ENGLAND’S finest wingers have finally welcomed back high level sport from the misery of lockdown.
And Northamptonshire market town Kettering has become the historic launchpad for a whole new era of competition in the age of coronavirus.
While Premier League football's June 17 return remains two weeks away, more than 4,000 racing pigeons were released from their lofts to mark the long-awaited return of spectator sport.
These early birds took flight at exactly 9.30am and flew for 90 miles, touching down in Barnsley, South Yorkshire. It’s not known if strict social distancing was observed en route.
The winner will not be known until later today, which has only served to crank up the tension among the members of the Barnsley Federation of Racing Pigeons.
The return of sport has been welcomed throughout the country after ten weeks of total inaction.
But as you would expect it has also not been without controversy.
Spokesman John Greenshield said: “It’s like a breath of fresh air having it back on.
“We had to cancel everything during lockdown because of social distancing rules and rightly so, because public health must come first.
“But then we were only given two or three weeks’ notice to get the birds ready for this first race and that’s not nearly long enough to get them fit.
“Pigeons can put on a bit of weight during winter or when not flying. You need to adapt your birds’ diet and then get a training programme up and running to get them used to flying again.
“You start with one or two ‘chucks’ of about 15-20 miles and then increase it from there two or three times a week.”
Pigeons can enjoy time off from training in just the same way colourful ex-Chelsea striker Diego Costa has been known to.
Ex-miner Greenshield reckons the average racing pigeon weighs in at around 15 oz - But the less ‘professional’ ones can easily pile on a couple more during down time and go to seed.
He said: “They need time to get back into it. To me, pigeons are the athletes of the sky and need to be prepared properly.
“My favourite for the race only came in third - because it wasn’t fit.
“I’m not telling what I feed my pigeons, it’s a secret. Barley can keep their weight in check but some feed their birds a mixture of beans.
“I’m 72 and have had pigeons since I were six. For many people round here it’s the only thing they have to look forward to. Some have been on the verge of suicide with nothing to do, it’s so important to have it back.
“I controlled the race. We had a conveyor who took 4,465 birds from 200 lofts on a truck to the start point. I gave the command to let them go bang on time and then the members get a text to let them know the birds are up and away.”
The spectator experience is all too brief for those into racing pigeons. The energetic flapping of 9,930 grey-flecked wings quickly becomes a dot on the horizon.
The eager competitors glimpse the birds as they home in on their lofts, hopefully touching down their ringed feet onto special pads to log the time between take off and landing.
Winning members are decided on purse money - the total difference between profit and loss divided by the 23 races making up a season.
Each time has to be logged on a computer then the overall winner is calculated overnight.
Greenshield said: “There can be rivalries. You can get odd people just like you do in football. But it’s mainly a highly pleasurable experience.
“Having it back has made a world of difference to all our lives.”
But the return of pigeon racing has not been entirely problem-free.
A planned race in Devon for Monday had to be postponed after organisers failed to generate enough interest.
Spokesman Richard Goodier said: “Because it was a work day too many people were busy. We’re going this Saturday instead.”
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Pigeon racing pipped football as well as golf and F1 in the race to return to action amid Covid-19.
Golf's PGA tour in America will see its next event restart on June 11 but English fans will have to wait until July 22 for the Betfred British Masters.
F1 today revealed the first Grand Prix of the 2020 season will be held in Austria on July 5 but action will not return to Silverstone until the British Grand Prix on July 31.