IT’S not the nights that are the hardest for the GAA; it’s the weekends. For it’s at them that the Government come stealing to surprise them with a dig to the solar plexus.
On Friday, and for the third weekend in succession, they gave Croke Park officials reason to be incredulous.
After Minister for Health Simon Harris went on a solo run and said mass gatherings would be highly unlikely this year and Government sources spoke of inter-county players being tested to ensure their games go ahead, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar shocked the GAA again by suggesting on The Late, Late Show that the All-Ireland Championship could be played behind closed doors.
As presenter Ryan Tubridy was about to move his questioning on from the phase four date of July 20, Varadkar interrupted: “I suppose there is a possibility of an All-Ireland this year.
“Obviously, it’s a matter for the GAA but not with spectators but it could potentially be done without (spectators). I think it’s possible. You’d be talking sort of August and September (start), a later calendar than we’re used to…”
The behind closed doors remark didn’t appear to tally with the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business that Varadkar had launched only hours beforehand.
According to that, team league games in sports such as Gaelic Games and soccer can return the week beginning July 20 and be played in front of limited crowds observing social distancing.
As the document itself stresses, it is a living one and open to change.
There remains a large question mark of what distinguishes rugby as a contact sport from Gaelic football and hurling and there are a myriad of considerations for the GAA before they would dream of organising games for players.
But Varadkar’s words were yet another example of the mixed messages the Government have been sending the GAA who have been much more careful and consistent in their utterances.
Where the Government are more liable to offer false hope, by insisting there will be no return to play until it is safe to do so, Croke Park are at least saying there’s a chance of action this year without lending to speculation.
Watching Varadkar on Friday night, you couldn’t help but think he was either relieved to be avoiding a grilling, fatigued from what have undoubtedly been several months of gruelling governing between Brexit, an election that went awry, Covid-19 and forming a new Government or resigned to the fact he won’t be Taoiseach for too much longer (until his turn comes round again).
Perhaps it was a combination of two of the above or all three but his flippancy after delivering sternly from the rostrum earlier that evening rang hollow.
And yet his mentioning of the All-Ireland going ahead allied by a date being assigned to the return of Gaelic games offered light at the end of the tunnel.
As Wexford vice-chairman and fixtures review task force member Micheál Martin tweeted on Saturday, “The change of weather and the potential for live sport to be played this summer has brightened a lot of people’s mood today.”
Wexford hurling manager Davy Fitzgerald said his players were buoyed by Friday’s developments. Managers across the country would have registered the same enthusiasm from their panels.
The GAA should and probably do know that politicians are frivolous when it comes to engendering hope. They are used to not delivering on it.
However, there is a kernel in truth in what has been suggested by Government sources and Varadkar these past two weekends: bringing back the inter-county game is going to be considerably easier than the club. Providing a duty of care of 2,000 senior inter-county players could be done; ensuring the same for the 100,000 club players this summer or early autumn will be demonstrably difficult.
In the wake of the roadmap being released, the National Public Health Emergency Team have said they can’t sign off on contact sport until such time as a vaccine or treatment is in situ.
Reports that they are strongly being challenged by members of the cabinet on a range of issues wouldn’t be surprising when you hear such plans as rigorous testing regimes to bring back the inter-county game.
As the Irish Examiner reported on Saturday, the roadmap gave GAA chiefs some reason to cheer but that was before Varadkar’s behind-closed-doors comment.
After a chastening week where more wage cuts were revealed due to the lack of inter-county activity being forecasted for several months, the July 20 date offered solace to Central Council-contracted staff.
But the GAA must be growing tired of being the proverbial political football here. Hope is clearly a more precious commodity to them than it is to those who seem to be dangling Gaelic Games as a carrot at the end of the stick.
“When you hear it from me, that’’s a plan,” Varadkar declared soon after Harris’ mass gatherings claim. Sorry, Leo, but Friday didn’t sound like one. Best leave it to Mr Ryan and Mr Horan, eh?
News that The Sunday Game evening show will return as scheduled for what would have been the opening weekend of the Championship this Sunday is a welcome one.
We are screaming out for a semblance of normality and it will at least be provided with the theme tune every Sunday night at 9.30pm.
The content, alas, won’t. RTÉ pundits will be reviewing games of the past but we are very much of Slim Charles’ famous call to arms in The Wire: “If it’s a lie, then we fight on that lie. But we gotta fight.” A word of caution, though.
Yes, the only disease that should occupy our minds right now starts with the letter “c” and not ”n” as in nostalgia. But we can only look back and yet with repeated viewing (how many of the hurling revolution years’ games have been broadcasted, some more than once in recent weeks) the fondness for the bygone eras has mutated and the tendency to project modern standards on matches of the past is increasing.
As difficult as it is not to compare and contrast, it is also grossly unfair.
To be haughty or even derisory about what went for All-Ireland winning standards of yesteryear is to tread on hopes and dreams realised. At a time in this country when there is not much of either, it’s an exercise best avoided.
Not that RTÉ pundits are likely to show anything but respect to them but the games’ replaying will prompt some revisionism in the wider public.
Sure, take the advice of another character from The Wire, Bunk Moreland, and consider them with soft eyes but also accept them for what they were at the time: legendary.
Last week, this newspaper was one of a number of media outlets that highlighted a serious issue in the GAA’s season tickets terms and conditions.
The amount of attention brought to same and widespread prompted the GAA to inform holders that they would either be partially refunded or receive a discount on their 2021 subscription in the event that the remainder of the 2020 inter-county season is abandoned.
Let’s hope they don’t have to fork out that money - some of it has already been spent - but any sense of being a force for good was knocked out of us a day later when it was reported that there were to be more major wage cuts for the 500 or so Central Council-contracted staff in the GAA.
It can be strongly argued that the two stories are mutually exclusive, that the GAA should be making its money in a fairer and more transparent way, that changing the terms and conditions without notifying season ticket holders was tantamount to sharp practice, but it sure didn’t feel that way.
Also, €75 of each €120 season ticket is retained by Central Council.
Few if anybody is escaping the ramifications of this crisis and the level of the reductions to wages in the GAA have been colossal.
The 30% and 40% reductions to gross pay in June due to the lack of inter-county activity cruelly corroborate GAA director general Tom Ryan’s statement at the start of April that “all we have is matches.” May such suffering be short-lived.