Scotland’s League One and Two sides returned to action last weekend after a two-month absence due to Covid-19 fears.
With cases dropping across the country, vaccines being administered and regular testing now in place in the lower leagues, clubs were given the green light to get back on the training pitch a little over two weeks before those first matches.
The campaigns, originally shortened to 27 games at the start of the season, will now only be 22 matches long with a split after 18 rounds.
Most have returned without a fuss, simply eager to get back to doing what they love.
But just how has the break in the season, and the Covid-19 pandemic in general, impacted our smallest clubs?
Speaking to a manager, a coach and a player, Calum Woodger finds out…
Gary Bollan – Cowdenbeath manager
For Blue Brazil boss Bollan, returning to League Two action with a 0-0 draw at Annan Athletic last Saturday was a great source of joy and relief.
Although, he does admit to reservations about being back on the pitch and the focus of his concern is clear.
The former Dundee United and Rangers defender is worried about his players – particularly their welfare, on and off the field.
With the vast majority of part-time footballers holding down a ‘day job’, Bollan hopes the negative impact on his men of playing extra games isn’t too severe.
“Everything that has been done is because the health of people is paramount, in my opinion,” the 47-year-old said.
“I do feel, however, that the welfare of players hasn’t really been looked after in terms of having such a short period of time to go back.
“Games are going to be Saturday-Tuesday-Saturday and next week we’ve actually got four games because of our cup tie (a 3-0 defeat to Partick Thistle on Tuesday).
“Players are working. The practicalities of part-time players going back and committing to such a busy schedule of football isn’t greatly thought out.
“They all want to get back to playing but it’s a big ask for them.
“There’s the travelling as well, for evening kick-offs on a Tuesday night, for example, they need to get time off work for that.
“It’s going to be 1 or 2am before these players get home then it’s four hours of sleep before they have to get up for work and maybe play the following day again?
“It’s an absolutely massive ask for part-time teams.
“God forbid but I can foresee us losing some players to injury. Touch wood we don’t.
“With the Covid testing we’re getting, there is undoubtedly going to be some clubs that, unfortunately, do get players with Covid.
“Their main income stream will be their daily jobs and they could be missing out on work if they need to isolate.
“They and their partners would be stuck at home and their kids can’t go to school and that all adds to it.
“I’m not trying to be negative because we’re all happy to be playing but that is just how things are.
“All our tests have been negative so far and we’ve been training fine, thankfully.”
The mental strain that comes with such a hectic schedule has left Bollan feeling for his boys.
He yearns for a return to normality on the pitch and in the dressing room but, with that seemingly a while off, Cowdenbeath will continue to roll up their sleeves.
Bollan added: “The players have been back in and I can see some of their points of view that they feel like they shouldn’t be asked to do what they’re doing but they’re rolling up their sleeves.
“They’re digging in and getting on with the job at hand.
“Mentally, they’re having to adjust to playing so many games and some are dismayed by it and have mates at other clubs that feel the same.
“Everybody loves the game of football but you just hope in the not-so-distant future we can get back to normality.
God forbid but I can foresee us losing some players to injury. Touch wood we don’t.”
Cowdenbeath manager Gary Bollan.
“The whole thing right now is turning up for training and games then going home, there’s no interaction between players in the dressing room.”
As for their hopes for the rest of the campaign, eighth-placed Cowden hope to use their matches in hand to rise up the table.
Bollan said: “We’ve only played nine games so it’s going to be a hard ask for the players to complete it in time.
“We’ve got a game in hand against Albion Rovers and it’s one we must win.
“I’ve absolutely no doubt in my mind that I’ve got players in my dressing-room that are capable of climbing this league.
“Two or three wins on the trot and you can be back up in the top five and in the mix.”
Sean Dillon – Montrose player-coach
Working more closely with players, and actually taking to the pitch himself at times, Dillon is in a unique position to gauge the mood of a lower league dressing-room in Covid times.
For the Irish defender, it is largely a place of gratitude.
But he admits there is a tinge of disorientation with players trying to get back up to speed in such a short window.
The former United captain praised the set up at Links Park as they got back up and running smoothly, despite a 2-0 loss to Falkirk in their first League One action since January 2.
“You’re just trying to keep yourself right, which is hard during lockdown,” the 37-year-old said.
“Even when we’re in season, you’re constantly second guessing yourself about whether you’re doing too much or not enough in training.
“Some weeks you can feel a little tired or whatever but during the last break you just didn’t know where you were at.
“You can test yourself in certain ways, doing distance running but it’s not the same.
“5km runs don’t compare to checking and turning or chasing somebody – the movements you’re actually going to use.
“Our physio Scott Shepherd and the club in general have been on the ball, which is no great surprise really.
“Once we got news we were tested straightaway and it was all clear.
“We’re delighted to be back, even with the social side of it and seeing all the boys again.
“Seeing different people outside your house is nice even though it’s not exactly the way we want it in regards to the dressing-room.
“It’s a case of turning up in your car, training and back in the car again.
“There’s no complaints, though, it’s just a great buzz to be back in our kit and kicking a ball around.”
Being as equipped to facilitate testing as they were (a lack of preparedness on that front was cited as one of the main reasons why the leagues were put on hold), Montrose could feel aggrieved it took so long for the SFA and SPFL to give them the go-ahead to return.
However, Dillo insists they just count themselves lucky to have a season to, hopefully, finish amid an unprecedented global landscape.
“Everybody has an opinion on it, regardless of whether I think we should’ve been back sooner or not, we’re back now,” he added.
“We were looking forward to having just one fixture confirmed!
“The bottom line is somebody will be happy with this and somebody won’t.
“There are teams that will be relegated and teams that will be promoted in an 18-game league with the extra four games in the split.
“There’ll always be somebody upset and quick to point out the games they missed.
“One thing that really frustrates me is there’s too much finger pointing going on in Scottish football.
“Whether that’s in meetings or publicly on social media or in the media itself.
“From what I’m led to believe, our club was good to go and were happy to test but we are where we are.
“There are times in life where things just don’t make sense and it’s hard to get your head around why certain things are happening and it’s frustrating.
“But you just make the best of it and I always try to be positive about anything that happens.
“It’s your attitude towards the circumstances you’re in. That can be a massive help for you.
“I’m very lucky. The missus and the kids have been brilliant for me being away from football.
“You just have to get on with it and I enjoyed the fact I had that little bit of spare time.”
Danny Denholm – East Fife winger
For every Montrose there is an East Fife.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been a smooth process, no,” the 30-year-old laughed as he lifted the lid on the club’s first Covid-19 testing session.
“When we got the announcement, the club didn’t expect it because the previous day there had been no update by the JRG (Joint Response Group).
“I think I went on Twitter, moaned about it and a day later it’s all up and running!
“They were scrambling to get something sorted to meet the rules for training.
“We organised a testing meet where we drove to Stirling, in a car park outside Forthbank, to get ourselves tested.
“It’s obviously a coincidence that the assistant manager lives in Stirling, nobody else does. It was a strange one and I’m not having it!
“We got it sorted, though, and luckily there was no positives on so we were all OK to train.
“Going forward it should be a smoother process to get it done once a week. It’s not a pleasant experience or something I’m looking forward to but needs must.”
With testing now sorted, Denholm says the Fifers are happy to be back in training and performing well on the pitch to boot.
They got their League One campaign back under way with a 3-1 win over Clyde as they rose to within touching distance of Montrose in the play-offs.
Denholm added: “We had a really tricky start away at Falkirk, Partick and Cove early doors in the season.
“I think people saw our form when we got beat in a couple of those games and thought: ‘They’re going to struggle’.
“But in the next handful of games we won a few so the shutdown couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“We’ll look to get going again, we’ve a couple of games in hand so, if we win those, we can go second.”
As for their training routine, he continued: “It’s just back to normal really. I keep myself in decent nick anyway, I do running and eat well, it’s just the match sharpness.
“It’s been difficult to get yourself up to speed in terms of that but everybody is in the same boat.
“Everybody at East Fife looked in decent condition, even the ones I had my doubts about.
“There were a couple that were a bit wee round but they always are.
“There’ll be some people that won’t be in good shape but what can you do about that?
“It’s hard in the circumstances.”
For all they’ve been put through the wringer with the rushed resumption of the lower leagues, Denholm offers some perspective on the situation.
“I’ve not lost much in this pandemic in terms of family or finance or work and I was still finding it extremely tough,” he said.
“I can imagine those who’ve had those losses it’s been even harder.
“The fact you can exercise, and with other people, it’s such a lift to the boys.
“I definitely feel a sense of gratitude because we are in a position others aren’t.”
You’ll struggle to find many overpaid prima donnas in Scottish football, particularly in the lower leagues where players are in it for the love of the game.
In fact, there is a clear sense that part-time players actually understand their privilege amid these dark days.
Once time is called on this sorry episode, we should take heart from the response of these men – the manager, the coach, the player.
The bricks and mortar of our game.