In his last few days as acting chief medical officer, Dr Ronan Glynn could have been forgiven a surge of schadenfreude. Having faced a belligerent demand from the GAA for the 'empirical evidence' underlying the Government decision in August to put matches behind closed doors, he and association president John Horan were in contact last week.
By then, nearly seven weeks later, empirical evidence was all over social media, indicating that club supporters around the country – albeit by no means all of them – were behaving recklessly during celebrations of county final successes, ignoring social distancing and obviously rarely wearing masks.
It has all been an embarrassment for the GAA, which had done so well both in the caution of its approach to a return to play during the initial months of the pandemic and its relatively nimble governance, allowing it to respond quickly to changes in scientific thinking and public policy.
There had also been the widely praised community involvement during the national lockdown where the GAA had generated impressive quantities of social capital.
In devising the safe return of the games, the association’s Covid Advisory Group had put in a lengthy shift to produce minutely detailed protocols, which would enable football and hurling to resume, initially at club level.
This was all such a success in both its primary aim to protect public health as well as its innovative scheduling that the roadmap leading to the return of the intercounty season looked uncomplicated even amid the rumblings of a second wave of coronavirus.
It came as a rare failure of foresight during the pandemic on the GAA’s part. For all the micro-managed concerns about getting the games back on the pitch, there was on the horizon something that shouldn’t have come as a major surprise: the impact on communities of a successful championship run.
In the early phase of county finals, Wexford and Waterford hurling senior titles were won by successful clubs in matches behind closed doors. There were celebrations but these were largely curtailed by a consensus acceptance of the rules, which were sufficiently new to remind people that they were lucky to have club activity at all.
That consciousness seemed to fade as time went on and more pointedly when clubs started to win county titles that they weren’t expected to or hadn’t done in a long time.
Again it’s important to emphasise that this wasn’t universal but it was sufficiently commonplace to start causing trouble.
When the GAA launched its intercounty fixture schedule at the end of September, Feargal McGill, the head of games administration, was asked about the matter, as it had erupted after Dungannon Clarkes’ Tyrone title win in Omagh the previous weekend
“In terms of preventing things like that we have to double down on our efforts in educating people. We have been in contact with counties this week, and particularly those that have county finals coming up. No matter what you put in place, so much of this comes down to personal responsibility.”
Further questioned on scenes from that night and in general when successful clubs go to a pub or back to their own clubhouse, he said that he wasn’t immediately concerned but aware of the problem.
“We are keeping an eye on it, that’s for sure, see where we get to over the next week or two.”
Behind the scenes though there was growing concern about breaches of public health guidelines at county finals and afterwards.
President John Horan said on Monday evening that last week, Dr Glynn had been in contact to request that the GAA urge their units and membership to observe regulations but it is apparent that the association had already been making this known – but to little effect.
Having complied with Dr Glynn’s request, they found again over the weekend that these appeals were having no impact. By that stage the GAA was sustaining reputational damage over the raucous scenes being uploaded to social media. Something had to be done.
This was particularly urgent give the deterioration of the Covid-19 spread. The irony for the GAA is that whereas they were genuinely baffled by the August decision to put their matches behind closed doors given that their figures, which were very accurate as the hundred tickets per match could only be obtained online, didn’t indicate any cases among spectators.
Eventually NPHET argued that it was the congregation of people at matches that caused problems but even this was hard to grasp, as there was little reason for people to congregate at otherwise empty grounds or to stick around afterwards. But that was before the county finals season.
It is now accepted, however, by officials – North and South – that there have been clusters associated with some victorious clubs because of the level of uninhibited socialising that takes place afterwards.
It’s unfortunate for the county finalists who have now had their big day postponed – probably until their respective counties exit the championship – but given what had been happening and the lack of compliance the GAA didn’t have much choice in the matter.
Realistically though, how were these celebrations going to be universally curtailed? The point was made on these pages that normal sport isn’t possible in an abnormal society, which is where we firmly are these days.
What will now happen in respect of the intercounty season? It was always likely to go ahead even allowing for the Level 5 fright given the Government investment (in all senses) in its taking place.
Now more than ever previously, it is all likely to happen behind closed doors, which reduces the threat of congregation but although clubs are narrowly defined geographically with concentrated catchments, that’s not to say that similar behaviour won’t happen around intercounty fixtures.
The weakness in NPHET’s previous argument about match-day congregation was widely pointed out at the time: the same congregating would take place indoors in pubs and with matches of far broader interest in the All-Ireland championship, those numbers would be even larger.
The imposition of Level 3 restrictions everywhere addresses that for the moment but it will remain a key influence on keeping a lid on infections when the championship is up and running.
There has been no appetite among Gardaí to raid private houses in order to enforce Covid restrictions but that touches on the reality of the situation for the GAA and other sports.
All of the precautions and protocols in the world can’t prevent games from being supremely social events, which people like to watch together. It’s why the new normal isn’t normal.
The GAA and Covid-19 – A timeline
April 17th: Impossible to know when games will be back
"It is because from the very beginning we have always taken our guidance from the health authorities within the country here and we shut down very quickly when they brought that on the table but we won't be making any rushed decisions to return to playing our games," – GAA president John Horan.
April 27th: Not in the short term
"One thing about the playing of the games is that they're a contact sport. Social distancing at the moment is a high priority and I can't see contact sport coming on board in the short term," – GAA president John Horan
May 1st: Government publish 'Reopening Ireland'
"Obviously that's a matter for the GAA. Not with spectators but it could be done. I think it's possible. You'd be talking August and September. It would be a later calendar than we're used to," – then taoiseach Leo Varadkar on staging the All-Irelands.
May 6th: Covid Advisory Group
GAA announce establishment of Covid Advisory Group to plan and advise on a safe return of the games, also stating: "The GAA still firmly hopes to be able to play county and club competitions this year, subject of course to public health guidance. We can confirm however that no intercounty games are expected to take place before October."
June 5th: Safe return
The GAA releases its Safe Return to Gaelic Games plan for the weeks ahead. It includes the return of matches for clubs on July 31st (later brought forward to July 17th) and counties no sooner than October 17th.
June 26th: 2020 intercounty championships
Dates for provincial and All-Ireland championships released. No county training until September 14th with season to start on October 17th, with the remaining rounds of the national football league. All-Ireland finals scheduled for December 13th (hurling) and 19th (football).
July 17th: Return to play
County championships return, as TG4 broadcasts its first match in four months from Wexford Park, as champions St Martin's take on Oulart-The Ballagh. Two hundred are allowed to attend, inclusive of players and officials. The counties in Northern Ireland initially have more restrictive rules but these are quickly eased so that up to 500 can attend.
August 8th: Midlands lockdown
Kildare, Laois and Offaly are locked down after a steep rise in cases. Matches suspended in all three counties for a fortnight with Kildare restrictions extended afterwards.
August 18th: Restrictions
Government restrictions are tightened and although the GAA and other sports had at one point hoped that the 200-spectators limit would rise to 500, it is in fact reduced to nothing, as matches ordered behind closed doors. GAA calls on NPHET to provide the 'empirical evidence' behind the decision.
August 23rd: First county final
First county final sees Shelmaliers win the Wexford hurling title.
September 18th: Dublin lockdown
Dublin is moved to Level 3, on the Government's five-level structure for categorising the pandemic, keeping matches in the county behind closed doors whereas 100 spectators can attend matches in rest of the Republic's counties.
September 25th: Donegal joins Dublin
Donegal, after a spike in cases, joins Dublin on Level 3, which excludes spectators from matches.