IN normal circumstances, in a world that never heard tell of Covid-19, this week’s column would be up to high-doh in anticipation of a trip to Ballybofey on Sunday for Donegal versus Tyrone.
Oh, what would you not give for a return to our old normality – back to the days when Donegal locking horns with mortal enemy Tyrone seemed like the most important matter in the solar system. Them were the days when Bill Shankly’s famous quote that football was more important than life or death made innocent sense to those of us who have ever followed a football team, irrespective of the code.
Instead, on Sunday next, on a day when Donegal and Tyrone folk should have been drawn to Ballybofey like pilgrims to Mecca, the old ground by the River Finn will instead stand empty and silent in a world now ruled by Covid-19. It robs us of the sort of day GAA folk live for. There’s nothing remotely pleasant about the afternoons you shoehorn yourself into an Ulster field to watch Donegal and Tyrone go to war. For we hate the bs, and they hate us – and the players aren’t particularly fond of each other either.
But you wouldn’t miss it for the world. Not a single, heart attack-inducing, moment of it.
A ween of years ago in Ballybofey – the day one of the McMahon’s went to the bottom of the barrel in a vile attempt to derail Murphy – a man a couple of yards in front of Hurler clenched the perimeter wire for two hours solid in what could only be described as a death grip. He retreated somewhere far inside himself for those two hours, lost entirely to the rhythm of the warfare unfolding in front of him. He didn’t even come up for air at halftime, his knuckles bunched and white around the wire. The pandemic has robbed us of such a day on Sunday and God’s curse on it for its despicable thievery.
Since this day last week, the GAA have attempted to inject some clarity to the rolling question of whether or not we will have a championship at all in 2020. Their attempt at clarity was met with disgruntlement in some quarters, but in all fairness – like Joe McHugh and his Leaving Cert dilemma – the GAA have a most unpalatable decision to make.
Anyone reading this column in recent weeks will know that Hurler’s strong preference – on health and safety grounds and for the greater good of the country – is for the GAA to let the 2020 season slide. That said, I’m in no hurry for the GAA to make that decision. They’ll make it, one way or the other, when they are good and ready.
Just as it would be foolish for any business to make a decision in May with massive ramifications for the entire year, the GAA are right to phase their response. Why would they not?
Everyone from the Government down is breaking the clusterf**k that is 2020 into smaller bite-size portions in order to stagger their way through it. The GAA have taken the same option in light of the latest government announcement on the easing of restrictions.
On-field activity is a complete no-no until phase four of the Reopening Ireland plan, which falls on July 20. And that of course is entirely dependent on how the crisis evolves. The Government pointed out that the plan could be accelerated if the spread of the Covid-19 is halted earlier than expected but equally – and this seems the likelier scenario – it may also be paused if public health officials believe the disease is gaining a foothold again.
The GAA had the sense to write off a July 20 resumption as a pipe dream for intercounty fare and said in their statement that no intercounty games are now expected to take place before October. Furthermore, no doubt with the haemorrhaging finances of individual counties in mind, Croke Park ordered the suspension of all inter-county activities until further notice. That sensibly stops bills accruing. In their statement, the GAA also noted that there would be a phased resumption of training at both club and county level to allow players prepare appropriately for games.
While not categorically ruling out the staging of games behind closed doors, the GAA noted a lack of appetite for such a move among its membership. Finally – and crucially – the GAA confirmed the appointment of a dedicated Covid-19 Advisory Group that will advise the Association on matters relating to return to play protocols and other similar issues.
There’s a good mix of GAA folk among that group, including Donegal team doctor Kevin Moran. Paul Flynn of the GPA is there too, as is Hurler’s old housemate Feargal McGill – the GAA’s Director of Player, Club and Games Administration. Hurler would suggest that it is one of the most important GAA sub-committees ever assembled. The recommendations they arrive at will have far-reaching consequences for Gaelic games. You could argue, without being glib about it, that they have life and death decisions to make.
Moran told the Donegal News last week that measures to minimise the risk for players, management and backroom staff could include antibody tests for all involved, the use of smartphone apps, temperature monitoring and a strict protocol for training – with physical distancing being practised as far as possible.
It’s a big ask, and at best – as Dr Moran noted – it merely minimises the risk. A return to full-blooded training and matches sees the GAA fall into the Government’s Phase Five (August 10) category of ‘high-risk organisation that cannot maintain social distancing’ and they will be required to produce and implement a plan for how they can go-forward safely before such a move will be permitted.