The first time I ever heard about the Foot and Mouth All-Ireland would have been in Hayes Hotel 100 years after Michael Cusack had called a meeting for there to start something they’d name the GAA.
Tipperary and Cork were facing off in a Munster final — the winner, essentially guaranteed a return ticket to Thurles and the centenary All-Ireland final; the loser, summarily dismissed and discarded and condemned to an 11-month wait for their next championship game — and in an attempt to verse this young fella some more in the magnificent history of the rivalry, a friend of my father posed us the question: did you ever hear of the time Cork won the All-Ireland without winning Munster?
In an era where every game was do-or-die and a full generation yet before the advent of a full-scale backdoor, it blew my mind: how could you win an All Ireland without first winning Munster?
And that’s when I first learned about the asterisk All Ireland of ’41: how Cork and Christy Ring were down to play Tipperary in that year’s Munster semi-final but it was cancelled by the Munster Council at the behest of the Department of Agriculture in light of how the foot-and-mouth disease was rampant in Tipp; how Cork subsequently beat Limerick in the Munster final that September and a fortnight later beat Dublin in the All-Ireland final; but then lost to Tipperary in late October in a rearranged Munster final. (The Leinster final was also played belatedly; in early November Dublin would see off Kilkenny, another part of the country that earlier in the year had been ravaged by the outbreak),
Sixty years on from that episode — and in the same year, incidentally, that the GAA would first bring in a full-scale qualifier system — my generation would become familiar with an outbreak of Foot and Mouth and the disruption it could cause to sports fixtures.
Six Nations rugby matches were rescheduled for the autumn. Irish basketball cancelled its annual post-season championships and declared Killester national league champions by virtue of their considerable but not mathematically unassailable lead — Liverpool fans, note and cite the precedent. Even Cheltenham was cancelled, one precedent which peculiarly hasn’t been followed now.
And naturally, the GAA calendar had to be rearranged that spring of 2001. The All-Ireland club finals were postponed by a month. Ulster counties and Louth were unable to compete in the knockout stages of the National Football League, thus denying Tyrone the chance to claim their first national senior title and instead turning the Division One playoff section into a mini-Connacht championship, with Mayo edging Galway in the final.
The Tyrone U21 management were less passive about their exclusion from the concluding stages of any competition. First Mickey Harte baulked at the idea that Fermanagh, an unaffected area that had qualified for the Ulster final, should go forward as the province’s representative in the All-Ireland series, setting in motion a chain of correspondence and events in which Munster champions Cork and Frank Murphy, in particular, were graciously prepared to postpone the All-Ireland series of the competition until the early autumn.
A few years later when Tyrone, with Harte at the helm, would claim its first Sam Maguire, Harte would note that their All-Ireland success may not have happened had it not been for the momentum and confidence that core of players gained from winning that postponed U21 All-Ireland of 2001.
Nineteen years on and now another virus could play havoc with the sporting calendar. Again Six Nations matches have been pushed back to the autumn. Ireland’s Euro 2020 play-off match in Slovakia will now happen behind closed doors. And inevitably, the GAA fixtures list will be affected. It may turn out to be the converse of 2001: this time the leagues may be run off just in time but the championship itself will hardly be immune.
As the Taoiseach for now pointed out in his briefing on Monday, we are with the COVID-19 virus possibly facing “events that are unprecedented in modern times”, a crisis, opposition leaders were briefed that could last between 12 and 22 weeks.
Whatever way you look at it, the championship is right bang in the middle of that time span.
While the GAA, like other organisations, will calmly and continuously monitor the situation, it will soon need to be assessing possible contingency plans.
As we’ve said, it might just get away with concluding the league and the U20 football championships by the end of this month.
April then is club month, where players and teams will stay within their own county bounds.
But come May, for one there’s the Munster hurling championship, which the past two years with its new round-robin format has seen huge crowds cross their county bounds in successive weeks to watch and to catch as good a sport as is there is on the planet at that time of year.
Realistically, are crowds that large likely to be allowed assemble? Will those games be played behind closed doors? Will they be postponed, even cancelled?
Dare we say it, could the entire 2020 championship be wiped?
Outside of the much milder foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001, no one in GAA HQ has experience of dealing with such a crisis before, but the GAA itself does have an institutional memory and an institutional record of withstanding and navigating such challenging situations, be it civil wars, world wars, the Spanish flu, foot and mouth.
And what that history tells us is, yes, there will be a 2020 championship — just maybe not necessarily in that year and not necessarily in the usual format.
Take the football All-Ireland of 100 years ago — it wasn’t played in 1920: instead Tipperary, who had their own difficulties that year with Bloody Sunday, would claim it in June 1922, defeating Dublin. The following week Dublin would beat Mayo in the 1921 semi-final but it would take them another year to then play and win the final.
It would take until 1926 for everything to catch up, Kerry winning that year’s championship in that same year.
There are numerous ways this year’s championship could work out.
Everything could be pushed out to the late summer, early autumn. The GAA might have to go old school and blitz the championship in six or seven consecutive weeks, no backdoor, no Super 8s — or Tailteann Cup— just your four provincial championships and then your four provincial champions playing two semi-finals and a final.
Or maybe managements will resist the pressure to just run off competitions and instead allow for a greater and more normal lead-in time and some of the championships could run into next year, overlapping and even subsuming the league.
Call it speculation or responsible scenario-planning but these are the kind of conversations in the coming days and weeks that the sport’s authorities need to have.
Either way, history tells us that the GAA will find a way to have someone inscribed as 2020 All-Ireland champions — though not even its championship can escape a phenomenon like COVID-19.