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Warren Feeney: I'm locked down in Bulgaria and missing my family


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Away game: Warren Feeney, who is in lockdown in Bulgaria, is missing wife Katy and his family in Belfast

Away game: Warren Feeney, who is in lockdown in Bulgaria, is missing wife Katy and his family in Belfast

Far from home: Warren Feeney coaching in Bulgaria

Far from home: Warren Feeney coaching in Bulgaria

Warren banging in the goals for Northern Ireland

Warren banging in the goals for Northern Ireland

Myla

Myla

Away game: Warren Feeney, who is in lockdown in Bulgaria, is missing wife Katy and his family in Belfast

The coronavirus epidemic has ripped families apart by separating loved ones and for Warren Feeney it's not simply a case of being more than 2,000 miles away from his family in east Belfast.

Former Northern Ireland international Feeney is on lockdown in Bulgaria, kicking his heels while football is suspended.

His wife, Katy, had planned a visit early next month but as the virus continues to spread and claim lives, travelling is not an option.

A vice principal at Newry High School, Katy will not be able to swap Castlereagh for the pretty city of Blagoevgrad, where the former Linfield and Newport County chief is now working.

Warren, who won 46 Northern Ireland caps between 2002 and 2011, will have to wait a little longer before he can see Katy and his kids Lucy, Darcy, George and Holly.

Although the statistics are changing every day, Bulgaria has recorded 242 cases in a population of around 7.5m and three deaths.

As far as he is aware, Warren says there are no cases in Blagoevgrad where is now in charge of Second Division side OFC Pirin.

When football was postponed in the country, his side were 12th in the 17-team division.

Feeney has never been afraid of a challenge in his career and, back in November, he left Championship club Ards and headed to Blagoevgrad in the south west of the country, the home of former Manchester United star Dimitar Berbatov.

Situated at the foot of the Rila Mountains and 63 miles south of Sofia, it has a population of just over 70,000.

After agreeing an 18-month contract, things were ticking along nicely for the 39-year-old but the coronavirus epidemic has put a stop to football and a family reunion.

"The family are well but they are in Belfast while I have to remain here," said Warren, who is assisted by Andy Todd who worked alongside him at Linfield.

"They were due to come over in the first week of April but that won't happen now for obvious reasons. Flights are grounded.

"I'm missing all of them, including my dog, a Belgian malinois called Myla.

"I can't come home for a reason and we just have to focus on what we are doing here.

"We have a restaurant owned by the club which we can't use fully but they are providing takeaways.

"My wife is a vice principal at Newry High School and she would be classed as a key worker, at the moment.

"We're locked down and, to be fair, they took action very quickly.

"Earlier this month, our games were called off and all the shops and restaurants were closed. Thankfully, there have been no reported cases in our town and in Bulgaria there are about 242 cases in a population of 7.5m, with three deaths.

"The authorities have been strict and the town has been shut so you need to prove your identity to move around.

"It's been strict but good, it has worked.

"We can't go anywhere but it's protection as well.

"We are well looked after by the club.

"But the ignorance of people who aren't doing the social distancing shocks me."

Former Bournemouth and Luton Town ace Feeney is losing hope their season can be finished but he's been excited by the progress the club is making.

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Warren banging in the goals for Northern Ireland

Warren banging in the goals for Northern Ireland

Warren banging in the goals for Northern Ireland

"Our season goes from the end of July to December, and we have a winter break before starting again for pre-season in January until May," he added.

"They still want to finish the season but, to be honest, it's going to be very hard for any season to finish across Europe.

"I believed the season had to be finished and I can understand people feeling that way but the world is in chaos and it doesn't feel right even talking about sport.

"My mood has changed and all you are hearing about is people passing away in every country. It puts sport into perspective and I'm not thinking about football.

"Our priority is to save as many people as possible and get rid of this virus."

He added: "I just can't see us getting the season finished.

"I know my old team Leeds United are desperate to be promoted but our lives are on hold.

"The club knows what I want to do.

"I want to bring in players but this pandemic has brought a bit of chaos, however they have been fantastic with me and fully backed me.

"The project they are working on here is probably one of the best I have seen in my life.

"They were a full-time club and we now have the GPS statsports equipment that Manchester City and Liverpool have also paid big money for.

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Far from home: Warren Feeney coaching in Bulgaria

Far from home: Warren Feeney coaching in Bulgaria

Far from home: Warren Feeney coaching in Bulgaria

"The owner (Emirates Wealth) has bought a new training ground with six new pitches, hotels on it and dorms for the kids so they really want to have a go at doing it right.

"It's a really nice place to live, very beautiful and that surprised me a little."

The move was quite a cultural change for the east Belfast man, on and off the pitch.

"The players are technically very good but it's different to what you are used to," he said.

"In the top league, you have Ludogorets, who beat Crusaders 9-0 on aggregate in 2018, they are the top side in the country and have a few Brazilians.

"You also have Levski Sofia and CSKA Sofia who are like the Manchester United and Chelsea of the country.

"In our league, you have CSKA 1948 leading the way, a breakaway from the Sofia side, a bit like the FC Manchester team.

"You have Bulgarian internationals in the league and it's a different style, a slower game than back home but the players are technically very good.

"It's more relaxed, less intense but if teams go at it 100 miles per hour they will be punished."

Although Feeney can't see his family at the moment, in this small world you are never far away from a taste of home.

"We also have a guy from Antrim who is head of the academy, Steve Hamilton," he added.

"He lived in America for 20 years so it was nice to hear another Northern Ireland accent, albeit with an American twang."

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