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'Should we still be playing?': Michael Ingham on taking to the pitch last Saturday in English non-league

 

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Carry on: Michael Ingham turned out for Tadcaster Albion on Saturday

Carry on: Michael Ingham turned out for Tadcaster Albion on Saturday

Carry on: Michael Ingham turned out for Tadcaster Albion on Saturday

Former Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael Ingham has given a fascinating insight into what it was like playing football at non-league level in England on Saturday when all Premier League and Football League matches were off due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Ingham revealed that players bumped elbows after the game as opposed to shaking hands, adding that prior to kick-off there was confusion and questions in the dressing room about Covid-19.

While football across the board in Northern Ireland and Scotland was cancelled last week until the start of April at least, many lower-level English fixtures went ahead as normal including a Northern Premier League encounter between Ingham's Tadcaster Albion and Workington.

The latter won 4-2 but in years to come Belfast man Ingham will remember the surreal circumstances surrounding the game rather than the result.

Ex-Cliftonville hero Ingham, speaking from York where he lives, explained: "Below League Two, which is in the Football League, there are different governing bodies for the various lower leagues in England and the body in charge of our league said to go ahead.

"Northern Ireland and Scotland put blanket bans on their football through to grassroots levels and we thought that may happen here. When it was decided games in our league would go on, individual games started to be called off because, for example, one club just decided to cancel their game.

"We went ahead with our match and from a club point of view I can understand why that happened.

"On a personal level I didn't mind playing the game of football but my concern like a lot of footballers would be picking something up and then perhaps being in contact with an elderly family member or a young kid who is vulnerable. That would be very hard to deal with."

Asked what the atmosphere was like in the dressing room prior to kick-off, the Tadcaster Albion skipper revealed: "There were questions about, 'Why has it not been called off?' and, 'Should we still be playing?' but then also everyone was saying, 'Let's try and get a win because it could be our last game of the season'.

"To be honest we didn't really know what was going on not just with football, but with work, school for our kids and holidays. More of the conversations related to how confusing the whole situation was.

"With me being captain I had to go and see the referee before the game and he was saying, 'No handshakes' and that we would do the line-up ahead of the kick-off and then just walk away instead of walking past each other.

"He also said that there would be no handshakes at the toss and at the end of the game to try and not shake hands."

Asked if players shook hands given it is such a natural reaction at the final whistle, Ingham responded: "No, we did the elbow thing with each other and other stuff. It was crazy, something me and the other lads have never experienced.

"Of course, though, there is contact during the game. There was one moment in the second half when a long ball was played through the middle of the pitch and I came out and clattered two or three people. You don't think about that sort of contact or legislate for it at the time.

"In a game you are always going to have tackles, 50/50 challenges and people pushing each other and grappling at corners."

With other bigger fixtures in the area postponed, Tadcaster had their biggest home gate of the season with around 500 turning up.

"Clubs at our level need gate money," stated Ingham, previously a heroic figure at York City.

"There was talk about playing behind closed doors but that is pointless at our level. Some of our players are on pay as you play deals so they don't get paid if there are no matches. The most important thing is to try and stay well but all of this is very difficult on different levels."

Ingham combines coaching with playing. The company i2i Sports, who own Tadcaster, also run the i2i International Soccer Academy with scores of American youngsters involved. Some of them have returned home.

Ingham has been keeping in touch with his mum and sister back in Belfast.

He said: "When I talk to my sister and mum I think there is more panic in Belfast than there is here. In York, the people seem more confused about where the situation is headed and there is a desire to hear more information from the government.

"There is a sense of people not knowing what to do. Do we isolate? Do we get tested? What happens next? We have a family holiday in August and have no idea what will happen with that. It is a really tough time for everyone and all we can do is try and help each other get through it."

Belfast Telegraph