Malachy Clerkin: The league has always been the league, and never more so than in 2021

Patience will be the key word when it comes to players, referees and even counting subs

Nothing makes the blood of a GAA journalist run colder than the suggestion of more substitutes. Okay, maybe not nothing – it’s been the thick end of five months since any of us have been able to claim mileage, after all. So long, in fact, that it has apparently been noticed by Important People. The accounts department sent a mass card the other day.

Fiduciary matters aside, however, it would be hard to conjure up a more irksome imposition than extra subs. All the chat seems to be that anything up to eight replacements will be allowed during the football and hurling leagues – and that’s not including blood subs. Theoretically, you could be looking at games with 50 players making it onto the pitch.

The GPA are pushing for it, seemingly. Managers too. There’s even loose chat from dangerous subversives like former Galway manager Micheál Donoghue talking about unlimited changes. Unlimited, no less!

These people have no idea what it’s like. They don’t know struggle. They can’t begin to fathom the mental dexterity involved in keeping track of a hurling match that has moved into its 65th minute with 2-23 scored on one side and 1-27 scored on the other and four different free-takers throwing into the pot and two subs coming on for one team and three coming on for the other and the office looking for 800 words plus teams, subs, scorers and wides as soon as the whistle goes. Where’s your GPA module on that, eh lads?


And now they want to throw more subs into the mix? Sure why stop there? Give the bus driver a game, stick on the groundskeeper. Make it 25-a-side and strip the numbers off the jerseys. Krypton Factor this gig anyway you like, the GAA press corps will show ourselves to be up to it. Or at the very least, comfort ourselves that nobody has noticed how badly we’ve failed.

Patience will be the key throughout this league, starting as it does 10 days from now. Patience on all sides, patience in both codes. Press box moaning notwithstanding, the call for more subs is very obviously a good idea – so much so that it seems slightly odd that it hasn’t been signed off on already. It will make things a bit messy and cause games to become bitty and stop-start. But that’s likely to be the least of anyone’s concerns.

It will be useful for all concerned to set the bar for the 2021 league fairly low. This will not be a league for the ages. Pretty much the only selling point it has going for it is the fact that it is happening at all. Everyone will need to be patient with it throughout.

The teams will be undercooked. Regardless of how much clandestine work any of them were doing on the quiet, they’re going into a league campaign with the least amount of preparation ever done. They haven’t played Fitzgibbon or Sigerson, the challenge match circuit has fallen still, there hasn’t been a ball thrown in at a club match anywhere in the country for eight months.

In that context, results can’t possibly matter as much as in a normal year. Making it from week to week with a manageable bodycount will trump all other concerns. If that takes eight subs a game, so be it. Just as likely, however, is the prospect of matches being played at half-speed, motions being gone through. A distinct lack of anything to scare the horses.

And if the teams are undercooked, imagine what the next couple of months has in store for referees. As Fergal Horgan pointed out on the Examiner's GAA podcast on Monday, the last time he blew his whistle was December 13th at the All-Ireland final – and he was the last hurling referee in the country to do so. By the start of the league in normal times, an intercounty referee would have a string of club games, schools games, challenge matches and pre-season tournament games under his belt. Different story this time around.

On top of which, the rules have changed in the meantime. The sin-bin has been brought into hurling. You can be awarded a penalty for fouls that happen outside the large parallelogram. There will not, according to Horgan, be a black card in hurling, even for what we will, by shorthand, call a black-card foul. It will just be a quiet word from the ref telling the player he has earned himself 10 minutes in the bin. That ought to keep the League Sunday folk entertained.

Patience, people. Patience. Patience with players, patience with referees. This is not a real league. It’s a pre-season blitz. A pipe-opener. A holding position while we wait for the world to settle itself back down again. No animals will be harmed in the making of this league. Games will peter out. Mistakes will be everywhere.

And that’s okay. The league has always been the league. But it will never be more the league than in 2021. Most crucial of all will be the need to resist the temptation to draw concrete conclusions from how your county’s league goes. Winning three on the bounce in 50-player games does not make them the next threat to the Dubs. Just as losing three-on-the-spin in games where the physio is the man-of-the-match won’t mean the year is a bust.

So don’t read too much into the 2021 league when it gets going the weekend after next. Enjoy it for what it is – a gentle sniff of the air by a couple of sports coming out of hibernation. Set your expectations low and be patient with everyone.

Particularly when you’re checking match reports to see who came on in the 69th minute.