Dundalk's Gartland eases COVID-19 lockdown strain with calls to fans


FILE PHOTO: Football - AZ Alkmaar v Dundalk FC - Europa League Group Stage - Group D - Alkmaar , Netherlands - 15/9/16 AZ Alkmaars' Fred Friday and Dundalks' Brian Gartland in action. REUTERS/United Photos/Toussaint Kluiters

LONDON (Reuters) - Regardless of the result in their Europa League tie against Arsenal on Thursday, at least one lucky Dundalk fan will get a phone call from club captain Brian Gartland as part of a programme to help Irish fans affected by the COVID-19 lockdown.

The centre back is one several players calling up supporters who are isolated or suffering due to the pandemic. His first call was made the day after the team's defeat by Molde last week to a 75-year-old lifelong Dundalk fan named Tom.

"He was a bit surprised, but we just got straight into talking about football and the game the night before," Gartland told Reuters in a telephone interview just after he landed at London's Stansted Airport.

"It was a lovely chat with him, and I'll probably give him a quick buzz again (after the Arsenal game) just to say hi."

The Irish government recently reintroduced more stringent lockdown measures in an effort to control the spread of the virus, which has infected almost 60,000 people and resulted in more than 1,800 deaths.

Organiser Conan Byrne, who played for a number of League Of Ireland clubs before moving north of the border to Glenavon in Northern Ireland, heard of an initiative where athletes in the west of the country would call up house-bound fans, and he decided to spread it to the nation's soccer supporters.

"I just contacted everyone in my phone that was involved in football, and it took off straight away - a lot of them got back to me saying they'd love to do it," Byrne told Reuters.

Since then fans of Shamrock Rovers, who won the league title last week, have received phone calls from manager Stephen Bradley and Irish international Jack Byrne, who is currently recovering from COVID-19. Players from other clubs have also joined in.

Fans from across Ireland contact Byrne via Twitter and ask for certain players to call. Byrne does his best to arrange the calls, and it's not just elderly fans that he caters for.

"I was getting a lot of young people ringing me, saying 'my brother or my friend is really struggling', they might have lost a job or whatever. It's about mental health as well, and it's been incredible." the 35-year-old said.

Win, lose or draw against Arsenal on Thursday, Gartland will be back on the phone on Friday morning.

"Anything that can help, if there's anyone who wants me to give them a call or have a chat, it's no bother," Gartland said.

(Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Christian Radnedge)

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