Seán Moran: GAA must feel a bit like the grand old Duke of York

The opening up of grounds to spectators has been a frustrating process for all involved

It wouldn't be entirely accurate to echo Joni Mitchell when assessing the GAA season. From the start of the pandemic, everyone was aware of what they had even before it was gone and much of the past six months has been about trying to cling on to bits and pieces of what we must regard as the old normal.

For once the GAA was pleasantly surprised by a Government announcement, when on Tuesday small attendances were allowed to return to matches. In the greater scheme of things, though, it was a bit like the grand old Duke of York. A limit of 200 had been in place for about a month at the start of the club season in July and while hopes had been high that this might be raised to 500 a couple of weeks later, it in fact ended up as abolished altogether.

So, a few weeks later it’s back at 200, apparently net of participants and officials, and the main spectator sports are to discuss with officials how they might engineer the return to stadiums of four- or five-figure crowds in the weeks ahead.

How painful a process it’s all been.

It may be easy to berate Government for its chaotic messaging but whereas locking everyone down is a straightforward directive – as is, by extension, the complete lifting of all restrictions – everything in between is a challenge.

Procedure mightn’t appear the most effective in that announcing in advance the announcement of major public order measures allows feeding frenzies of speculation to fill the interim. This will always create a base-level confusion even before the restrictions emerge – let alone take effect.

But this is difficult for everyone. The GAA, if we track public pronouncements, has changed tack on a number of occasions and reasonably given that the scientific and medical advice changed.

Again it was easy when everything was absolute: lockdown and no relaxation. President John Horan was able to make the point that if there was still a requirement for social distancing how could players play?

Then with the gradual emergence of data to indicate that you could actually play contact sport without necessarily being in the company of infected players for long enough to catch anything, the prospect of a return to play came into sight.

Ironically when at the end of April the once and future taoiseach Leo Varadkar reeled off the opinion that the All-Irelands could be played behind closed doors, Mayo footballer Aidan O'Shea on The Late Late was unenthusiastic about progressing the competitions in the face of risks posed to the communities in which all players live.

Yet here we are in mid-September with the countdown clock ticking towards an intercounty championship where the size of the crowds is still a matter of discussion and conjecture and in the context of a club season, largely played out in front of nobody but those directly involved.

It’s the ratchet effect writ large.

All of the statements on the concept of playing behind closed doors or in front of tiny permitted attendances up until relatively recently were not particularly enthusiastic.

GAA director general Tom Ryan commented at June's launch of the intercounty roadmap: "Games behind closed doors is not really something that we want."

At one point, a couple of months previously a senior GAA official had questioned the whole idea by asking what would be the point of playing a match in an empty stadium apart from simply to determine which county was better than the other.

That might sound obvious but the issue was that a championship match is at least as much about the crowds as the teams. The phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ can rarely be more resonant than in the formation of footballers and hurlers.

Brian Malone of Shelmaliers said after the club had won the Wexford hurling title behind closed doors: "I know from my sake, my parents would love to be here. I've a wife and two kids and they go to all the games. I've two little boys and they would be in to me after the game. It's a whole family thing."

In another county, a retired doctor who had given years of voluntary assistance to the GAA couldn’t see his grandchild play in a minor final.

Even with minimal attendance permitted, there were problems for clubs, as David Kelly, chair of Boyle in Roscommon told this newspaper last week.

“It was worse when we had to distribute 50 tickets because how do you do that? How do you decide between members and players’ families who mightn’t be members?”

Obviously it remains a proud achievement for anyone to win a county medal but the whole experience has been – of necessity – rendered rather two-dimensional.

Part of the momentum behind the green lighting of the intercounty season is that the Government has been very keen to give people something to occupy them during the winter.

The GAA has dutifully incorporated this into its own narrative with Horan telling RTÉ:

“The nation will need live sport on the television at the weekends when we go through the long evenings in the winter. If we as a national organisation can deliver that morale lift to the country, we won’t be found wanting.”

Without being puritanical, it’s a thin line between raising national morale and ‘bread and circuses’.

Players are keen to proceed and supporters, having got used to other elite sports on the television in cavernous venues, largely believe that it’s better than nothing.

John Maughan, the well-travelled manager of Offaly, wasn't so sure last July.

“This is a little bit like the foot-and-mouth league – the Covid All-Ireland! No matter who wins it, it will be tainted because it’s different.”

It will certainly be different, as will the memories generated – but how will we all feel about them in years to come?