No small amount of work was put into the GAA’s return to safe play roadmap. It’s estimated that its Covid-19 advisory group analysed between 40 to 50 protocols from other sports before devising their own.
That’s not to say they are some issues with the plan. Might the GAA have held off on releasing the roadmap until yesterday when they had signed off on it last Thursday evening prior to the Government accelerating its own path out of the lockdown? It was suggested by one GAA official that all the Government did was remove phase five but that is an over-simplistic view and GAA president John Horan indicated that they may have to speed up their own timeline to keep up with the country.
Clubs may have been given 11 weeks but throwing them back into competitive action on July 31, 11 days after they have been given the go-ahead to return to contact training, is asking a lot. The demands of the inter-county virtually ended the dual player at that level and those at club will feel the pinch as a result of the concentrated period.
And then there is the overlap between the business end of the club period and the start of official inter-county training. It could turn out to be a real tug-of-war between club and county managers between September 14 and October 11. No club manager preparing for a county semi-final or final is going to accept a county manager pushing players hard the week of those games.
At the same time, are county managers going to sit and wait until September 14? It wouldn’t be in their making to do so and who could blame them if the Championship is knock-out and the stakes on opening day so high. Will county training sessions be policed or will it expected that lack of funds for training alone will be a deterrent? We all know how the winter training moratorium has been abused since it came into force 10 years ago. There are several anecdotes about one county team flying high in this year’s National League returning to training well before their permitted start date last winter. Hell, even the GAA make exceptions now to contravene it themselves (eg Super 11s, Wild Geese Trophy).
On Friday, GAA director of club, players and games administration Feargal McGill insisted that the start date was realistic although he said he didn’t expect county managers to be happy about it. “On any terms, if you’re given a full month to prepare a team, that’s absolutely plenty,” he remarked. “We’d love to give county managers more, we’d love to be able to give clubs more. It’s just not possible in the constraints.”
McGill makes a strong point that everyone has to make compromises but it is unlikely most county managers will have a full month to prepare their teams if they are involved in major club matches in late September and early October. What was missing from Friday’s roadmap was some nuance and confirmation that players could train with their county as soon as their club has exited the county championship. Although, that might yet be permitted when the Central Competitions Control Committee table their revised national fixtures plan for 2020 later this month.
A lack of money won’t be enough to stop county managers with designs on winning an All-Ireland from organising their panels before September 14. By that time, some income may be accrued by county boards through the turnstiles, media rights and streaming to pay for county preparations but clandestine training, hedge sessions we might call them, will be financed off the books.
Last year, almost €30 million was spent on county teams. That number for 2020 will be a fraction when the GAA financial year concludes on October 31 although it will rise considerably in 2021 as it possibility preparations for two senior championships and a National League.
And while funds may be low that culture of getting the best to play the best doesn’t just disappear. Managers and players become accustomed to it. And if they return to training earlier than their opponents it will be considered an edge. Expect supporters or even sponsors with the financial means to be approached in the coming weeks to give a dig out.
The inter-county championships will be streamlined to reflect a year like no other. There could be as few as 11 games in the Liam MacCarthy Cup. Providing it is also started on a provincial basis, a one-defeat-and-you’re-out system in football would likely involve 31 games. Not since 1963 has such a small number of matches comprised the All-Ireland SFC.
But they remain All-Irelands. Nobody forgets champions and in this year of all years their names will ring out for a long time to come. If those trophies are to be attained by dipping into the black market, then that is the price counties will be willing to pay.
Well, at least we know now that GAA president John Horan isn’t keen on the status quo being retained as far as the structure of the All-Ireland senior inter-county championships are concerned.
“One of the big challenges is to tackle the monster that is the traditional feature of the GAA that is the provincial championships,” he told Na Fianna TV. “Ulster and Munster you’d find it very hard to move in terms of the Munster hurling championship and the Ulster football championship.”
Although he started the process, Horan conceded he is unlikely to oversee any changes to the GAA calendar and football championship because of the lockdown. GAA director general Tom Ryan has all but confirmed this year’s format, the last year of the Super 8 trial, will now take place in 2021.
So in his final eight months in office, it’s become a lot easier for Horan to express his personal opinion although he would do well to remember that but for the Munster SHC and Ulster SFC competitions the GAA’s early summer fare at national level would be virtually tedious. Unlike other provincial championships, they are not failing competitions and the Munster SHC has been a success under both knock-out and round-robin formats.
It wasn’t Munster nor Ulster who shoehorned a league format halfway into the All-Ireland SFC and in doing so further weakened the provincial football competitions. That was obviously the hope, that the Super 8 could pave the way for a Championship overhaul, but it was tantamount to sabotage.
The tradition that Munster and Ulster espouse in their blue riband competitions should be celebrated, not condemned. And it’s clear from the gate receipts they continue to garner that their storied character sells. The GAA would be cutting off their nose to spite their face were they jettison them.
It was an altruistic move by Turlough O’Brien to step aside as Carlow senior football manager on Saturday. Clearly, he had earmarked this season as his last in charge but then he would have realised it was better that a new person at the helm to take over if he was only going to be in the chair for possibly one or two games in the autumn and the start of the League probably only two months later.
Other managers who are close to the finishing line might be thinking along the same lines. County boards too. If they weren’t considering it after the GAA’s plans to change the season, O’Brien’s decision is bound to have made them sit up and think.
A number of football managers are in the final season of their agreements - for example, Ronan McCarthy, Mickey Harte and Declan Bonner are in the last of three-year terms. It had been felt that Colm Collins might step away as Clare boss following this season, which is his seventh in charge.
Agreements are not as much of a pressing matter in hurling, although whatever happens later this year there will be speculation about the future of leading managers such as Brian Cody, Davy Fitzgerald, John Kiely and Liam Sheedy.
Is it a case of county board executives taking the chance now and approaching their respective managers about remaining on in 2021 or perhaps nudging them to step aside? With 2020 all but merging into 2021 as an inter-county season, it’s a major judgement call.