We really are playing the long game now, writes Kieran Shannon.
Two weeks ago the Cork hurling manager Kieran Kingston made the point that his players couldn’t remain in amber indefinitely, waiting for a light that could turn green within a month.
“I don’t think it’s practical for lads to continue training on their own for three or four months,” he said.
“It’s demotivating more than anything.” If there was to be no games in the short to medium term, players needed to know.
Well now they know. The Government’s announcement on Tuesday that there will be no mass gatherings of over 5,000 people until September at the earliest means that Kingston’s troops can stand at ease for awhile, even down their tools and arms, flop back and chill.
Late April, early May, traditionally that time of year that Cork would be back with the cuckoo and smells championship and hope to everyone else, is the new November, just as November might end up being the new May.
After the no-man’s land of the past month, the offseason can commence. The preseason will be long enough.
And yet there will still be big championship games this summer, just not as we’ve known them. Or rather, just as we used to know them.
Before there was sport, there was play. As Dean Rock reminded us in a piece on the ‘Sports Chronicle’ last week, long before he set foot on the green blaze of Croke Park, he was kicking the free to win the All-Ireland for Dublin in his back garden.
Long before he’d score the best goal anyone has ever scored against Dublin, Owen Mulligan as a schoolkid, would go out into the back garden and pretend to be both Jimmy Smyth the commentator and Peter Canavan the local deity.
“I’d dummy round trees and flowerbeds and try to hit every ball into the top corner,” he’d write in one of the most enjoyable and underrated GAA autobiographies, Mugsy.
“I’d run over and celebrate in front of the evergreens, imagining they were supporters in the crowd.”
And, of course, before Mulligan, there was Canavan. In our understandable lament that even our kids probably won’t get to play alongside their friends and against their peers this summer, it’s worth remembering Canavan played virtually no underage club football, his native club, Glencull, being in dispute with the county board.
But yet from that restraint, came freedom. He developed extraordinary balance and a body weave in large part because a river ran alongside his back garden and local pitch.
In his mind he was both Micheál O’Hehir and Frank McGuigan, the man who he saw in the 1984 Ulster final kick eight of his 11 points from play off his left foot.
“There wasn’t much else to do,” he’d tell Brendan Crossan of the Irish News for a piece for the fine 2010 book, Voices From Croke Park, published by the GPA.
“The fact that I wasn’t being thrust into competitive situations was giving me the opportunity to practise. The development of my left foot was primarily down to that fact.”
These times we’re living in has also given us pause to reflect on the majesty and path of another bald icon, one Michael Jordan.
The Last Dance, already the most-viewed sports documentary in ESPN’s history, notes how formative and significant the games out the backyard with and against his brother Larry were in developing his competitiveness and skill. For all the structured tutelage he’d later receive at the University of North Carolina from the brilliant Dean Smith, Jordan’s unique creativity was homebred.
So for all the talk there is about how sport has effectively been shut down now for the foreseeable future, there is still sport.
It might not be collective, it might not be organised and it may not necessarily be adult-led, but there is still sport.
And if adults can get out of their way, or at least allow their egos to get out of the way, and prompt and encourage and nourish the creative and playful instincts of players – kids or adults – and their inner child, then it could lead to better organised, collective and adult-led sport.
There is a lot out there at the moment on social media. Nearly all of it is well-intended but an awful lot of it is prescriptive and explicit. It can be more implicit and fun than that.
Instead of setting out the task or drill for kids to follow on WhatsApp, how many coaches are asking the kids to come up with the task or drill? Instead of telling your kid to practise off and with their non-dominant side, how about just subtly forcing them to shoot off it in a game by standing on their stronger side?
Or ask them what scoring system could they maybe come up with which rewards scores or even attempts off their currently ‘weaker’ side?
Even at the adult level, creativity is the key to both sanity and improvement.
Not every kid or athlete might have access to a back garden or yard like rural kids like Rock, Mulligan, Canavan and Jordan had and have, but a look online at how the Olympic swimmer Yulia Efimova has ingeniously come up with dry exercises to hone her technique from her apartment and kitchen counter shows that even the most land-bound or confined city dweller has shown imagination and can triumph over circumstances. No water? No obstacle.
It goes without saying this is a concerning time for sport everywhere.
It is, among many things, an industry, and at the moment people’s livelihoods are at risk.
And it is a social outlet for people: to support, watch, vent, relate, mix, be it going to see your own club or county or merely looking at a screen in your front room or pub and urging on a Mo Salah who may not know you but you feel you know them.
It’ll take another while yet for the head to get round that it won’t be in Thurles this June or Croke Park this August, maybe not even the local club field this July.
But at its root, at its purest, sport is about play: a kid with a ball, maybe with a sibling or a parent as well, and above all, with their dreams and imagination.
It may not be televised. It may not even be recorded for any WhatsApp group’s consumption. But don’t think for a second there are no Munster or All-Ireland finals being played this summer.
There are more of them than ever going on, with Marty on the mic and forty and fiftysomethings coming out of retirement to be suddenly 10 again, standing in as opponents, goalkeepers, even punchbags if their younger playmates have taken in a bit of Katie and Rocky lately.
Catch them if you can. Join in if you can.
Because as hard is it to fathom now, there’ll be a time when we’ll be nostalgic about those All-Irelands too.