Keith Duggan: Dublin risk tainting their legacy with lockdown training session

Early morning images from Innisfails will disappoint many for different reasons

Dublin celebrate after winning their sixth All-Ireland in a row last year. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

It’s a pity that there’s no byline accompanying the photographs of the Dublin footballer’s early morning football session because those images have established the narrative for the GAA’s year.

What exactly are we looking at in those grainy images? Is this a gathering of amateur sports men foolishly ignoring Covid regulations by meeting for an early morning kickaround before they begin their working day? Or are the images damning proof that members of the most feared and efficient sports team in the history of Irish sport have brazenly and arrogantly ignored the pandemic regulations which the vast majority of citizens have honoured at enormous social, emotional and, often, financial cost?

It’s whichever you want it to be. It’s both.

It goes without saying that the decision to hold Wednesday morning’s get-together, in Dublin’s usual early-season training haunt at Innisfails, was stupid. But if you are expecting statements of pious disappointment from opposition counties, you’re more likely to hear muffled coughs and mutterings.


Last year’s All-Ireland football final was played on December 19th, when Dublin won the competition for an unprecedented sixth year in a row. Confirmation that intercounty teams would not fall under elite status during the new Covid guidelines and restrictions meant that they couldn’t resume training. Ever since, there have been rumours that many county teams have, at the very least, been testing the limits of the Covid regulations. Both the Down and Cork team managers received eight and 12 week suspensions respectively after holding training sessions.

It’s easy to simply castigate all and sundry for this kind of selfishness and stupidity. But it’s probably more important to understand why it’s happening. Look at those images again, blurry as they are. What you see are a few typical 20-something Irish lads who look stupefied to find themselves kicking a ball at that hour of the morning. GAA intercounty teams exist in a strange twilight zone in that they are elite sports people expected to masquerade as ordinary amateurs.

The standard of intercounty football and hurling has improved to a degree that is extraordinary. Year after year, teams and managers have come along to push the perceived limitations of amateurism even higher. The Dublin football team has smashed all kinds of ceilings over the past decade. They are the biggest crowd draw in Irish sport. They generate huge sums of money for the GAA. They’ve been transformed from a noisy, underwhelming team from the capital city into a sports franchise run in a highly professional way - with the glaring exception that the talent does not get paid.

Intercounty GAA teams have always tried to get an edge on the other crowd, training harder, training more often and holding covert sessions during the official off-season. But meeting to kick a football during a delicate stage of an historic pandemic which has claimed almost 4,700 Irish lives to date stands as a deeply humbling moment for everyone involved with the Dublin senior football team.

As an organisation, the GAA has been a model of compliance regarding governmental regulations. The problem is that the organisation is, in reality, a big, messy series of independent republics running through the heart of Irish society. The celebrations at the peak of the club county final season last autumn led to videos and stories which infuriated people across the country. The scenes reeked of entitlement and insensitivity and the phrase “GAA exceptionalism” took hold. For a while, the controversy seemed to threaten the staging of the senior intercounty championships. The argument that the All-Irelands wouldn’t generate the same kind of social upheaval proved correct and the games were an important distraction through a very grim winter.

When the Covid numbers escalated alarmingly during the Christmas period and the new dispensation was put in place, it was clear that intercounty GAA players, who cannot exist in a professional sports ‘bubble’ of containment, would have to adhere to the same rules as the casual sports person. Anyone familiar with the mindset of GAA intercounty teams would know that they were always likely to try and find ways to “get around” those limitations.

That’s probably what the Dublin players who met early on Wednesday morning told themselves they were doing: getting an edge and limbering up with a harmless kick around before the official return-to-training date on April 19th. They were outside, they maintained a social distance. They may well have been convinced that their leading rivals are this week doing the very same thing across the country. And they may be right.

But none of that matters. Dublin’s success and profile means that they are under a different level of scrutiny than all other county teams. They know this. It’s why the Irish Independent deemed the story of their covert training session worthy of its entire front page on Thursday morning.

The national response to Dublin’s daunting run of unbeaten years is conflicted: admiration for their skill and athleticism and resentment at the perception that they have all the advantages. In the many debates on the subject, figures are trotted out to illustrate that Dublin has been given more funding than any other county. There is a real fear that no other county can live with Dublin as an entity; that the century old All-Ireland championship model is broken.

Even if those responsible for this training session are heavily sanctioned by the GAA, the likelihood is that Dublin will still be All-Ireland champions whenever the 2021 season ends. Individually and collectively, Dublin have conducted themselves with notable dignity and humility throughout their years of triumph. But this foolish moment will follow them and threatens to compromise what has been a legacy of untouchable supremacy. They’ve disappointed many people who have felt the wrath off this pandemic - including, you can be sure, some of their most ardent supporters. For once, all other county teams are thanking their lucky stars that they’re not in Dublin’s shoes just now.