Well, nobody could say the GAA haven’t treaded softly. Too softly at times. The insistence on players and management filling out a questionnaire each time they entered their club’s grounds would have been bureaucratic hell.
Similarly, putting the responsibility of temperature checks on volunteers was a weight too much to bear. It came as no surprise when that precaution was ditched nor when the role of a Covid-19 officer was downgraded to supervisor. By all means, insist that completing the coronavirus eLearning module be a requisite to returning to play and being involved and ensure there is sanitising everywhere but anything else and the law of diminishing return to play would have applied.
Nobody could expect the GAA to get everything right with their protocols - and this column maintains staging the Championship first, over the same timeframe reserved for it later this year, would have been the safer call - but passing on those recommendations from their advisory group authorities was asking too much of their own.
Worryingly, these additional responsibilities Croke Park sought to place on volunteers came at a time when the workload of club officials have never been greater. Upskilling is the GAA’s new buzzword and the organisation most surely has had to move with the times when safeguarding is a necessity, privacy is under constant threat and Irish society becomes more litigious.
Credit to the GAA, they were rapid in responding to Friday’s announcement by the Government to green light all contact sport from June 29. As soon as the GAA’s management committee were given Congressional powers in April, they proclaimed they could be more flexible in their reactions and they were just that.
There didn’t appear to be any hesitation about giving the clubs the additional two weeks either. Croke Park knew already just how much pressure county boards were feeling between formalising a club championship and giving their counties the best opportunity to prepare for the truncated All-Ireland championships.
How that extra fortnight is used will be interesting. It provides some much-needed oxygen for dual counties like Cork who may have been considering bursting the October 11 deadline to complete their championships. As Offaly chairman Michael Duignan signalled at the weekend, his county will use that cushion to give the county teams an extra two weeks to prepare. Indeed, some will look to start their championships earlier so that their counties can prepare unfettered from mid to late September onwards.
The more conscientious boards may stick with the schedules they have already so that their clubs have another couple of weeks in July to rehabilitate sufficiently for the start of championship. The numbers of injuries being picked up in Bundesliga and Premier League should provide concern for the GAA’s insurance department particularly in counties where championships are going to be run off over intense schedules.
On Twitter, sports physiotherapist Marty Loughran has highlighted Bundesliga data which shows there were 0.27 injuries per game before lockdown. That rose to 0.88 after matchday one and twice hit 0.78 in the four rounds of matches that followed. “Professional Bundesliga teams with top-class in-house experts and monitoring tools suffered a three-fold increase in injuries when required to play four games in 13 days post lockdown,” he posted. “Amateur Gaelic footballers will be expected by Tyrone to play four games in the first 10 days.”
Loughran’s tweet came prior to the GAA’s decision to give counties the extra 14 days but the intensity has to be a worry. The shoehorning of the Championship is a concern for the Gaelic Players Association too - a majority are seeking a definitive closed season as well as a delayed start to the 2021 inter-county season. Both are fair shouts bearing in mind next month otherwise threatens to be the start of a 17-month season for some.
Regardless of the club window being increased, counties such as Cork, Dublin and Tipperary continue to hold off on deciding their championship formats without first hearing what the Central Competitions Control Committee have to say for themselves. Hasn’t that been the way of the world for several years now? Whenever the GAA has been asked why they stage their Championship draws in October almost seven months ahead of the competition’s start, they reply that county boards need time to plan.
Responding as they have to being given an 11-week club window by Croke Park, some of the 32 independent states appear to be giving it as little consideration as the club month of April. At the same time, many will rightly argue there has never been a better year to win a provincial title or All-Ireland. It might be six years since Dublin last lost a Championship game but they may only have to be beaten once in 2020. Is it any wonder that counties are already back working and their officials either facilitate it or turn a blind eye?
Croke Park may deal but county boards hold all the cards. And when Croke Park plans, they laugh.
Avoiding Dublin a lure towards open draw?
According to a survey conducted by the Gaelic Players Association, there is brief support for an option to forego the provincial senior football championships later this year in favour of an open draw.
That call would find favour in some sections of GAA officialdom, namely the president’s office from where John Horan recently described the provincial system as a “monster”.
Speaking to this newspaper recently, the widely-respected Gerald McKenna said that provincial councils were not supposed to have any representation on the management committee as proposed by the McNamee report in 1971.
The Towards 2034 report, which never saw the light of day and featured GAA president-elect Larry McCarthy and Connacht secretary John Prenty, also recommended that “provincial championships to be replaced by tiered inter-county championship competitions”. It stated: “While the committee recognised the allegiance that county boards have towards the provincial championships, it deems the current imbalance structure to be unfair and unsustainable on players, coaches and officials in many counties.”
Without a qualifier system, doing away with the provinces for a year would certainly provide an extra dash of fairness to the competition. It may also give Cork and Kerry another chance to avoid each other first day out as well as Donegal and Tyrone. And Westmeath surely voted to avoid Dublin from the outset? Come to think of it, wouldn’t most if not all Leinster counties have called for a redraw if it meant not having to face Dublin in one of their first three games? Wouldn’t Leitrim have looked to roll the dice again in the hope of eluding Mayo?
Since last year, the GPA have spoken about striking better competitive balance and equalisation. A supposed one-off open draw could be a step towards that ahead of further Championship structure debate.
Conor McKenna can’t be left high and dry
Yes, Conor McKenna made a mistake. Yes, he will be punished by his AFL club and employers Essendon, but let’s hope the Tyrone man doesn’t suffer as a result of being subjected to a trial by media.
The repercussions of him failing a Covid-19 test while reportedly breaking the club’s quarantine rules were stark in that the game against Melbourne was postponed. However, images of him clearing his nostrils while training on Friday have been magnified and repeated to make him look guilty of something he is not. We would hazard a guess and suggest he wasn’t the only one doing the same during that session.
Yet that didn’t stop Channel 7 reporter Tom Browne, who later wrote McKenna could have recorded a false positive, proudly highlighting that his TV station had “some very close up vision of the player” and “he clears both nostrils of snot and looks like he is slightly spluttering”.
It was encouraging to see some support for the player from Irish-born sports journalist Catherine Murphy, who is now based in Melbourne working for ABC. She posted on Twitter: “Some of the reporting about Conor McKenna’s positive Covid-19 test is SO disappointing.
He’s actually a human being. No one plans to catch a virus & take down the AFL. For anyone actually concerned with his wellbeing, you’ll be pleased to know he’s going ok, considering.”
This is a player known to have already had a difficult time in Australia. How he has been treated isn’t exactly the best advertisement for the Irish Experiment already under threat due to the financial fallout arising from the pandemic.