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'It's not the end of world if U20 championship isn't completed' - Dublin boss Tom Gray

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Dublin manager Tom Gray in Croke Park at the EirGrid U20 Football All-Ireland Final preview at Croke Park last July. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Dublin manager Tom Gray in Croke Park at the EirGrid U20 Football All-Ireland Final preview at Croke Park last July. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Dublin manager Tom Gray in Croke Park at the EirGrid U20 Football All-Ireland Final preview at Croke Park last July. Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

On the Wednesday night of March 11, Tom Gray spent several hours immersed in preparations for Dublin's EirGrid All-Ireland Under-20 football semi-final against Tyrone, fixed for Croke Park six days later.

The following morning, Leo Varadkar addressed the nation from Washington… and now Gray has no idea when, where or even if that showdown with Tyrone will ever take place.

It goes without saying that Dublin's U20 boss would love it to eventually happen, but Covid-19 has gate-crashed life as we know it and brought perspective into everyone’s lives, including those involved at the inter-county coalface.

His 25-year-old son has severe intellectual disability with autism and is in full-time care. This global pandemic has immediate implications for those looking after Donal – to his father, they are the forgotten frontline heroes.

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Like so many others, Gray's day job has also been impacted negatively. He is chief operating officer with Excellence Ltd, a food distribution company based in Baldoyle; this has been a far bigger focus than U20 football over the last few weeks.

"Business is down substantially," he says. "The long-term impact on the economy is something that we'd be concerned about… it's a challenge, but we'll meet it face on."

Likewise, the coronavirus crisis and the Government actions that inevitably followed have created a whole new set of challenges for those looking after the most vulnerable.

Donal is based in Stewarts Care, Palmerstown (Dublin star Dean Rock is their fundraising and communications manager).

While keen to salute the health service for its "fantastic job on the frontline", Gray believes the carers for children with special needs and disabilities are "sometimes forgotten".

"To manage a child or an adult with an intellectual disability, he's autistic – he's a serious challenge at the best of times. In these times, where their routines have been upended, it's extremely difficult," he explains.

"So you can only say what a great group of people they are… they do a fantastic job. The pressure on those folks, in these times, is multiplied tenfold."

Thankfully, despite the latest ramping-up of Government restrictions, the Grays can still bring Donal three out times a week as part of his care programme.

Invariably, those excursions used to entail a Sunday GAA match and all the adventure that goes with that. Sadly, for the time being, that match-day routine has been parked.

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Dublin players celebrate with the cup following the EirGrid Leinster GAA Football U20 Championship Final win over Laois at Netwatch Cullen Park in Carlow on March 6 last. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Dublin players celebrate with the cup following the EirGrid Leinster GAA Football U20 Championship Final win over Laois at Netwatch Cullen Park in Carlow on March 6 last. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Dublin players celebrate with the cup following the EirGrid Leinster GAA Football U20 Championship Final win over Laois at Netwatch Cullen Park in Carlow on March 6 last. Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Likewise for the Dublin U-20s, who retained their Leinster crown with a 10-point win over Laois, their fourth consecutive double-digit victory.

The chance to line out in Croke Park would have been an added bonus: their manager reckons that only Ciarán Archer (as a sub at minor), Lee Gannon and Luke Swan (at U-17 hurling) would have previously played there.

Asked if he believes the GAA will be able to complete the U-20 championship, the Na Fianna clubman admits: "I just don't know … I very much hope they do.

"I'm sure there'll be wider considerations both from a public health point of view and from the GAA's point of view. So, we'll just have to take it on the chin whatever is decided."

The irony is that this enforced hibernation comes straight after the fixture madness of January and February.

In the aftermath of Dublin’s Leinster semi-final win over Meath, their manager branded the decision to bring forward the U-20 championship to spring as "myopic" and an "absolute disgrace".

"Maybe the absolute disgrace comment was a bit over the top," he now clarifies.

"But in relation to moving the competition from the summer to the early spring, there is literally no justification for it.

"I'm very much aware that the GAA fixture schedule is difficult to manage at the best of times, but to move the competition from where it was in the calendar made things worse on every level."

He cites a litany of reasons: clashing with mock Leaving Cert exams and third-level freshers competition, even the travel burden placed on college students. To compound matters, it merely added to the GAA's fixtures logjam.

"Somebody else can do the maths on it but, if you look at the overall GAA fixture list, I don't know the exact number of games that are played from January 1 March 31, but it's enormous in terms of what's played from May 1 to the July 31.

"It's a different world in terms of the number of games. Like, that isn’t logical. And, by the way, I'd be the first one to say that it's quite a complex thing to improve," he stresses.

"My argument was that to move (the U-20) from where it was to where they brought it made things vastly worse."

A GAA man with several strings to his bow, Gray is also on the board of directors of Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

"John Horan (the GAA president) is a very good friend of mine and he asked me to help out," he explains, keen to avoid delving too deeply into that Leeside imbroglio.

That challenge can wait. So too, for now, can the U-20 championship.

"The most important thing is the country gets back on its feet as soon as possible. If completing the U-20 championship is part of that, great. If not, it's not the end of the world."

Online Editors