After a lengthy period of uncertainty, the Airdrie Irish men’s football team has the official green light to prepare for the 2021 Alberta Football League (AFL) season.
On June 1, the AFL announced an abbreviated season should be able to operate this summer, as long as Alberta is able to stick to the reopening plan outlined by Premier Jason Kenney in May.
“After a league-wide conference call tonight, the AFL council voted heavily in favour of returning to play in 2021,” read a statement on the league’s Facebook page. “It will be an abbreviated season with some clubs opting out, but as long as the provincial reopening guidelines go to plan, the AFL will kick off on Saturday, July 17.”
Having not played since August 2019, the Irish's players are excited to finally get back on the gridiron, according to the team’s new head coach, Anton Bellot.
“I would say it’s been a long time coming,” said Bellot, who previously played as a linebacker for the team for five seasons before taking over the coaching reins this year. “It’s hard to have a year off football. A lot of the guys haven’t really been in activity, but everything is still there and we’re just raring to go. It’s exciting and positive news for sure, and it’s something to look forward to.”
The Irish held their first pre-season practice on June 5. In order to comply with ongoing health restrictions, Bellot said the practice was more of a pad-less workout in small groups. He said the players should be able to don the pads and add contact to their workouts once Alberta reaches Stage 2 of its reopening strategy, and should be allowed to play without restrictions by Stage 3.
“We’re still abiding by the COVID restrictions and looking for guidelines from Football Alberta at this point,” he said. “We’re taking those guidelines plus our own internal recommendations as well. Player safety is of utmost importance to us and we want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make sure our players are safe, but also have a conducive environment that will allow us to still be effective on the field.”
The AFL season will include five teams this year – the Irish, the Calgary Wolfpack, the Central Alberta Buccaneers, the Edmonton Elite and the Cold Lake Fighter Jets. The Fort McMurray Monarchs and Peace Country Cowboys have each opted not to field a team in the 2021 season.
After every team has played each other once, a four-team playoff will be held toward the end of August, with a semi-final round on Aug. 21 and AFL championship game on Aug. 28.
Bellot said he is excited to continue preparing for the upcoming season, adding the Irish’s roster has a healthy mix of new and returning players. The team has been introducing and profiling players throughout preseason on the Irish's Facebook page.
“If you talk to some of our veterans, this has probably been the most fun they’ve had since the third year with the Irish, which was in 2017,” he said. “The team is looking really good and we have some key players in key positions – especially at quarterback, which was always a drop-off for us. But this year, I think we’ve rectified that.”
With a bye in the first week, Bellot said the Irish will officially kick off the 2021 campaign July 24 with a short road trip to Red Deer to take on the Central Alberta Buccaneers. The Irish’s home opener will be held July 31 against Edmonton at Ed Eggerer Athletic Park.
Even though the team already has 56 players registered, Bellot said the Irish are still looking for new players to join the squad.
“In my experience, you always want to make sure you have depth, and you want to make sure the next person is up,” he said. “Experience for me doesn’t matter as long as you’re willing to go out there and give it your all. That’s all the criteria I look for.”
For more information, visit the Airdrie Irish or Alberta Football League News Facebook pages.