Brian Looney has won it all with Dr Crokes but becoming a father for the first time recently has made him re evaluate some priorities, he tells John O’Dowd
The COVID-19 Pandemic has caused an awful lot of heartache in Ireland and throughout the world over the last couple of months.
Sadly, many people have lost their lives, many others are suffering in hospitals and care homes, while businesses have their doors bolted, and some may never re-open.
All the things that we took for granted in everyday life have been stopped in their tracks. The joy of meeting friends for a coffee, of having a sociable pint in the local pub, bringing your partner to a cinema or a concert, going to Sunday Mass, even getting a bloody haircut.
All gone. For now. Grandparents cannot see their grandkids, parents cannot hug their children, the over-70s have been virtual prisoners in their own homes.
And, of course, there has been no sport. There is some light at the end of the tunnel since Monday with golf courses and tennis courts dusting off the cobwebs. But, for GAA players like Dr Crokes' Brian Looney, the roadmap for the future return of Gaelic football is dotted with uncertainty and confusion.
Good job so that the 33-year-old Killarney man has a lot more on his plate at the moment than kicking a ball around...
Iris Looney is just over three months old. For Brian, and wife Gina, she is their little bundle of unadulterated joy that banishes the worries of the dreaded Coronavirus. Iris has no interest in any of that negativity. She is just happy being loved.
"Yeah, she is keeping us very busy alright! She was born at the start of February, so she's three months old now, she's beautiful," said the proud dad.
"Obviously, it's been a big change for us, but it's certainly all for the better. We are totally smitten! Iris is good fun, great craic, it's all very enjoyable. Having our first child certainly gives you a different perspective on life. It's a new chapter for me and Gina. It just shows you what is really important in life. We are so looking forward to watching her growing up. It's all very exciting."
Why the name Iris?
"We were originally thinking of having it as a possible middle name for her. It's not very common but, as soon as she arrived, the name just felt right, it suited her. We thought about it for a few hours, and it's perfect for her little personality."
Like everybody else, being in lockdown has caused suffering for the Looneys, especially Iris's grandparents Tom and Anne, and Brian's older brothers, David and Ian. They have been prevented over the last two months from getting to know the new member of the family as much as they would like.
"My parents live quite near, but we couldn't go and visit them or ask them over to us because of the restrictions. We've done the Zoom calls, and the video calls, with the young one, but it's not the same. That has been the most difficult aspect of the whole thing for us.
"My parents want to see their grandchild. But, hopefully from Monday, as the restrictions start to ease, it would be great to even meet at a distance, in the garden or wherever. We will look forward to that. That will be a little step back to a little piece of normality.
"But it's very important to say that we are very fortunate that Covid-19 has not come knocking on our doors. That is the main thing. Please God, we have an exciting couple of months ahead as all the family get to know Iris," stressed the retail manager with AIB in Tralee.
"In AIB, we have been fully open throughout the whole Covid situation and they have done a fantastic job of keeping the show on the road in difficult times. They're a great team and a pleasure to work with."
As regards getting back on the playing fields, Looney and his team mates haven't kicked a competitive ball in anger since their opening County League game against Dingle on March 8. And, as of now, there have been mixed messages from the Government and the GAA as to when club football might even make a tentative comeback.
When Taoiseach Leo Varadkar publicly announced the five-phase roadmap to the potential opening up of the country, June 8 was pin-pointed as the day when small groups from team sports could start training again, with social distancing protocols. And, even more encouragingly, that GAA matches (at least on a club level) could be back on July 20.
A few days later, that was all shot down by GAA President John Horan, who stated that pitches would remain closed and that there would not even be a training session permitted before that July date. He went even further on RTE's The Sunday Game when he categorically insisted that, until there is a vaccine for the virus, there will be no action at all.
To put it bluntly, the GAA player is now stuck in complete limbo.
"Yeah, it's a strange one," Looney says. "The roadmap indicating the likely steps out of the crisis was saying that there could be a bit of club football by August. Then John Horan's comments appeared to be pouring cold water on all of that. He is saying that, while there is social distancing, there will be no football. I think that he is right. We are mad to get back, but even if you stop 20 or so fellas from being in a dressing room together, there is always going to be close contact between 30 of us out on the field.
"We have to go by what the experts are saying. We might be in a completely different place in two months time. Social distancing right now, compared to social distancing in two months time? It could have completely changed. To be honest though, I am finding it increasingly hard to see any football being played for the rest of this year."
The Club Players Association has been extremely vocal in recent weeks over what they perceive to be the possibility of their members being used as potential 'guinea pigs' to get GAA activity up and running again in the coming months, before the sport is resumed at inter-county level.
Indeed, a poll of over 3,000 club players conducted by the CPA last week, revealed that only 58 per cent of those surveyed were willing, at this juncture, to return to training or playing with their club in the remainder of 2020. Nearly 22 per cent said no, while the others were unsure.
"The survey results indicate that a significant number of club players believe that until games are safe, they do not want to play. It presents a challenge for the future of the GAA but one we feel that as a community of players and members we can face and surmount together," said CPA chairman Micheal Briody.
Brian Looney was one of the 3,000 club players asked to voice his opinion for the poll.
"Yeah, while I participated in it, I have to say that I am a little bit on the fence. Based on the current circumstances, you could give one answer. Further down the line, in two months or whatever, you could give a different answer.
"I am in the category at this moment in time of not being sure what to do. Is it safe to go back right now? Probably not. That has to be taken into consideration.
"We all love the game, we want to play and because most of us players are young and healthy, there could be little implications for us personally if we were to pick up the virus. But there would be a possibility of spreading it to the people closest to you.
"That is the worrying thing about the whole situation at the moment. Of course, you feel it differently too when you've just had a new baby, and there are conflicting things being said about the virus' effect on children. But the reality is that you would want her nowhere near it. At all costs," stressed the experienced Dr Crokes attacker.
At the same time, Looney and his team mates have an unquenchable desire to try and right the wrongs of what turned out to be a heart-breaking 2019 for the Killarney club. They got to the All-Ireland Club Final, the senior club championship decider, the county senior championship final and the O'Donoghue Cup show-piece match. When all was said and done, they lost them all. There was no silverware in the cabinet at the end of the season.
"As individuals in the club, everybody wanted the opportunity to get another crack at winning championships this year. I'm not saying to set the record straight after last year, because obviously it was a disappointing season.
"One small nugget is that we did reach four finals but, of course, we didn't really perform on the day in any of them. These things happen in sport. We've had plenty of success, there were several teams knocking on the door in previous years, and they got their reward last year.
"We were hungry to get back, and then it was all cut short after one game. Hopefully, we can carry that hunger and ambition to the field whenever we do eventually get back."
Looney is also fully aware of the positive effects of sport on the mental health of the population, which is undoubtedly suffering in many different ways during the course of this pandemic.
"Absolutely, one hundred per cent. Mental health must be taken into consideration. It might not be the priority at the moment, but it's hugely important. The outlet that sports gives people cannot be taken for granted," Looney agrees.
"If you're having a bad day and you go training, it clears the head. It brings a lot of positivity back to any situation. It's more important for some people more than others. But if you look at a lot of professional sports people, when they retire they often endure a lot of difficulties with their mental health.
"There are huge benefits of exercise, the competitive games, the physical fitness it brings, the camaraderie of being with your team mates, the whole social side of being involved in sport.
"Once the virus is under control, a vaccine might be a couple of years away, but we have to find a way of making sport work. The bottom line then is that it will have to be optional. If anybody is uncomfortable with taking part again, then they won't have to."
All of that is for another day. Right now, Brian Looney's complete focus is on his three-month-old daughter brightening up his whole life. Gaelic football will just have to take a back seat for the moment.