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Armagh final shows GAA can expect crowds to fuel belief and relief

Donnchadh Boyle


Occasion wasn't perfect but it offered glimpse of way forward

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Crossmaglen and Maghery teams parade behind the band prior to the Armagh SFC at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

Crossmaglen and Maghery teams parade behind the band prior to the Armagh SFC at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Crossmaglen and Maghery teams parade behind the band prior to the Armagh SFC at the Athletic Grounds on Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

In Armagh on Sunday, there was perhaps a glimpse of the future and what might lie around the corner for sport in this country.

There was a football match with crowds. An occasion as opposed to just a game. All of the things we had previously come to take for granted were on show.

There was the pre-match walk up to the ground. A crowd shuffled in, as allowed by regulations in the north. A band led the players around the field for the pre-match parade.

Even the sun shone as Maghery took on Crossmaglen.

In the Athletic Grounds they managed to mix the demands of the new normal with the expectations that come with a county final. And the result was what has become the most precious of things - a championship feel.

News that sport is likely to be handed a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of attendances with the publication of Government's 'Living with Covid' plan is welcome.

But while most things in this pandemic are unknown, officials on this side of the border have had an effective example of how sport could work in the new world in the north.

Hosting

Back in July, Stormont directed that supporters could attend outdoor events "where the operator can control access and ensure adherence to social distancing", effectively handing control to the body hosting the event.

From there, the Ulster Council made the decision to allow up to 400 to attend a match. There's anecdotal evidence that the various restrictions - on both sides of the border - have been flouted.

Only one side of the Athletic Grounds was open on Sunday, and sitting in the middle of the stand it was hard to get a feel for exactly how many were there.

If there were more than 400 then there were plenty of empty seats too. For the most part there was space between groupings. It felt safe.

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Kevin Robinson celebrates with Maghery supporters. Photo: Sportsfile

Kevin Robinson celebrates with Maghery supporters. Photo: Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Kevin Robinson celebrates with Maghery supporters. Photo: Sportsfile

 

Precautions were in place. Officials wore masks. The media were accommodated outside in the main stand rather than in their usual posting indoors at the back of the stand. Hand sanitising stations were visible everywhere. Over the PA system, there were constant reminders about social distancing and why it was important supporters didn't enter the pitch on the final whistle.

And for the most part those instructions were obeyed. At the final whistle, there were a couple of shooters from the stand, and a handful of Maghery players greeted family and friends who stayed behind the fence.

But overall there was an understanding that the restrictions in place were there for a reason. The trophy presentation was made on a hastily-built stage on the pitch.

Maghery captain David Lavery thanked his side's supporters for staying behind the fence and told them they'd "be together soon". When the formalities were over, the vanquished Cross' side made their exit on the far side of the pitch.

You couldn't claim that everyone was socially distanced all of the time - that's probably unrealistic in any setting - but huge efforts were made and people were generally compliant. As an event in these Covid times, it must have been deemed a success.

As a football match too, it was brilliant. Rian O'Neill is an exceptional talent. At times he played the final like the dominant child at U-14.

He was catching ball, carrying it, finding passes and kicking scores and he was ably assisted by his brother Oisín. They will become much better known to the country at large as time passes.

Maghery had the ability to deliver gut punches at the right time to win just their second title and to spark great scenes.

It was a great game made better by the presence of a crowd and the atmosphere they brought. It was a reminder of what we had been missing. And it left us wanting more.

So far the GAA have kept their counsel on what might be coming down the tracks for them in terms of attendances in the south. Having been burned before, they won't be making any assumptions.

They were caught unawares in the past. It was widely expected that the limit on outdoor events would move from 200 to 500 last month.

Instead, Government guidance decreed that sport should go behind closed doors.

GAA staff had seen their earnings cut by up to 40 per cent and around that time, and in the expectation that crowd limits would be eased, Croke Park chiefs were exploring the possibility of restoring some of that pay. Those plans had to be shelved.

Having been left outside the tent, the GAA issued a barbed statement where they requested a meeting with the acting chief medical officer Ronan Glynn and a look at the evidence backing up the decision. In GAA terms, it was as inflammatory a statement as you are likely to see.

Now it seems they will be given some breathing space with regards to crowds, depending on the number of cases at any given time.

If we are planning to live with Covid, then sport - for both the players and the public - has to be at the heart of that. Sunday in Armagh wasn't perfect but it showed how it can work.

And it also showed why the occasion is as important as the game.

Irish Independent