GAA Championship Lockdown: This Too Will Pass

by | Jun 6, 2020

Coronavirus hit my immediate family. We are recovering. But it is still a source of personal shame that I first lost emotional control when a long-awaited Gaelic Football match I was due to attend fell to the virus too.

On 2nd May, London’s Gaelic Footballers were due to curtain-raise the 2020 Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) Championship, at Ruislip’s McGovern Park, against Roscommon. My county against my parents’ county. A fixture staged quinquennially since 1985 (with me at every one)…until now. And that afternoon, Covid-19 hit home.

Then, Irish Tv’s “Sunday Game” Championship highlights show, unveiled their annual promotional video. The book of these heartstring-tugging music-backed videos is well-thumbed by sports broadcasters. But the Sunday Game does them well. And this year’s, produced by Elaine Buckley, set to a 1984 song “Boys of Summer,” was brilliant (search for “RTE Sport, this too shall pass”)

It is not my favourite song…I’m not getting soppy in middle-age. But the lyrics could have been written for a locked-down Championship (“nobody on the road…the summer’s out of reach…my love for you will still be strong, after the boys of summer are gone”). And when the phrase “this too shall pass” appeared at the end, I blubbed. F**k. I’m blubbing now, just thinking about it. Maybe I AM getting soppy…

English football is a different emotional animal. And when it stopped in March, it did so largely in order of finances involved. Money now seems to be driving English football restarting. Health concerns should predominate when semi-contact sports such as soccer restart during a pandemic of a virus transmitted by…contact. Yet they are barely concerns at all. Absurd when you even begin to think about it.

The GAA is a radically different organisation to anything in the higher echelons of English football. It governs sport run, watched and broadcast like professional sports. But played exclusively by amateurs. Thousands with jobs, who, if asked “did ye the Sunday Game?” could say: “See it? I was ON it.” As a result, the GAA has exclusively prioritised its members’ physical health and has this week hastened its return to ‘normality’ largely in response to mental health concerns.

The GAA suspended all its sporting activities for 17 days from 12th March, after the Irish Government announced restrictions on mass gatherings (including many actual ‘mass gatherings’…one for the Catholics, there) which enforced closure on…PUBS. Just before St Patrick’s Day. Other Irish cultural events such as (honestly) the national ‘Tidy Town’ competition and the National Ploughing championships were also postponed. And when the GAA said “all,” they meant it, suspending “all activity at club, county and educational levels,” including “all games, training and team gatherings at all ages and all grades.”

Halting their ‘national leagues’ mid-flight affected All-Ireland football championship qualification. But that soon didn’t matter. On 16th March, Dublin’s 82,800-capacity Croke Park was announced as a drive-through Covid-19 testing centre, soon joined by big GAA venues in Cork, Kilkenny and Limerick. And on 25th March, the GAA ordered clubs to “close their facilities completely,” including “the use of pitches and property for recreational purposes; walking, casual games or gatherings” until 19th April.

Clubs were also crucially advised “to consider health authority guidelines” on involvement in “community-based volunteer efforts.” GAA clubs genuinely represent the communities in which they are based far more than professional sport where players are transferable commodities. This was demonstrated by one clip in Buckley’s montage. Ex-Waterford hurler John Mullane’s comically-impenetrable accent even has Waterford people saying “eh?”. But he was clear as day after a 2004 Waterford triumph: “I love me county, y’know?”

Clubs have therefore been ideally-placed to offer vital community service, which GAA president John Horan stressed on 13th March: “Our penetration throughout Irish society…carries a responsibility. And it is incumbent upon us to…support the operation of our country. Because this is a national emergency.” The association’s huge volunteer base was thus mobilised. And the GAA was there for “anybody needing a dig out,” as one report noted eloquently.

On 10th April, lockdown provisions were extended until 5th May. Four days later, the GAA postponed the Championship and said rescheduling was “highly unlikely….before July.” Horan stressed this caution in response to a 26th April story on an RTE political podcast about plans for inter-county teams to “resume training at some point this summer.” RTE political correspondent Micheal Lehane wrote that Sports Ministry plans were at “a very early stage” and required “extensive testing of players, management and backroom teams,” which would mean regular testing of “upwards of 2,000 people.”

“There is a sensitivity around progressing this,” Lehane understated, citing “the focus on limiting people’s movements.” Plans would need health authority approval and only raised “the possibility…of some competitive games this year behind closed doors.” But even this tentative tale got Horan’s goat. He told RTE Radio on 27th April that he was “aghast” at a “nothing story,” which hinted that “the interests of the inter-county player” were being placed “ahead of the club player,”

This is a veteran GAA debate. The inter-county game has attracted all TV money since there’s BEEN TV money. And it has recently expanded solely to bring more money in, sidelining a club game which countless senior GAA figures, especially those seeking votes, have called the association’s “lifeblood.” Horan thus stressed that “at no stage have we discussed a return to training of inter-county players with any Government department” and that “when we return the club scene will be our priority.”

He clicked into ‘obvious-when-you-think-about-it’ mode, debuting his mantra that hurling and football are “contact sport and while social distancing…is a high priority, I can’t see contact sport coming back in the short-term. Professional sports…may come back but probably (because) they cocoon their players. Our amateur athletes go back to their families and workplace and we can’t put those people at risk just for the sake of playing games.” And he insisted that “until the health authorities declare contact sport safe, we cannot make a decision about returning,” before adding…um…decisively that, until then, “we won’t be playing games.”

But on 1st May, the government announced a first easing of lockdown restrictions, publishing a date-specific, well-structured ‘roadmap’ to ‘normality’ (such policies are not driven in Ireland by a need to distract from other governmental failings). And the contact sport issue re-emerged, as the GAA was placed and named in “20th July, phase 4,” when “competitions for sports teams can resume,” with limits “on the numbers of spectators and where social distancing can be maintained.”

GAA was categorised alongside soccer, with contact sports, i.e. rugby, only resuming on “10th August, phase 5.” This suggested that no-one in government had ever seen Ulster football. And Horan railed against this (mis)categorisation. So, when the GAA published a “return to action protocol update” on 6th May, Horan went on a busy PR-offensive.

The GAA “firmly” hoped “to be able to play county and club competitions this year, subject to public health guidance.” But “no inter-county games are expected before October.” They asked counties “in the interest of players, to suspend all inter-county training until further notice.” And though they didn’t “categorically rule out…possible…games behind closed doors later in the year,” they claimed a “lack of appetite for this…across the wider Association.”

Two days later, Horan recorded an interview for the Sunday Game’s season-opener and was immediately asked_ “Will Gaelic Games be played at any level while there’s social distancing in place?” He couldn’t “see it happening” and didn’t know “how we can play a contact sport,” before re-re-reiterating that “Gaelic Games is a contact sport.”

Re-re-RE-iterating that the GAA were “not involved” with the government plan, he dismissed its “concept” that “people could gather together in groups of four. We felt that couldn’t be marshaled within clubs and that is why we continue to keep our premises closed.” And “one or two” club chairmen (lost count quickly, eh?) had already “said thanks for taking it out of our hands.”

He remained cautious. “I would be inclined to say we will struggle to finish the league,” was as far as his neck stuck out. And “when we are all back to normal life,” he continued. “I would hate to think that we would have made a decision that cost any family a member of their family. If one GAA club developed into a cluster, that would be a very bad day’s work on our part.”

For instance: “One club manager” said to him “that there was four brothers on the squad that he’s managing. And they’ve told him they’re not going back because their father is elderly, he has an under-lying health issue, they’re not prepared to take the risk of bringing anything home to their father.” When Horan later said “professional sport is in a different league,” he was very right.

His obvious-when -you-think-about-it contribution here was his “bit of an issue about this closed doors concept.” He felt that “if it’s safe enough for players to be in close contact on the pitch, it’s going to be safe enough to have a certain number of people in the crowd.” But he had to acknowledge financial pressures. GAA broadcast deals aren’t big deals (yet). But he estimated a championship without crowds costing “in the region of €50m.” And he explained that the GAA recirculated championship revenue, as it was “not in the business of building up reserves.”

However, general lockdown frustrations have increased pressure for GAA facilities to be part-reopened, as lockdown-easing approaches phase two (8th June). Some of this is quaint, asking for “walkways” in rural grounds to re-open. But by the time last Sunday’s Sunday Game aired, Horan’s initially well-received caution was shipping criticism.

Members of three leading clubs, of varying sizes and locations (one from a village which looked smaller than the GAA facility), were asked about the effects of lockdown. Player frustration mirrored societal frustration at the lockdown’s length and its uncertain future length. And administrative frustrations centred on having to pay pitch and player insurance costs while fund-raising was locked-down.

The subsequent studio discussion, Horan surely noted darkly, perpetuated the government’s above-mentioned mis-categorisation of Gaelic Games. And presenter Joanne Cantwell seemed keener to speed the GAA’s return to playing games than any of the field-piece’s contributors. This was either expert devil’s advocacy or obeying orders to seek “hope.”

Either way, ex-Monaghan footballer, current RTE pundit, newspaper columnist and GAA Covid-19 advisory group member (phew!) Dick Clerkin patiently set Cantwell straight on a variety of misconceptions. He attributed the GAA locking down “half-a-million playing members” to early progress against the virus but “if we move too soon, (we could) “contribute to a step backwards. We have to be a bit more conservative.”

Cantwell’s suggestion that other sports had moved quicker got short shrift: “Well, just check that a minute. Amateur soccer, amateur rugby, they’re not moving any quicker than the GAA.” And when she cited the “League of Ireland coming back,” Clerkin explained that “professional sport is a massively different discussion.” The “resources and costs” involved in getting professional teams “back moving,” were “not something the GAA can consider”

Then Cantwell referenced games returning “before social distancing is got rid of.” Clerkin explained the “different risk levels” of “recreational and controlled training” and “full-contact training that moves into full-contact playing.” “Yes,” Cantwell persisted, but could there “be a return to play even if social distancing is still in place?” “No,” said Clerkin, somehow not spontaneously combusting. “We’re going to take a bit of optimism out of what you said tonight,” Cantwell concluded from another planet.

But Clerkin did trail a ‘Return-to-Play roadmap’ from the GAA’s Covid-19 advisory group on which he sits. And 15 pages of “Covid-19 Guidelines on Safe Return of Gaelic Games” were published on Friday, outlining baby-steps towards GAA normality…and the admin headaches even such baby-steps will entail, especially for the “Covid Supervisors” every club will require.

Although “high performance” athletes can resume training on 8th June, GAA clubs will not re-open fully until 29th June (the much-desired ‘walkways’ will re-open on the 8th). And “GAA buildings,” bar “sanitised” toilets, remain closed until 10th August, 11 days AFTER actual club games can start. Inter-county training and matches can start from 14th September and 17th October, respectively. And a “full fixture calendar” will appear sometime after 29th June.

Careful though the GAA remain, the document seems hastily compiled. As advisory group chair Shay Brennan admitted: “Further, more detailed, advice and guidance will need to be provided in the coming weeks.” Nonetheless, the timetable is subject to change, based on governmental actions..

The GAA has offered a more refreshing pandemic perspective than professional sport. This is attributable to lighter financial pressures as well as GAA folks’ inherent goodness. Not that global sport should turn amateur (necessarily). But it is inescapably true that money dehumanises perspective. Decades of EPL gluttony has predictably overwhelmed rationality. No-one expects rationality from ugly ‘sport’ like Ultimate Fighting Championship, even in normal times.

This doesn’t excuse the fate of 2020’s GAA championship having a greater emotional impact on me than family fate. But the boys (and girls) of the GAA summer are being missed and that is one reason to hope that “this too” REALLY will “pass.”