Fifty days to rediscover the 2020 Championship – with apologies to Paul Simon

It’s a small bridge over troubled water, but at least it’s preferable to the sound of silence

Tyrone’s Pádraig Hampsey and Donegal’s Peadar Mogan in their Allianz Football League Division 1 match at Seán Mac Cumhaills GAA Club, Stranorlar, Co Donegal on Sunday. Photograph: Lorcan Doherty/Inpho

Tyrone’s Pádraig Hampsey and Donegal’s Peadar Mogan in their Allianz Football League Division 1 match at Seán Mac Cumhaills GAA Club, Stranorlar, Co Donegal on Sunday. Photograph: Lorcan Doherty/Inpho

 

1. Eyes down, then, for the 50-day Championship. In its honour, a muse on what might lie ahead. We spent long enough assuming the championship was lost, hidden from view until time unknown. Maybe look at this (and with apologies to Paul Simon) as 50 Days to Rediscover.

2. Sorry now, that line was a bit forced. Slightly unnatural, shoehorned in with good intentions despite not fitting quite right. Perfect, in other words, for the 2020 Championship.

3. (Just be happy the rest of it doesn’t follow suit. “Slip out the back, Jack” could work, with Dublin having lost their dynamo wing-back. But you’re only asking for trouble after that. Lay off the gravy, Davy? Dress up as Santy, Banty? No good could come of it.)

4. Fifty days. It feels like nothing. The championships, those great pillars of Irish life, reduced to an afterthought. Glommed onto the year because . . . well, why, exactly? That’s a good first question. Why are we doing this?

5. It would have been very easy not to, after all. Plenty of important stuff had to go. St Patrick’s Day. Punchestown. Electric Picnic. Theatres. Communions. Offices. Pints.

6. Plus, you could argue that the GAA has already made the best of the worst year. It got people back playing. It ran off the bulk of its club championships. It gave communities something to focus on after months of drift.

7. It looked after its base, in other words. That’s all you can ask of any sporting body. Truthfully, it would have been plenty.

8. Two other things happened as well, though, half by accident, half by design. The first is the split season, a fundamental reimagining of how to do things. Nothing is official yet but the idea has an undeniable momentum.

9. The second is the normalised live-streaming of even the most obscure GAA fixture. Doesn’t matter if it’s senior or junior, intermediate or juvenile, chances are there’s a way now to get it up on your TV.

10. Our next-door neighbours were full of chat one morning recently on the walk to school after seeing their cousin play in the Tipp under-20 football final the previous night. Pictures, sounds, scoreboard on-screen. Imagine.

11. So, to recap. In a year of financial disaster, a year of extreme separation and general evergoing doom, that’s two generational shifts in thinking and operation. Unfathomable in February, ho-hum by August.

12. All in all, that’s not a bad year’s work by the GAA. If it was all they did, it would have been enough. If they’d decided that inter-county championships were a luxury, it would have been hard to argue with them.

13. Especially once it became clear that there’d be nobody at the games. Or, even in the most optimistic scenarios, next to nobody. An All-Ireland final with 200 people in Croke Park? Come on.

14. The GAA had their exit door, right there. They could have pulled stumps for the year, citing inability to pay. Nobody through the gates means no money. You can’t run a championship on fresh air.

15. It would have been a calamity, yes. But look outside. We’re used to calamity.

16. Sport has returned, globally and domestically. It has been a bit strange and taken a bit of getting used to. It has been, on the whole, fine.

17. What it hasn’t been – not by any stretch – is normal. No amount of fake crowd noise can fool you into thinking that these sports are achieving much beyond making do.

18. Pro sports are going ahead to honour television deals, to maintain the bang for the sponsor buck, to pay players and managers and agents and executives. They have no real choice in the matter.

19. You know that thing about sharks that everyone knows? That they have to keep moving or else they’ll die? It’s a myth. Biggest shark myth around, in fact. True of some sharks, but not them all.

20. It’s definitely true of the big pro sports who make so much of their money from TV. They can pause, they can postpone. But only for so long before annihilation becomes a real prospect.

21. The GAA championships are different. They are a shark that can go for a lie-down on the sea floor if needs be. A missed year would have hurt but we’d have worn it.

22. Not because they are ephemeral or because they don’t matter. Quite the opposite. The strength of the championships is that they are of us and by us and for us. They are worth protecting. If that took a fallow year, most people would have been fine with it.

23. Happily, it didn’t arise because in the end somebody in Government with access to the money tree was able to shake free a nice, round €15 million for them to happen.

24. Football and hurling. Men and women. Welcome to the 2020 Championship, sponsored by Rialtas na hÉireann.

25. The catch-cry here is that the people need it. The nights are dark, the news is darker. There’s nothing to plan for. Weekends and weekdays have become indistinguishable. Here’s a game of ball to take your mind of it all.

26. Which is fine, in theory. But let’s not oversell it either.

27. For one thing, the distillation process is going to be far more swift and brutal than anyone is used to. We’re conditioned to think of the championship as a great river, long and slow-moving, snaking its way through months of games and drama and rows and all the rest of it.

28. Not in 2020, it’s not. Of the 48 games to be played in football and hurling, 37 will take place in the next three weeks. This championship is more like a waterfall. A great crashing whoosh at the start and then a headcount for survivors.

29. By the end of next weekend, nine counties will be gone from the football championship. In 2019, it took eight weeks to whittle the football counties down to the last 12. This time around, that job will be done in just eight days.

30. The hurling championship isn’t quite as bloodthirsty because everybody gets to play at least two games. But they’ll still be down to the last six by November 15th. Tomorrow three weeks, in other words.

31. This isn’t going to be like the club championships. There’s no slow build on offer, no gradual dawning of a year of years. In most places, it will have been and gone before it has a chance to shorten the winter.

32. In reality, they’re holding a glorified blitz and calling it a championship. The no-hopers will be summarily dispatched in the next few weeks, leaving the televisual feast of the big boys in both codes counting down the weeks to Christmas.

33. Which, in fairness, has the potential to be a lot of fun. But that’s about as big a claim as we ought to make for it. All this talk of the champo saving people’s mental health and giving them something to look forward to is going to feel very trite, very quickly.

34. As for what kind of actual sport we’re in for, the temptation is, of course, to presume that it will be mostly tense, tight and risk-averse. Soft ground, cold air, dagger wind and sideways rain. None of it smacks of Brazil 1970.

35. Here’s a thing to consider, though. There’s no group of people in the country who feel less restricted by life right now than inter-county hurlers and footballers. That thing that you wish you could do but can’t? They can.

36. They get to go training two or three nights a week and play a game on a weekend. They get to mix with people, they get to compete. They get to bury someone with a shoulder or pull a dummy solo. They get to look forward to things.

37. It’s playtime for them now. No point running laps or lifting weights at this stage. It must be pure pleasure. Total freedom.

38. Are they really going to use that sense of freedom to put 13 men behind the ball? Is it really going to express itself in endless rucking and the ref throwing the sliotar in a dozen times a game?

39. The lack of crowds has made a highly entertaining lottery of some of the early rounds of games in the Premier League. That’s the top of cut-throat pro sport, played with a glorious and often slapstick sense of freedom.

40. It’s hardly outlandish to hope the same will apply here. Freedom to do your thing. Freedom not to worry about the groans from the stands. Freedom to go and play. Plenty of us would give a lot for that freedom.

41. Players know this. They’re in their 20s, most of them. Everyone in their friend circle is bored beyond belief. Talk to any of them and they’re beyond delighted to have something to do.

42. Whether all that many of them have much to play for is another matter.

43. The football, in particular, has been gerrymandered in the old way. There’s likely to be a lot of huffing and puffing in order to set the table for a Dublin v Kerry final.

44. By the time Kerry play Cork, 18 counties will already be out. The only Division One team Dublin can meet before an All-Ireland semi-final is Meath, who were also the first team in the league to be relegated.

45. Donegal will take out Tyrone. Or vice-versa. Galway will take out Mayo. Or vice-versa. Either way, the Dubs and Kerry look to have an armchair ride, proving that some inequalities are so ingrained that they can survive anything. Even a pandemic.

46. Thankfully, the hurling is much more of a tombola spin. Limerick are favourites but their passage through Munster is fraught: Clare, then Tipp, then Cork or Waterford. Tipp are defending champions, if anyone can remember that far back. Cork are dismissed because it’s winter, a back-handed compliment. Kilkenny are fancied because it’s winter, a backhanded insult.

47. Galway will be there, Wexford will be thereabouts. The incline looks steep for Clare and Waterford, for Dublin and Laois. But one of them will probably make a lie of that somewhere along the way.

48. In the end, that’s what it’s about. Upsets and surprises, the did-you-sees and the what-was-he-ats. The fact that it feels possible that it could disappear from view at any moment could heighten it all or reduce it to farce. We’ll see.

49. The GAA didn’t need to serve it up this year but there’s something admirable in the fact that they are giving it a go. The degree of difficulty involved means we should be careful about placing too much hope in its restorative powers.

50. Let the championship be itself. Let it be, in the very cool words of Jürgen Klopp (et al), the most important of the least important things. Just don’t saddle it with saving the year.

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