Yesterday the GAA belatedly caught up with what’s happening at grass-roots level by authorising the reopening of its pitches from this coming Wednesday.
On the ground virtually every club team in the country had resumed training in the last few weeks.
So, too, are a number of county squads – though they’re being a bit more discreet, with small groups training in pods at different venues.
I’ve witnessed it personally. On a drive around Kerry last weekend I visited two beaches.
One was hosting a club football training session, while there was a hurling team training on the other
Elsewhere, players are training in forests, bogs, hill walks, beaches and flat fields hidden from public view.
Anecdotally, there is evidence that these clandestine training sessions are happening more frequently in clubs that are managed by outsiders.
I wonder why? I guess it’s a case of no gig, no pay!
So what harm were they doing? The stark reality is that the players were taking huge risks, because they are not covered by GAA insurance until official action resumes.
Who would have footed the medical bill if a player had got seriously injured at one of these clandestine training sessions?
Even though the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) gave the green light for pitches to reopen weeks ago, the GAA opted not to do so.
This was a poor decision which has had an adverse impact on rural clubs in particular. In many cases, the GAA pitch is the only outdoor recreational facility in rural parishes.
The GAA’s stance was all the more farcical given the low number of new cases of the virus in rural counties.
Meanwhile, in the real world, there are long queues outside department stores, while unsupervised parties are taking place nightly on beaches and in public parks.
So yesterday’s decision to finally open up all GAA pitches for adult training from next Wednesday was long overdue.
Overall, the GAA still faces huge challenges in the months ahead as they attempt to implement their revised fixtures schedule.
When games resume it will be in an entirely new, and somewhat alien, environment.
They must plan for the ‘new normal’ and there is no template to follow. But as I wrote a few weeks ago, these challenges provide opportunities which the GAA needs to embrace.
A bit of thinking outside the box is what’s called for.
Everybody will have to make sacrifices, difficult decisions must be taken – which by their nature won’t please everyone.
Allowances must be made, too, for players who want to opt out this year.
After all, they’re amateurs.
As with the formation of the new government, we must substitute idealism with pragmatism.
In no particular order, the biggest challenges facing the GAA right now are 1) county fixtures, 2) club fixtures and 3) the financial shortfall.
1. County fixtures
The decision of the outgoing government to exit the lockdown early gives the GAA extra time to complete their fixtures. But it looks like John Horan and his colleagues have again opted for the safety-first approch. This was an ideal opportunity for the GAA to be innovative. They ought to have scrapped the provincial football series and had a once-off All-Ireland based on the Champions League format, with counties being drawn into eight groups of four.
Each county would be guaranteed three games with the eight group winners advancing to the knockout phase of the Championship.
But, with the provincial draws already made, the odds are that the GAA will play the provincial championships.
Seeing as club games can now resume from July 17 there is no longer any valid excuse for not retaining the back door in football. I don’t see why the GAA didn’t also opt to restart inter -county competition two weeks earlier on October 3.
As ex-GAA president Nickey Brennan suggested, the GAA ought to look outside the box in terms of fixtures – the possibility of playing games under lights on Friday nights and, perhaps, midweek should be explored.
But I’m all for the idea of playing the All-Ireland football final on the weekend before Christmas.
After all, the provincial rugby teams attract their biggest attendances for their PRO14 local derbies over the Christmas holiday period, even though they generally field second-string teams in those games
Hopefully by then the restrictions on the size of outdoor crowds will have been eased further.
2. Club fixtures
At first glance clubs look to have secured a super deal from the new schedule, with a designated 13-week window to complete their championships.
But it’s not as simple as that. For starters, there is a four-week overlap between the designated club season and when county teams are officially allowed back training.
Here’s a prediction: if this overlap period stays in place, sightings of county players at club training sessions will be as rare as the appearance of the corncrake in rural Ireland.
Even without the overwhelming presence of Big Brother in the guise of their county managers, county boards in dual counties face a struggle to get their championships squeezed into this time frame.
What about counties such as
Kerry and Cork, who allow divisional or district teams compete in their county championship?
It will be a logistical nightmare. For example, if South Kerry were drawn to play East Kerry in the county championship it would involve players from 15 different clubs, all of which have their own fixtures schedule to fulfil in other competitions. Granted, a one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t work. But it is striking to note the different approaches counties are taking to this unprecedented situation.
Derry deserve commendation, for example, for running their championship on a group format. There are four groups each consisting of four teams. Teams will have one home game, one away game and one at a neutral venue.
The club will be allowed retain the gate receipts from the home game, which will provide them with a vital financial lifeline.
Other counties such as Meath and Kerry are retaining a round-robin format. But Down, Tyrone and Armagh are proposing a straight knockout championship, so teams are guaranteed just one game.
Other counties are attempting to squeeze the championship into an impossibly tight time frame.
In the wake of the GAA’s announcement yesterday that club activity can now resume two weeks earlier than originally scheduled there is no valid reason why county boards cannot allow ample time for club competitions.
Otherwise, I foresee absolute mayhem in the months ahead. Ironically, just as civil-war politics come to an end in Ireland, a GAA version will break out across the country this autumn.
Yet again the club players will be the most abused species on the planet, in order to accede to the demands of a tiny elite.
Realistically there is little chance that county boards will resist attempts by their county team managers to circumvent the rules. The GAA Management Committee simply cannot sit on their hands and allow this to happen.
The GAA revenue streams will take a hammering in both the short and medium term, with reduced gate receipts and revenue from TV deals.
But in the longer term, counties could struggle to secure sponsorship deals due to the economic downturn.
Dublin (AIG), Kerry (Kerry Group), Cork (Chill Insurance), Kilkenny (Glanbia) and Tipperary (Teneo) are probably secure, but I wouldn’t be too hopeful about a lot of the other deals.
The live streaming of club championship games in a pay-for-view deal ought be explored. But it’s not all bad news. The GAA has emerged from the pandemic with an enhanced reputation because of the extraordinary community work its members did during the lockdown.
Forget all this baloney about ‘This is Rugby Country’.
The GAA is by far the most influential national organisation in the country, although the GAA brand is woefully undersold.
Maybe the Dublin 4 advertising and ‘morketing’ gurus might finally realise just how valuable a commodity the GAA brand is nationally, and spend their marketing budgets on the round rather than the oval-ball game.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis, we knew that the spend on county training was not sustainable.
Tipperary, Mayo, Galway, Dublin, Cork, Kerry and Limerick spent more €1m each on training last year, while Armagh, Donegal, Tyrone, Donegal and Wexford just fell short of that figure.
It’s crazy stuff and just has to stop. So we need a shorter defined playing season, a shorter defined training season and a cap on spending.
In the ‘new normal’ things will have to done differently.
Jurgen Klopp can remember the times when he heard the suggestions that refused to go away for a while about 2019-2020 potentially being the null and void season, although the pragmatist in him knew that for the game to save itself financially, it had to find a way through the Covid-19 crisis.