It’s fair to say GAA director Tom Ryan gets it. He gets the frustration at pitches being closed. He gets the disappointment. He also gets the fear about the return of action among players and supporters.
All those conflictions he articulated in this newspaper on Saturday. His understandable reluctance to expand on the difficulty he faced in endorsing the swingeing wage cuts for Central Council-contracted staff underlined how difficult it was for him.
From yesterday, those earning over €38,000 will have their monthly wage decreased by 40%, those earning between €24,400 and €34,000 30%. And that’s despite the GAA availing of the Government wage subsidy scheme.
Ryan was more than a steady hand at the tiller during the economic crisis and working with current director of finance Ger Mulryan they are in full crisis mode to protect the organisation’s finances but jobs too. It would be too easy to consider Ryan as merely a man of numbers.
He would be acutely aware of his background and how he may be perceived. Not that he should have to apologise for it but in Saturday’s interview he made it abundantly clear the GAA’s difficulty right now extends far beyond balance sheets.
Because it’s the inter-county game that funds the vast majority of wage slips in the GAA, you might think Ryan would be promoting the return of the All-Ireland championships later this summer but he knows it’s not that simple. The pain for employees will extend beyond this month and possibly become more excruciating in the coming months.
Ryan “fervently hopes” that games return soon. The GAA hope that it’s the club scene that ushers in the resumption of organised activity. For all the obvious and genuine reasons.
But they can’t say for certain that it will be they who are out of the blocks first. Their programme will be dictated by the advisory group.
As much as there is talk of the club championships being pencilled in for August and September and inter-county championships for October and November, best-laid plans have never been more liable to go awry than now.
Ryan was more equivocal about clubs resuming action ahead of county as GAA president John Horan has been in previous weeks. With good reason. County first, because of the smaller number of players involved, is a safer option.
As Ryan intimated, the GAA can only declare it’s back when clubs are back playing but the logistics may dictate that will be a later phase in the organisation’s return to safe protocol.
If that’s what the medical experts recommend, then the PR battle the GAA would face in literally putting county ahead of club mightn’t be as difficult. All the same, it will be a challenge.
As much as information like that provided by the Club Players Association indicates a reluctance among a sizeable cohort to come back later this summer, the club player feels disenfranchised enough already to be put in second place once more.
On the basis of information they have received from their county officials and fellow countymen on high-powered GAA committees that October remains the start date for the Championship, some counties have returned to training in pods on pitches not owned by the organisation. Over four full months out from a pencilled-in beginning and they are preparing.
They know the risks involved but keeping players active and engaged is as vital as it is to be thinking that they are ahead of the pack. Focused athletes as they are, inter-county players can’t be expected just to switch off. The sad reality is they are being deprived of what defines many of them.
The sadder reality is if a team with genuine All-Ireland aspirations isn’t already mobilised, they are already playing catch-up.
October seems a long way off and yet the All-Irelands could be staged even earlier if it’s deemed the county game is initially more manageable to organise than club. In that case, the managers who took a punt by orchestrating training at the outset of phase one of the Government’s roadmap will have paid off.
Put yourself in the shoes of a manager. If you’re a good one, you’ll be thinking that if the Championship is going to be knock-out or two bites of the cherry, having an edge over the competition will never be as important.
If you’re a better one, you will know your players inside-out and appreciate routine, exercise and guidance is what so many of them crave for and what a minority, quite frankly, need.
As more and more professional sport returns in the coming weeks, there will be more agitation in the GAA to get things going. The battle for hearts and minds doesn’t discriminate between those who are paid and those who are not nor where the sport is played.
The GAA, by refusing to give up on Cúl Camps as Ryan highlighted last week, knows that only too well.
They don’t want to be left behind. Neither does any inter-county manager.
The message from GAA president John Horan last week for the organisation to stick together was an interesting one.
“There are parts of Ireland where the outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus is very low and people may well feel safe there,” he acknowledged.
“But overall, it’s across the Association, we have to stay in this together and the big challenges are probably more in urban areas, and I do understand that and I do get a feel for the frustration and people are contacting me about that frustration, but we have to make safe and prudent decisions going forward.”
It’s understandable that Horan would make such a plea at a time when large swathes of the country have been coronavirus-free for several days and are wondering why in the hell their GAA fields are not open.
The pitch in many rural places is the only place where people can exercise and up to yesterday there had been no new coronavirus cases in Sligo for 15 days, Kerry for 12, Wexford for 11 and Donegal for 11.
Contrast that lack of options to urban areas where Gaelic football and hurling can be played recreationally on public park pitches.
Horan rightly pointed out the Government have made no differentiation between regions but particularly in the case of the GAA their chances of speeding up their return to activities are only as strong as their weakest link.
As crazy as that seems, it’s the likes of Dublin right now.
This hiatus has prompted some healthy debate but then some old chestnuts have reappeared such as a Team Ulster in hurling.
An amalgamation proposed by Dónal Óg Cusack and backed by former GAA director general Páraic Duffy, it was raised again by Down manager Ronan Sheehan, who is also on the GAA’s fixtures taskforce as a GPA representative.
“By all means approach Antrim and leave the door open for them, but they may decide it is of no interest to them,” Sheehan said.
“They are working hard on the Gaelfast project and link up well with Club Aontrama, so they may have no interest in this. But that doesn’t mean Team Ulster couldn’t be formed anyway.”
There might be an argument in that but without Antrim at what level would a combined rest of Ulster team expect to be play?
The best they could hope for would be the McDonagh Cup, which Down were close to reaching last year and where the Saffrons are currently situated so would a provincial team make any tangible difference?
Without Antrim, the idea is half-baked and it would be entirely understandable if, as Sheehan appears to suggest, they were to decline the idea given they had been on the cusp of a return to Division 1 hurling before the lockdown.
Their domination of the Ulster Championship was deemed so strong that the competition was axed from last year after the county claimed the title for the 17th year in succession.
Antrim would dominate any Ulster team so much that they might wonder what was the point of doing something they could likely well enough on their own.
As Sambo McNaughton said seven years ago: “If this Team Ulster idea was to happen, it would lead to counties losing their identities and that would be a disaster for the GAA.”