The GAA’s strangest days – Chronicles of a Time of Covid

The association has had to be flexible and innovative to keep the show on the road

Socially distanced fans take their seats at a sunny Croke Park for the Allianz League Division Three final between Offaly and Derry. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

Socially distanced fans take their seats at a sunny Croke Park for the Allianz League Division Three final between Offaly and Derry. Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho

 

In a thousand years or so, an archaeological site around the old north city district – probably uncovered during works on the Dublin MetroLink – may reveal a tract, unusual for being printed rather than digitally recorded.

Its title cover will simply be: GAA – Chronicles of a Time of Covid. Dated June 22nd 2021, it will detail the primary impacts on the sports organisation of a pandemic, well into its second year.

I: Let the people come

We got used to the lack of spectators. There is no other way of putting it. At first in 2020, the unofficial but prevailing view was that a championship without crowds was in conflict with the whole essence of the GAA, a stripping away of one of the vital elements of a match day.

Fixtures were at least as much for the communities as for the players and television audiences. In the end there was a simple choice: no crowds or no championship and off we went into the cavernous stadia of the winter.

By the beginning of the 2021 championship, a couple of hundred people were to be allowed in.

It began on June 26th when paying customers attended senior championship matches for the first time since the weekend of September 15th and 16th 2019 when Dublin won both the men’s All-Ireland final replay and the women’s football final.

There was hopeful talk of Government reviewing the situation in time for August and hoped-for crowds of 20,000 at All-Ireland matches. For the GAA, though, most focus was on getting the go-ahead for attendances of 500 (in venues capable of holding 5,000) from July 5th.

Getting to 500 was a hurdle the GAA had fallen at previously and so their fingers were crossed.

II: Football preserved

At first football looked better served. In October 2020, there were two rounds of league matches leading into a championship but the limitation of the format to pure knock-out proved, well, limiting.

By 2021, football was still like Pompeii – preserved in time by the unknowable eruptions of the previous year. A truncated league format gave a short runway into another sudden-death championship. Eight days after it started, 14 counties had been eliminated from the summer schedule.

Such a lack of activity meant that the game hadn’t really progressed since 2019. Dublin were still champions with Kerry still in closest pursuit. There simply hadn’t been time for other contenders to develop during two condensed seasons.

Tyrone missed out narrowly and then changed direction with new management for whose plans the whizz-bang calendar was not helpful. Galway shaped up promisingly in early 2020 before finding that the pandemic had robbed them of their new powers.

Donegal, meanwhile, found new and imaginative ways not to reach the All-Ireland semi-final.

The almost magical emergence in 2020 of provincial titles for Tipperary and Cavan had to be qualified by heavy defeats in the All-Ireland semi-final and the crashing reality that not alone would building on the achievement be difficult but relegation to Division Four would sap morale.

The other effect was to give Kerry and Donegal an extra year to wait before they could resume development. Both were beaten fair and square in 2020 but the strange circumstances of the year meant that recovery would take twice as long as usual.

Just months before the wretched virus disseminated, the GAA had introduced a Tier 2 competition. There were strong feelings.

Some believed that it would provide a vital stepping stone for counties; others that it was the imposing the imperatives of professional sport on a community-based recreational activity, previously open to all who wanted to enter.

After two years its implementation was still awaited.

There had also been plans for the most radical reform of the championship in history but they too had to be shelved.

III: Hurling and the primacy of summer

No-one will forget the club championships of 2020. The summer arrived with the public health situation apparently improving and little by little, GAA clubs emerged into the light and had a wonderful season between bright, warm weather and the undiminished attention of their players, unencumbered by county commitments.

It showed the extent to which hurling is a summer game. This shouldn’t have been news, as it was already in the database. The national league of 1997 had showed the appetite for warm-weather fixtures, which pitted the best teams against each other and which led into the championship.

The years before lockdown in 2018 and ’19, the provincial round-robin championships had done the same thing.

It would be imperative that the best months of the year be set aside and better allocated than in either 2020 or ’21 when circumstances dictated that first, the intercounty, and then the club games had been pushed out into autumn and winter.

The big question was might the loss of calendar weeks in January and February be outweighed by the optimal conditions of a return to training in March and a league starting in April, preferably with a final?

IV: The Protocols of the Covid Advisory Group

The return to play in 2020 was mainly the work of this group, which advised both that it was safe to go ahead with physical contact sport and on the necessary procedures – registration, health forms, hand washing, closure of indoor facilities, travel precautions etc – to make it work.

This made a difference and by championship 2021, counties had become so adept at controlling the virus that infections in county panels were down to about two per week nationally.

Among these were matters that unaccountably drove some people mad. Water breaks, designed because water bottles could not be shared, were protested as momentum wreckers and needless breaks in play.

Provision for seven replacements was introduced for the 2021 league to guard against injury after such a short pre-season, three or four weeks.

The facility was withdrawn before the championship on the grounds that it was a temporary measure, which had been all very well in league when teams of roughly equal panel depth were playing each other but that it would create an imbalance in championship.

Managers many of whom had experienced high injury rates, particularly soft tissue damage, as a result of the shorter preparation period begged to differ.

V: Into the future

We go on.

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