Seán Moran: GAA set to again make the best of historically challenging times

Intercounty fixtures will have to overshoot the return of club activity this year

Last year perseverance paid off and the championships were played. In the 22nd century, 2020 will just say ‘Dublin and Limerick’ as winners and to the casual survey no footnote about December and empty stands. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

So for a second year, the GAA will have to improvise another strange and bespoke season, which will ask members and players to be thankful for the small mercies: being allowed to return to play but invited to look forward to better times.

History is a recurrent phenomenon in sport. Achievements are frequently benchmarked against when they last happened and all the better if they are unprecedented.

It’s especially true in the world of Gaelic games even if in very narrow focus. Who won the All-Irelands? We can date years and pinpoint moments in our lives by reference to big matches and where we saw them.

Reeling in the Years, RTÉ’s hugely successful archive trawl of the decades during the television age, which is about to broadcast its latest series, on the 2010s, dutifully runs footage of the hurling and football finals – a significant score or two over the subtitles, which date stamp the year as indelibly as rings on a tree.


Last year went down in the GAA’s history as well as the world’s. In 10 years’ time, we’ll be viewing – in at least two programmes – All-Ireland finals played in empty stadiums and ideally, shudder at the distant memory and nothing else.

Dublin made history in an obvious, record-book sense but for Croke Park officialdom, the task of making history is an old one and not necessarily about landmarks and unprecedented events.

It relates simply to organising something – as they must now do again – that will distinguish the year by providing a championship for players to contest and the community to watch, albeit remotely.

Last winter November provided conventional history with the striking commemoration of Bloody Sunday, more haunting for being isolated in front of so few but December provided more: a century’s cadence with football semi-finals lifted from 1920 and finals played deep in winter.

Strange as these coincidences were, they were all the more so given the circumstances of last year. Twelve months ago it wasn’t unusual to see speculation that 2020 might become the first year since 1888 to have no championship.

One of the points about 1920 that got lost in all of the century’s mirroring was that no championship got played that year. The 1919 season was completed on time and the next All-Ireland final wasn’t played for nearly three years.

Turbulent times

It’s a recurring feature of the GAA championships in turbulent times that they were played out a year or two later, which looks odd in the record books, as if the association was chronically disorganised in the 19th and early 20th century.

In truth it was the desire to leave a record of each championship even if that didn’t mean each year.

The GAA went through turmoil and the country went through war but every year has its place and the incongruity of, for instance, the 1920 All-Irelands being played all of two years later – the longest of these delays – is smoothed over by the passage of time and the lack of asterisks on the roll of honour, which simply notes: Football – Tipperary and Hurling – Dublin.

Last year that perseverance was honoured and the championships played. In the 22nd century, 2020 will just say, Dublin and Limerick and to the casual survey no footnote about December and empty stands.

We now know that intercounty training will begin in just over two weeks, a little later than the GAA had hoped but at least it brings certainty and the hope that fixtures can start in mid-May.

It is also accepted that the cautious staggering of the relaxation programme is unavoidable in the current circumstances.

All history was once someone’s present and there are a number of intercounty championship matches overhanging from last year when senior football and hurling were allowed to go ahead but not under-age competitions.

For under-age players the loss of a year is a very different matter. Abandoned All-Irelands can’t be retrieved and that’s why there is such determination that the 2020 minor and under-20 championships go ahead, particularly as there are only nine matches left.

There will be disappointment that the return to underage training has been held off until the end of the month but the sense of it is that the GAA are just glad that they now have return dates and as Wexford chair (the other) Micheál Martin said on radio, it will allow time to put all protocols in place for the resumption of activity and he referenced the training protocols implemented in advance of the reopening of the schools.

National league

How the Central Competitions Control Committee manage the schedules will be known next week but the decision has been taken to stage a national league preliminary to the championship season.

This is because all counties are in favour of it, the less successful because it’s the most meaningful part of their season and the elite because no-one wants to be heading into championship, especially the pure knock-out version in football, without some kind of runway.

The schedule when unveiled, will also mark the end of the ‘split season’ concept for this year, as the intercounty fixtures will have to overshoot the return of club activity although if, as Taoiseach Micheál Martin appeared to indicate on Tuesday evening, the green light for the clubs will await an effective roll-out of vaccines, who knows precisely when that will be?

As is often the case when history is forming, it presents simply as things that people are trying to make the best of.