Seán Moran: GAA might be better off filing away 2020 as best forgotten

Allowing the championship to run into 2021 would require a truncated format

GAA president John Horan said the GAA is now  thinking about concluding the 2020 championship next year if necessary. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon/Inpho

GAA president John Horan said the GAA is now thinking about concluding the 2020 championship next year if necessary. Photograph: Tom O’Hanlon/Inpho

 

The GAA need to tread carefully. We are just two months into the coronavirus pandemic and facing a long drought in terms of sporting activity. Breezy assumptions that somehow things would work out quickly gave way to a gloomy resignation that they may not. The requirement now is for a long game.

Association president John Horan’s main revelation in Monday’s radio interview was that the GAA is now seriously thinking about concluding the 2020 championship next year if necessary.

This was something of a surprise in that privately officials had appeared lukewarm about the prospect.

That All-Ireland championships have been eventually completed every year since 1888 is partly due to competitions decided in the year – or at times even two years – after they started. But it’s nearly a century since this sort of flexibility was required.

There is no comparison between the GAA’s schedules now and in 1924: no national leagues, no underage championships and a litany of counties who didn’t compete at senior, even in football.

There was accordingly a lot of tolerance in the system. Allowing this year’s championship to run into 2021 would require a truncated format both years.

Horan sounded as if he more had in mind a couple of matches to finish off this year’s competition because when asked might the whole thing be played in 2021 he was more circumspect.

“Well we’re taking our guidance from the health authorities and did issue a statement that we wouldn’t be back until July. And I think we can push that back farther now again but control of the virus is the key issue for all. Games are games but as I’ve said all along, we’re not going to put anybody at risk.”

Risk doesn’t stop with public health concerns.

Croke Park is under a lot of pressure. The finances aren’t ruinous at present even though they’re picking up some serious tabs, eg around €5.5 million for insurance and doing some heavy lifting on sundry other expenditure as well as long-fingering income streams like registration fees but general governance is stressful.

The figures have been well rehearsed at this stage but without some intercounty activity back in the fields, the GAA has lodged its last big cheque for 2020.

In the circumstances the association has done a plausible line in stoicism by refusing to get excited over the various prospects for a return to play and how they might be managed.

There have been other pressures. Counties and clubs are simply a microcosm of the GAA nationally and without activities they can’t raise funds with cash-strapped memberships and nothing for benevolent local enterprise to sponsor. Then there’s a large playing cohort at all levels, who are mad keen to get back doing something.

Managers throughout the country are valiantly keeping up the Zoom meetings and liaison with their panellists but in the knowledge that unless something is scheduled to happen in the determinate future, they will – no less than the Government dealing with the nation’s faltering concentration span – struggle to maintain even that limited sense of engagement.

In his interview with this newspaper on Tuesday, Donegal manager Declan Bonner spoke about the importance of nurturing a sense of hope and optimism that a championship of some sort might take place and that all the individual training by players might be vindicated later this year.

Into this world came the suggestion that the Department of Sport was modelling some system whereby intercounty players might with rigorous testing be able to train for the time when the games would return.

It always appeared a bit far-fetched as an idea and was duly demolished by John Horan a day later but it had flickered like a beacon of hope for those few hours.

It’s natural for all those involved with county set-ups to want games to go ahead, as it is for many of their supporters. How though can there be the desired, controlled, safe environment as long as social distancing is seen as a key prevention strategy?

Horan also pointed out that the club game with its smaller crowds needed to be reintroduced first before any engagement with the counties, all of which must have caused dejection to people like Bonner with teams fidgety with the desire for action.

He and Kerry counterpart Peter Keane have both accepted that football behind closed doors might not be a tantalising prospect but if it was as good as anything was going to get, why not?

The problem is that the reason for needing to play behind closed doors would mean that social distancing were still an issue.

Everything at the moment is being seen in the short term – simply because no-one has any idea about what happens farther into the future. Any chance of a return to play is desperately embraced but it might be as well to think forward a bit more carefully.

At the end of 2020 if a truncated championship is nearly completed or hasn’t even started, will it be seen as a great idea to bequeath a pile of scheduling problems to 2021?

Surely if a return to normality is the priority, next year should be given the best chance of showcasing a full season and not trimmed and abbreviated so that it can be crammed into 12 months with a similarly reduced championship from the previous year.

Perhaps the best approach might be – even at this stage – to prepare along with the rest of the world to file away 2020 as best forgotten.

smoran@irishtimes.com