If you have a club match this weekend, here is a list of things you and your team can do and remain within the boundaries of existing Covid restrictions. You can travel together to the game on a bus. You can travel home on the bus. Full capacity, both ways. No need to sit apart or space out.
Maybe you want to do a bit of team bonding the night before? No problem. You can gather everyone up and head to your local cinema together. You’ll need your proof of vaccination or recovery but once everyone has it, bail away in there. The new Sopranos movie is supposed to be decent – although Young Sil apparently takes a bit of getting used to.
Perhaps a little help from above wouldn’t go astray. Well in that case, away with you all to get Mass. Big cathedral, small chapel – doesn’t matter either way. In you go, fill those pews, pray those prayers. Not a sinner will look sideways at you.
You’re worried because Johnny the corner back has somehow managed to book his wedding for the same day as the intermediate quarter-final? Worry not, lads. Go play your game and then every man jack can make it to the hotel before the soup is served. Johnny obviously didn’t expect ye to make it to the last eight. He definitely didn’t expect to be allowed bring 100 guests to the wedding either. Go and enjoy yourselves – there’s a band now and everything. Do that Hucklebuck.
No wedding? No problem. The alehouses of the land will still have you and your fine upstanding cohorts. Again, just show your Covid cert on the door and every last one of ye are welcome. Come in and drown your sorrows, if sorrows you have. Or come and celebrate the crushing of your enemy, delight in the sight of them being driven before you, bathe in the lamentations of their women. You can do all that now. Not a bother on you.
And when it’s kicking out time, feel free to head back to whoever’s gaff will have you. Fire up the decks, crack open the good whiskey. Break on through to the other side. Just rest assured that if you get a knock on the door from the Gardaí, it won’t have anything to do with Covid.
So much of the world is available to you now. You gather together for a bingo night. You can get a yoga instructor in and all pile into a room together and do a class. You can land down to your local bowling alley for a night of gutters and strikes, head into a pool hall, go swimming. Any team bonding thing you can think of, you can pretty much do.
You just can’t gather in a dressingroom. Not before the match, not at half-time, not after it. You can go in in groups of six but you can only take a shower, according to the GAA advice, “where absolutely necessary”. You will have to make up your own mind on where the bar is set on that one.
Kyle Coney came off the bench in the Tyrone championship last Sunday, a second-half sub in Ardboe's preliminary-round defeat to Dromore. The game was in Pomeroy, the second match in a double-header along with a game in the intermediate championship. Four teams travelling, no dressingrooms available to them afterwards.
Sunday was one of those early winter days in mid-Ulster, a watery low sun putting up only occasional resistance against the grey. The rain came in squalls, drenching the players in both games from time to time and then heading off again to find someone new to spill over. If you played, you got soaked.
Former county star Coney has been injured and could only come on for the last 20 minutes. Didn’t matter. He finished the game like everyone else. Drowned rats as far as the eye could see. Defeated, in every sense.
“This will tell you how little sense it makes,” he says. “We couldn’t get into the changingrooms afterwards but we could still change indoors. Pomeroy have a handball alley indoors and a weights room and they were good enough to let us use the handball alley and Dromore changed in the weights room.
“Boys just changed back into whatever dry tracksuits or whatever they had. But you couldn’t have a shower, no. It was lashing rain. It was a day when there was a real strong breeze and the rain came in bursts for 20 minutes here and there. There was no escaping it.”
The true madness of it is that in Northern Ireland, this is a GAA thing rather than a public health guideline. If you’re playing soccer or rugby or anything else in the North, there’s nothing to stop you gathering in the dressingroom and showering after games. But in Tyrone and other counties, GAA clubs are sticking rigidly to the association’s own advice, sent out at the start of September.
"Dressing rooms may be used as changing facilities only before and after games but with a maximum occupancy of six people at any one time," said the letter to clubs from Larry McCarthy and Tom Ryan five weeks ago. "Pre-game, or half-time team talks, should continue to take place outdoors and it is recommended that shower facilities are only used where absolutely necessary."
Anecdotally, plenty of clubs across the country are using their own common sense on the matter. But on the whole, most counties are sticking to the GAA’s recommendations. There were various stinks kicked up in Tyrone, Laois and Kildare last weekend as the changeable weather swished across the country and made the drive home all the more miserable.
Clearly, as the winter encroaches and the weather worsens, it will come to be highlighted all the more. Yet the GAA are in no hurry to change anything, for two main reasons. One, the rule breaches at the end of last year’s county championships are still fresh in everyone’s minds. And two, there’s only a fortnight to go until the Government advice changes again anyway, removing the rule that only six people can go into a dressingroom at any one time.
So it’s going to be what it’s going to be, for the next fortnight anyway. Which is not to say that it makes much, if any sense. It has led to situations where some teams have walked passed the locked doors of dressingrooms to get on to their team bus for half-time team talks. Or where substitutes have had to stand holding umbrellas to allow physios go to work on players and the clouds empty out overhead.
And of course, most counter-intuitively of all, every team promptly goes off and gathers together indoors almost immediately anyway. This is county championship season – the games matter more now than ever. So every result has a long tail, one way or the other.
The defeat to Dromore on Sunday ended Ardboe’s season. Coney and his teammates went and did what every team that goes out of the championship does. They found a watering hole and settled in. Together.
“I would say we went no more than 500 yards down the road,” he says. “We came out of the front gate of Pomeroy’s ground and turned right and drove for about half a mile. There was a place there and we all got out and ordered food and had a few pints. We sat down and watched the second half of the Liverpool v Man City match and we were all on top of each other, as you’d expect.
“The backroom team was there too and all the boys who didn’t get togging out were there so I’d say there was about 35 to 40 of us. The boys who didn’t tog out were smelling better than the rest of us anyway!
“I think the time has come to sort it out. You lose so much by not having the group together in the changingroom. When it’s just boys landing down in their cars ready to go and then hopping back into them afterwards, you lose out on that camaraderie and that slagging. You miss out on that connection between everyone. I can see the thinking behind it but with the weather getting worse now every week, it has to change. You can’t have everyone going home cold and wet and dirty for much longer.”
It won’t be for much longer. And ultimately, it’s hardly a massive imposition. It’s certainly nothing compared to what has been happening in maternity hospitals and the like. It’s an irritation, nothing more.
Just one of those small pieces of life that changed in the weird world we’ve lived in for the past 20 months. Fingers crossed we’re leaving it all behind pretty soon.