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Small steps then a giant leap into the unknown - GAA clubs prepare for new normal


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‘Na Fianna is one of the country’s biggest clubs, with 184 teams. With limited space at Mobhi Road, they use 17 different venues within a five-mile radius for training and matches.’Photo: Frank McGrath

‘Na Fianna is one of the country’s biggest clubs, with 184 teams. With limited space at Mobhi Road, they use 17 different venues within a five-mile radius for training and matches.’Photo: Frank McGrath

‘Na Fianna is one of the country’s biggest clubs, with 184 teams. With limited space at Mobhi Road, they use 17 different venues within a five-mile radius for training and matches.’Photo: Frank McGrath

On Thursday evening, the Na Fianna senior hurlers returned to train together on Mobhi Road for the first time since March. Two groups, observing the non-contact dictates and adhering to the upper numbers limit of 15, took half of the pitch each and off they flew like birds freed from captivity. Ah, the simple pleasures of striking a ball and being back on your home pitch again. Maybe it dawned on them how much they take for granted.

All over the country, clubs of all sizes and persuasions gratefully seized the opportunity presented to them when the GAA brought forward the date of return for adult teams to June 24. From tomorrow, all teams will be back in full contact training but the business of monitoring and recording personal health details, the maintenance of attendance figures, and the sanitising protocols will stay in place.

It hasn't all been a smooth sail. The online link containing the health questionnaire that each mentor and player needs to complete before training only became available on Tuesday, a day ahead of the return date. There were teething difficulties with the app and clubs had to resort to the old paper format, where players or mentors simply could not deliver results online. From tomorrow, challenge matches are allowed but many clubs have asked their members for a week's grace, before facing the added complications of hosting a team from another parish.

Dublin announced its fixtures on Thursday, with the format for the senior football and hurling championships remaining the same and only minor tweaks to the structures applying to the lower tiers. The hurling championship will start in three weeks, the football arriving a week later. The absence of promotion and relegation has been a bone of contention, devaluing competition, but there is a broad welcome for the return of championships which will see teams get at least three games.

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Na Fianna senior hurling manager Niall Ó Ceallacháin takes training for the first time since lockdown. Photo:Frank McGrath

Na Fianna senior hurling manager Niall Ó Ceallacháin takes training for the first time since lockdown. Photo:Frank McGrath

Na Fianna senior hurling manager Niall Ó Ceallacháin takes training for the first time since lockdown. Photo:Frank McGrath

Na Fianna is one of the country's biggest clubs, with 184 teams. With limited space at Mobhi Road, they use 17 different venues within a five-mile radius for training and matches. Their football team returned to training on Wednesday, leading the way for the cavalry charge which will hit the club from tomorrow.

Their chairman, Cormac Ó Donnchú, held an online meeting last Monday to put the final preparations in place. "There were two key lead points," he says. "First of all, that it is a public health issue, and that we have to understand that that is the reason we're doing it. And the second one is that from a club point of view our primary focus now above and beyond anything else is to ensure that we retain as many players as we can. We want everybody back. We had a clarion call to our members, especially across our juvenile age groups, to make every effort that we don't lose any players through the net."

Na Fianna, the club of the GAA president John Horan, has felt the lockdown financially and been forced to lay off staff. "The financial implications for grassroots clubs are pretty catastrophic," says ó Donnchú. "As well as managing this lockdown and trying to keep engagement with our members, we as volunteers have to deal with the financial implications of the complete cessation of our revenue. We approximately generate €83,000 worth of revenue a month and we spend €83,000 a month; we don't build cash reserves. Those revenues come from a combination of our membership fees, contributions from social enterprises we work with, various sources, and all of that revenue on March 12 stopped. As a result, we have to implement a range of cost-cutting measures which included, unfortunately, letting the only staff members we had go. That would have been difficult in any situation, the emotional side of it, but in the circumstances it was even more so."

Excluding their GPO, the club employed two people full-time and two part-time. The chairman says they are hoping to have some flexibility shown by the governing bodies, that includes the GAA, Ladies Football Association and Camogie Association, in terms of the charging of fees.

"We have requests for registration fees and competition fees. Now Dublin County Board, thankfully, are in the process of making an accommodation on fees for this year. We have discussions with the Ladies Football Association around fees. We pay out €142,000 to all governing bodies per year, covering insurance, player injury, competition fees. We have paid a considerable percentage of it, not sure the exact figure.

"We are hopeful. We have no word at all from the Camogie Association, we have no idea what their stance is, but at the moment they are maintaining that their fees are due in full despite the lack of activity but we are hopeful that there might be some allowances made."

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Rathmore is a third of a parish straddling the Kerry-Cork border, home of county players Paul Murphy and Shane Ryan, and a number of players who earned distinction in the past: Aidan O'Mahony, Tom O'Sullivan, Din Joe Crowley. After 20 years as a senior club they were relegated to intermediate last year. Paul Murphy's father, Donal, is a former chairman and current member of the club's executive as well as being a delegate to the county board.

As a vet, his working life hasn't been profoundly changed by the recent lockdown. But the GAA world virtually ceased, as unnatural to the people in his part of Kerry as a flower eschewing the sun. "Players were doing a certain amount on Zoom and social media, skill challenges and fun things and all that," he says. "From a club point of view everything stopped."

In order to maintain a continuity of sorts, Murphy delved into a store of old photographs he kept at home and put them on Twitter almost daily.

"That has been good in that a lot of people saw photographs they hadn't seen before. We had online club quizzes on Twitter as well, there was all that going on. And a few weeks ago when players could meet in 15s, our senior team started training in the convent field in the local school, again doing everything by the book."

The local pitch re-opened for the senior football team to train on Wednesday, which felt like an occasion in itself. A first draft of fixtures had been proposed by then. Club fixtures nationally can start from July 17, with inter-county competition down to start on October 17. Inter-county training has been given an official return date of September 14. But county teams are back training and that creates potential conflict.

"It is going to be a busy time," admits Murphy. He says Rathmore would have preferred if the club championship would have been completed in its entirety before the county championship in Kerry.

"But, like, I was at two Zoom county board meetings and every club has their own agenda - one club was asking questions about whether they were going to be compensated for all this hand gel. Everyone is exercised by something different. From Kerry CCC's point of view, to bring forward a set of fixtures that is going to please everybody is impossible."

Murphy knows that his son, Paul, faces a busy schedule. "I think the county player is going to suffer in Kerry because there are so many club competitions. You have three rounds of club championship first and then the county championships, and then back to the club championships for the final stages and then straight into the county. So the poor county player is going to be really 'flahed'.

"Players have to manage their load. If you are looking at the Bundesliga after the first four weeks the number of injuries was up threefold on what it normally would be after a normal pre-season. So there are a lot of things to concern an inter-county manager now on top of having all these ex-players roaring and balling about making sure that the county managers don't have them during the club months."

Already there are reports of clubs coming under pressure from county managers to release players to train, even though the GAA has indicated its desire to avoid any interference. The GPA has asked that the players' injury scheme cover county training before September 14, unhappy with the lead-in time to competition. It has placed a spotlight on county board officers, and provided an interesting study in the county board-county manager dynamic.

"The loser in all of this is the county player," argues Donal Murphy. "Because he has to be everything to everyone. In some counties you have the whole dual player thing as well."

But the overwhelming feeling is one of joy to be reclaiming something lost. "It could be a nightmare trying to make it all fit but it's better than where we were a few weeks ago," says Murphy. "It wasn't that long since you had experts calling on the GAA to scrap the year.

"Then when you see Novak Djokovic (linked to a series of positive Covid-19 results after organising an unsanctioned tennis tournament), and what's happening in Germany, you could have little outbursts of it again and a local area here could be closed down and that could affect fixtures. But at this point in time I am extremely glad to have games to look forward to again.

"I suppose we always knew how important football was in this part of the country, but it is only since you stopped playing that you really realise how important it is. I got sick of watching the old games."

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Cremartin is a small club with a mid-range intermediate football team, located between Castleblayney and Clontibret. On Wednesday the adult football team returned to non-contact training. The club also has a reserve adult football side, while the ladies footballers are joined with Clontibret. Local hurlers are accommodated in neighbouring clubs. Cremartin no longer has a camogie team.

In the case of a small club like this there are certain advantages over the behemoths. They don't have a large number of teams to cater for and the playing pool isn't deep.

"We have two pitches and a small training area as well so we have ample room to break up the groups as needed," explains Declan Flanagan, the club's development officer. Usefully, he is an experienced administrator, having served on the GAA's Management Committee, and he currently sits on the GAA's national Health and Safety Committee.

"We did push the boat out a bit," he says, "we put up a load of sanitisers around the place. We intend to follow the guidelines as much as we can. We have had no major problem with it. We are breaking our facilities into zones and if we have three teams we can handle three teams.

"In a small club, especially at a juvenile level, a team might only be 14 players, whereas in an urban area, a juvenile team could have 40 players. We don't have that problem. I don't find any major challenge to it so far. When the contact comes back into it now and we start playing games that is an unknown area for everyone at the minute.

"We have put in place a system in Monaghan for our championship, where again the size of the county lends itself to doing things that maybe bigger counties can't do as easily; we have just 10 teams at senior, intermediate and junior level. Rounds of five and round-robin type championship . . . that is still to be rubber-stamped but it is accepted by the clubs that it is going happen."

On Wednesday night when the gates re-opened for the first time since the March lockdown, the club secretary was present at the entrance ticking off the players and mentors heading into training. "She told me after the last one went in that every single one had the e-learning course done and their health questionnaire," says Flanagan.

"Which was good to see, because it is an unknown territory for everyone. We've had only one night training, but at the moment everyone is just happy to be back."

He jokes that he might not make interesting reading because their systems are working so well. "Being smaller you find that the chairman of the club or the secretary, or anyone who is promoting good practice on safety, they will be listened to more in a smaller club. We find that anyway. We have been promoting the safety for the last number of years. Every meeting it is on the agenda."

Flanagan was a prominent figure in driving the Safe Club Initiative, launched two years ago in Monaghan and now being spread across other counties in Ulster before going countrywide. The scheme encourages clubs to take a proactive approach towards health, safety and insurance issues.

Flanagan, also current vice-chairman of Monaghan County Board, isn't complacent about the risks of a resurgence of the coronavirus, but remains upbeat about the GAA's approach to managing the crisis.

"Everyone has the fear of the possibility of a spike coming later on in the autumn but, look it, if you are afraid of the dark you will never go outside."

In Na Fianna, Cormac Ó Donnchú notes that the next eight weeks are likely to be the busiest in the Association's history with all codes piling in at the one time.

"All will want to be playing their premier competitions at a similar time. So the pressure that that places upon facilities and resources is phenomenal."

In the past at various times communication and co-operation between the camogie and ladies football associations has been poor or non-existent in Dublin, leaving clubs to carry the can and dual players facing senseless fixture schedules. ó Donnchú has urged both governing bodies to sit down and work out a plan that is mature and player-centred.

With juveniles and adult competition returning at the same time, and a variety of sports competing for space and attention, there is more than a sense of blind optimism guiding all involved. At the moment any reservations are being flattened in the stampede back to grounds across the country.

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