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Miracle of winter wonderland has lifted national morale

Eamonn Sweeney


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The prospect is rendered even more thrilling by the novelty of the new schedule

The prospect is rendered even more thrilling by the novelty of the new schedule

SPORTSFILE

The prospect is rendered even more thrilling by the novelty of the new schedule

Now will the winter of our discontent be made glorious summer by these games in Cork. And Croke Park. And Thurles, Clones, Limerick, Portlaoise, Castlebar, Newbridge and a stadium near you.

They said it couldn't be done. It has been done. Or at least the draw for it has been made.

Nothing seemed to sum up the havoc wrought on the Irish summer by Covid-19 quite like the absence of the All-Ireland football and hurling championships, which for over a century have been the great harbinger of the season's beginning.

And nothing served to deepen the national collective gloom like the declaration just a few weeks back by GAA president John Horan that Gaelic games were inconceivable in the current circumstances.

So nothing, absolutely nothing, seems to sum up the suddenly hopeful national mood better than the GAA's new plan for the championships which not long ago seemed unlikely to ever take place. The revised draws and fixture list have an almost magical quality, like incantations.

Waterford versus Cork, Limerick taking on Clare, Wexford against Galway, the Rebels against the Kingdom, a Monaghan-Cavan derby, Tyrone meeting Donegal. The thought of them is as welcome and unexpected as a bottle of champagne would be to a man recently rescued from the desert. We're more excited than The Pointer Sisters.

The prospect is rendered even more thrilling by the novelty of the new schedule. Not only is the GAA hoping to lift our Covid-battered national morale, they've decided to simultaneously take on the fearsome opponent which is the Irish winter. Our least favourite season will be transformed from a dark and dreary endurance test to a garden of arcane delights.

November won't be a black pit of despair anymore, it'll be the month of six provincial deciders and two All-Ireland hurling semis. December will become a month-long Christmas with a hurling final on the 13th and the football final just six days later. As though tumbling from one of those chocolate-filled Advent calendars, the goodies will just keep coming.

These championships won't be shortening the winter as much as turning it into summer mark two. Why did no-one think of this before? A prophecy by Padre Pio popular in my childhood did say that one sign of the end times approaching would be that people wouldn't be able to tell the seasons apart anymore. But we'll probably be OK.

By deciding to shift the competitions to winter while ceding the summer to club action the GAA have made the right call. Their decision is motivated by the realisation that behind-closed-door championships is an inconceivable prospect.

The collective fantasies provoked by the fixture plan include not just teams going head to head but shouts from the stands and the display of colours on the terraces. No-one expects full houses but no-one wants empty ones either.

The restarted Premier League shows the pallid and unsatisfying nature of sport without fans. A behind-closed-doors GAA championship would probably seem even worse, given the uniquely powerful links between competition and community.

So while the prospect of a Covid-19 resurgence in winter might make rescheduling the championships look like a big gamble, it's not really. A Munster hurling or Connacht football final without fans would be more likely to depress than enliven the national mood. Better no championship at all than one like that.

Should Covid make a winter comeback, the new fixture plan will just have to join Guinness Light, electronic voting machines and the Bertie Bowl in the pantheon of great Irish ideas undone by reality.

For the moment we can dream. Yesterday afternoon I went into a shop I hadn't visited since the days before the lockdown. Just browsing the shelves was such a joy I had to tell the people behind the counter. "You know what I miss?" said one of them. "Going to a match. Getting the dinner early, rushing people out of the house, the whole lot of it. I'd give anything to be going to a match this weekend."

That feeling is general all over Ireland. For many people the championships are an integral part of what makes Irish life worth living. Hurling and football are not just games, they represent a whole way of life. A 2020 without them would leave a hole in the national soul, shaped perhaps like a sliotar or a pair of O'Neill's football shorts.

By telling us they intend to crown All-Ireland and provincial champions before the year is out, the GAA have made the decision to choose life in this desperate year of death. By doing so, they've already achieved one miracle.

All over the country this weekend, people have been saying something never previously uttered in Irish history. Roll on winter, I can't wait for November and December.

Only the GAA can do this.

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