On the eve of the GAA’s decision to cancel a series of national league games back in mid-March, this column immediately speculated how the coronavirus would likely alter the format and timing of the championship too.
There would be no round-robin in Munster hurling or Super 8s in football, we predicted. It could be old-school knockout for one year only, and even that championship could run into the following year. But there would be a 2020 championship and a 2020 champion, in hurling and football.
At its core the GAA had an institutional memory of — and seemingly historical obligation to — fulfilling its inter-county championships, even if meant the 1920 All Ireland wasn’t won until June 1922. A hundred years on, history could repeat itself, I argued. The 2020 All Ireland winners mightn’t be found until 2021 but there would be a 2020 championship.
As the subsequent weeks went on, it seemed all the more a prescient call. But after some developments in recent days, even that bit of foresight is beginning to look like it could be misguided in hindsight.
So far the GAA has generally shown impressive, measured leadership to the crisis. Yesterday’s issued statement, following conference calls to its various county chairpersons, seemed to be in keeping with that. It offered some clarity to county teams, informing them they won’t be competing until October at the earliest. And a special Covid-19 advisory group has been established, featuring medics as well as representation from parties like the GPA, provincial councils, and the camogie and ladies football associations — but disappointingly, not the CPA.
And yet, as restrained and even cautious as the tone of that statement is, parts of it would appear to be optimistic, even fanciful.
They obviously intend to play club games first; though some would contend that with a smaller number of players and more qualified personnel to adhere to and oversee protocols, the inter-county game would be safer to return first, the GAA obviously think differently at the moment.
But if clubs can’t start training collectively until at least July 20, that means club championships won’t be free to commence until mid-August. Which means they likely won’t be finished until early October, it taking any respectable dual county at least eight weeks to complete knockout championships in both codes. Which means any inter-county championship wouldn’t commence until early November.
There’d be nothing wrong per se with such a late start; it’s long been considered fine for all the club provincial championships. Straight knockout and no hiccups, your All-Ireland final could be played the weekend before Christmas, or even into the new year.
But that’s Plan A. The best-case scenario. Plan B is the same timeline, only with games being played behind closed doors. But what’s Plan C?
The day before last, John Maughan called on the GAA to “pull the curtain down” on this year’s championship. One bad case in one dressing room among the thousands around the country and it would lead to devastation and a cessation of all playing activity within the GAA.
It wasn’t sensationalist talk from Maughan. Indeed that scenario he floated is a likely one.
There was also a particular word that he repeatedly used in his interview with the Irish Times. “Uncertainty.”
One of the assumptions we’ve all been working off for a resumption of sport and inter-county GAA is that people and players need a “release”, an “escape”. A 2020 championship in any guise would lift the national mood.
But one of the greatest sources of anxiety is uncertainty. The biggest stressor right now for inter-county players isn’t the prospect of there being no championship this year — it’s that they don’t know if there’ll be a championship or not this year. It’s like the week leading into a championship game. Are they on the team or not? Will they win or not? It’s the not knowing that’s the killer; the outcome, as undesirable as it might be, they can live with and move on from.
With yesterday’s statement, Maughan and his players can’t move on. In June they’ll still be wondering if in July they’ll be playing championship with the club in August and with the county in October. Does the gaiety and supposed “morale” of the public, its supposed need for some “escape”, outweigh the uncertainty and anxiety players, mentors, officials will be feeling in the coming weeks?
Over the coming weeks, other sports in other countries will tell us a lot more about what’s possible and what isn’t. But sometime next month, well before July 20, county players should be released from their purgatory.
By squeezing out a truncated inter-county championship for 2020, one that will compromise the 2021 season considerably, what is to be gained? Is it because of that historical imperative of ensuring every year has a championship and a champion? During World War Two there were repeated pleas to stage the Tour de France to “maintain a sense of normality”, albeit the most strident of those pleas were from the occupying Nazi regime. But the organisers refused. And the Tour de France survived, losing none of its lustre for not having any race or winner from 1940 to 1946.
Or is it a financial imperative that’s driving the GAA? Yesterday’s statement calling on counties to “suspend all inter-county training” was vague but smacked off being another penny-pinching exercise; you don’t want players to check in with their S&C coaches over the coming months but you’ll happily take in whatever TV revenue or gate receipts that come from any championship game they play this autumn? For a sport that prides itself on guarding the mental health of its players and being an amateur, community-based organisation, it has to place people before its profits sheet.
In the coming weeks the GAA will have to give serious consideration to just writing off the 2020 inter-county season and starting again next February with the 2021 season. It would buy some more time for a widespread vaccine, ease people’s fears about going to games in Thurles and observing social distancing in the stands.
We can’t just have a 2020 inter-county championship for the sake of it.