The GAA Championship: Over Before It Starts?

by | Oct 22, 2020

This Saturday night, live on Sky Sports Little Mix (or something), the 2020 Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) All-Ireland championships begin, with a Leinster Senior Hurling Championship match between Dublin and Laois. Maybe.

Covid-19 moved the Hurling and Gaelic Football championships from their traditional May-to-September slots to a packed “it’ll all be over by Christmas” timetable, as radical a change as moving to summer soccer (which Ireland actually did in 2003). Tightening the timetable from four months to eight weeks necessitated format shifts for both competitions. And their staging, within the Irish government’s “National Framework for Living with Covid,” part-depended on continuing progress in controlling Covid. This, you may have spotted, hasn’t happened, which has combined with other issues to cast doubt, even now, on whether they will proceed.

Ireland’s tiered system of virus regulation pre-dated the UK’s chaotic efforts. Local lockdowns have long been in force. Two weeks ago, Ireland’s scientists recommended that the strictest strictures, “Level 5,” be imposed nationwide. And this week, Ireland’s government took this advice. Meanwhile, on 5th October, the GAA suspended “all GAA club games at all levels with immediate effect…in the interests of public safety following a number of incidents…in recent days.” They blamed this on “post-match celebrations and a lack of social distancing at certain events.” These, they euphemised, were “disappointing and problematic.”

The Meath football final produced particularly wild celebrations. Scores were level entering seven minutes added-time when Gaeil Columcille scored a goal (worth three points), shortly after defending champions Ratoath had a player dismissed. Ratoath were two points adrift with one attack left, from which they grabbed the winning goal, sparking much grabbing of, players, as tactile Ratoath fans pitch-invaded. One “certain event” was Blackrock fans marched down a south Cork street, to celebrate their first Cork hurling title since 1991, with social distancing and facemasks conspicuously absent.

“We asked clubs to remind their members” to avoid “post-match celebrations that would be in breach of Government guidelines,” Cork GAA chair Tracey Kennedy said. And “each of us has to take responsibility for our own actions.” Bar Cork GAA, apparently. “We did our best to enforce the regulations at the finals,” she claimed. “But…after the games, each club has their own responsibility for their own arrangements.”

Despite all this, inter-county GAA began as planned last weekend, with a mop-up of National Football League fixtures left unplayed when Irish life locked-down in mid-March. And with fan limits in place, the untelevised games were streamed on the GAA GO website, which usually caters for fans outside Ireland. These were free to subscribers and (English Premier League fans, look away now) €5-per-game in Ireland.

Forwards clearly had better lockdowns than backs. My team Roscommon’s 19 points is a decent tally (enough to win their game…AND give them “one foot” to Division One). They were, though, outscored by many, in a weekend of defensive incompetence of EPL proportions. Cork scored 34, Mayo hit 32. Kildare notched 24, Dublin and Donegal racked up 23. And, in Division Four Wicklow beat Antrim by 7 (SEVEN) goals and 11 points (32) to seven points.

The latter’s preview in Belfast newspaper the Irish News has aged worse than Brigitte Bardot in the 1970s. After a “blistering show” against division leaders Limerick immediately before lockdown, Antrim had “promotion in their sights” and had since “added quality” to their squad. Handy, that. Or they’d have been hammered.

Kerry look likely league champions, for what that’s currently worth. They top Division One and host Donegal next week. Donegal beat bitter rivals Tyrone on Sunday in a supposedly meaningless bout of “shadow boxing” before the counties’ Ulster Championship clash on Sunday week. But it wasn’t meaningless. The win secured Donegal’s Division One status and they could travel to Kerry understrength. And now if Tyrone lose in Mayo next week, and Monaghan win at home to already-relegated Meath, Tyrone will be relegated.

None of it is certain to even happen, though. County teams travelled all over the island last weekend, with six making border crossings. Many participants and fans were unhappy about this. And Leitrim chucked their game entirely, leaving them needing to win their last game to avoid relegation from Division Three, into which they were promoted last season.

This was officially “due to a lack of playing numbers available to travel,” with “a number of players awaiting test results.” But more general misgivings soon emerged about “the greater health situation that has gripped the country,” with Leitrim GAA chairman Enda Stenson admitting that he would be “horrified if one of our players was the cause of spreading Covid-19 to anybody.”

Others have been even more forthright. Fermanagh manager Ryan McMenamin couldn’t/didn’t disguise his fury at the GAA refusing the county’s request for their Division Two match in Clare to be postponed after ten players tested positive for Covid, a request reportedly backed by Clare. McMenamin claimed last week, without evidence, that “this would have been called off” for a ‘bigger’ county, “but I think that because it was Fermanagh it is a different decision.”

But he returned to the theme on RTE’s ”League Sunday” TV highlights show, in his post-match interview after Fermanagh lost and were relegated. “There wasn’t the mad rush for the GAA to go testing out at Leitrim that there was earlier in the week to go down to Wexford,” he claimed, after Wexford rapid-tested 54 footballers and hurlers, revealing two Covid cases. “I’m happy the players got (tested) but…everyone knows there’s two tiers in the GAA, the big counties and the wee counties.”

As Ireland’s smallest county, Louth are literally nicknamed “The Wee County.” And captain Bevan Duffy told local radio following their relegation from Division Three after promoted Cork thumped them. “I don’t understand, with case numbers going up around the country, how inter-county footballers are all of a sudden immune to this. We’ve teachers in that dressing-room and a lot of lads living at home with elderly parents (but) there hasn’t been any testing at all. Surely before the start of the National League, every inter-county squad should have been tested. Simple as.”

Yet a “rapid-testing programme” was “rolled out” to counties last week. It is designed to deliver next-day test results. But counties must contact the GAA player welfare department if they “believe it is necessary to undertake such a testing programme…with priority given to teams who have games that week.” And League Sunday presenter, Joanne Cantwell noted: “Every county board were informed about it on Tuesday, all of them equally, and they all had the chance to avail of it.”

But whatever Louth availed of, or not, Duffy was right to say that it wasn’t “right to put this burden on amateur lads. We’re not professional players who can go into bubbles.” RTE pundit Colm Cooper made a similar point on telly on Saturday: “Players are playing this weekend and go back to work Monday.” So, he asked, “can we test the players?” Cantwell cited Wexford’s rapid testing. But Cooper didn’t know of “any other counties that have availed of it.”

He acknowledged it was “costly for the government and the GAA to do but it would take away a lot of the stigma around testing.” Cantwell, possibly devil’s advocating, which she seems to relish, asked if it was “feasible and affordable? We don’t want things to come down to money but if (counties) don’t have it, they don’t have it” (“I’m pretty sure GAA pays for it,” she said, from the same seat, on Sunday). Cooper noted that “the government gave the GAA a hell of a lot of money for the championship to go ahead,” (€15m last month). But the League wasn’t so funded.

Gaelic Games being “elite” sport is governing their continuation. Under “Level 5” restrictions, which began this Wednesday for six weeks and disallow inter-county travel, “elite” sports would continue, behind closed doors. The “elite amateur” concept is ordinarily a selling point for Gaelic Games. Not here, though.

All this may explain why 67% of people polled for RTE were against the Championship proceeding. 24% supported, while 9% didn’t know. And in a poll of 1,695 inter-county players, by their representative body, the Gaelic Players Association, 24% were opposed. Only 52% unconditionally favoured playing (insert your own “will of the people” joke here), while 24% would play if virus protocols improved.

On Sunday, ex-Roscommon manager and RTE pundit Kevin McStay said the GAA would “sustain a fairly large constituency over the next six, seven weeks.” Yet he acknowledged that “where certain teams and individuals want to remove themselves, we must respect that.” And fellow pundit Pat Spillane, who suggested that there was no “right or wrong” on Covid, wondered aloud if players “were front-line workers? Have they elderly parents? Are they living with family members in vulnerable health situations?”

But before talking himself out of seven weeks’ well-paid punditry work, Spillane recalled that “1941 Kilkenny and Tipperary were forced out of the hurling championship because of foot-and-mouth and the championship still went on.” Alas, Cantwell didn’t ask him if he’d been there at the time.

So far, two players from last weekend’s inter-county action, an Antrim hurler and a Roscommon footballer, have been announced as having tested positive (two too many, I know). Waterford’s footballers have conceded their game in Antrim, leaving Antrim top of Division Four for now. And Longford’s footballers have conceded their home game against Cork, although this was one of next weekend’s very few meaningless matches.

Indeed, it would have been a fascinating final weekend, in normal times. This is especially true in Division Two which, like English club football’s second-tier, has long-been the “mad division.” Last Sunday’s results gave Roscommon a foot, three toes and a metatarsal in Division One. But most of the other teams could be promoted, relegated, or both (which matters, as the 2021 All-Ireland football championship will only involve teams ending 2020 in Divisions One and Two.

Of course, more positive tests may emerge from last weekend, But, as I type, it is all GAA systems go, to finish the leagues and start the championships. Indeed, the competitions collide in Sunday’s Munster Hurling Championship quarter-final between Limerick and Clare, which is also the Hurling League final, as the counties topped the last pre-lockdown league table.

One hopes that the leagues and championships finish. Not for sporting reasons (Roscommon’s promotion isn’t worth a light if health has been seriously risked in its pursuit). But because if so, it might be signal some success in the battle against Covid’s spread.

Ultimately, though, McStay was right when he said that the GAA would need “a good dose of luck” for everything to work out well. And I’m not sure if that is something on which the continuation of any sport should rely in a pandemic.