Seán Moran: Tyrone’s plight rightly not only one considered in refixture compromise

GAA was in a quandary but deferral of semi would have inconvenienced other teams

Tyrone layers  celebrate after the Ulster final victory over Monaghan at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Tyrone layers celebrate after the Ulster final victory over Monaghan at Croke Park. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

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Feargal Logan has more reason than most to resent the pandemic. Not only has it conspired against him and Brian Dooher by immeasurably complicating their season as Tyrone joint-managers – a rookie year at that when they were trying to change the team’s style – but he himself contracted the virus and had to miss the Ulster final win over Monaghan.

It has been a stunning season for the new management team. From very brief preparation, they have managed to reclaim the Ulster title and in doing so, have beaten all of the counties – Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan – with whom they have shared the last 13 Anglos Celt trophies.

There are massive inconveniences in observing the relevant protocols and reduced crowds – although a heartening improvement on the bleak emptiness of last season

Now the team have become embroiled in an outbreak of infection, which has forced the postponement of their All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry and in turn triggered a heated outburst from county chair Michael Kerr in an interview with Francis Mooney, which raised the prospect of the match not going ahead because the allotted delay of six days was inadequate.

The GAA would last summer have probably marvelled at their good fortune in getting this far into a second championship with minimal Covid disruption to its fixtures calendar.

Of course there are massive inconveniences in observing the relevant protocols and the reduced crowds – although a heartening improvement on the bleak emptiness of last season – lend an air of unreality to matches but given where the pandemic championships started last autumn amid rising numbers of infections, the damage to the schedules could have been an awful lot worse.

To date Sligo have been the only county to have dropped out of a senior championship in two years. At this point that seems a shame given it looks like victimisation of a smaller county when there was probably time to play their match against Galway and postpone the Connacht final.

Back then, however, it was far from obvious that Sligo would be the only panel affected by the virus and if provincial fixtures started to fall by the wayside, there wouldn’t have been time to postpone them all without impacting on the later stages of the competition.

Significantly, a decision was taken coming into December that neither the All-Ireland finals nor semi-finals would be decided by forfeit even if matches had to go into January.

Tyrone’s new management team of Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher have enjoyed a brilliant first season at the helm. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
Tyrone’s new management team of Feargal Logan and Brian Dooher have enjoyed a brilliant first season at the helm. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

As it happened there were no further complications – just as well given the GAA lost its elite status exemption over Christmas – but maybe had an All-Ireland final been pending, someone would have mentioned this to them.

This year has had its scares: Mayo had cases before their Connacht semi-final against Leitrim, Dublin were short four of their hurling panel including two starters for the Leinster final with Kilkenny. Galway hurlers had a scare. Tyrone themselves lost players just before the Ulster final.

For all remaining counties it’s a nightmare prospect and although the GAA health protocols may be fully adhered to, players and managers are not in bubbles and spend a restricted amount of time at training and the rest of it out in the community.

After last weekend’s All-Ireland hurling semi-final, Limerick manager John Kiely said that his entire panel had been fully vaccinated. It is believed to be the same in Cork.

Covid numbers remain high in Northern Ireland and the rolling 14-day total is around 90 per cent of that south of the Border despite having just 38 per cent of the population. Vaccine hesitancy is also very high among young people. Figures released on Tuesday show that 80 per cent of those hospitalised with Covid in Northern Ireland are under 60.

The GAA was in a quandary. Tyrone were looking for a two-week deferral and were granted six days. It is likely they’ll have nearly all of their players back recovered but won’t have had anything like a normal fortnight’s preparation for the biggest match of their season to date.

There are also different perspectives, such as the other three semi-finalists, especially Kerry, who won’t have played a match for nearly four weeks by the time the deferred fixture is played. Dublin and Mayo now have had their seasons extended by the postponement of the All-Ireland final.

There is sympathy for Tyrone’s plight and the CCCC were convinced that a postponement was merited. No-one has suggested that the county is any way to blame for what happened but neither are Kerry, Mayo or Dublin.

Some sort of a compromise was needed. The pandemic has been a wretched imposition on everyone and in return for postponing their match this Sunday is it unreasonable to ask that it go ahead once most of the players are recovered?

Teams after all have to soldier on in other circumstances of misfortune, like injury or illness.

It is believed that Tyrone will be in Croke Park on August 21st, even if their preparation has been less than perfect

How is ‘fully recovered’ defined? It’s hard to be precise and although the four Dublin players, who missed the Leinster hurling final, including the positive case, all played two weeks later, Covid affects different people in different ways.

Dooher said on RTÉ Radio One on Tuesday that the county would “struggle” to get the players back and “performing to their ability”. On the prospect of fulfilling the fixture, he said, “we are where we are. We’ll make the best of it and probably make a call on it in the middle of next week”.

It is, however, believed that Tyrone will be in Croke Park on August 21st, even if their preparation has been less than perfect. Anything else would place a terrible asterisk beside this year’s All-Ireland.

This will though be in keeping with the GAA’s RTP (return to play) protocols drawn up by its Covid Advisory Group, who have guided the association’s units through all the steps in the safe resumption of games.

Speaking before the championship Logan was asked about stepping up to senior management after 18 years of Mickey Harte.

“Of course it brings its challenges along the way,” he said, “and it would be naive to think not.”

If only he knew.

smoran@irishtimes.com

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