will travel to Dungannon on November 23 and the home league clash with Glenavon will be played on December 21.
Tomorrow’s trip to Warrenpoint will represent a welcome return to the highs and lows of football, firmly put into perspective by health concerns.
“Every time we have been to Warrenpoint, it’s always been a difficult game,” continued Baxter. “I won’t be fooled by their league position.”
Crusaders Head of Youth Development Nathan Hanley has, meanwhile, left the club to take up a role as Academy Director in Northern Ireland for Rangers.
A Crues statement said: “Nathan, who also served the club as a player a few years ago, will stay in his position at Crusaders until a suitable replacement is found. We would like to thank Nathan for everything he has done for the Academy and wish him well for the future.”