This past weekend was supposed to be a time to be grateful. After being away from a third of the year, actual Gaelic Games had returned and people were able to see them in person.
Not too many sports can say that right now. There is a daily reminder from the Premier League and Championship that supporters are not welcome right now.
When Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson lifts the Premier League trophy on Wednesday he will do so to a fanfare of fireworks. The Kop, that heaving, driven hoarse embodiment of humanity will be fanless.
Crowds have been back in New Zealand since the start of last month and Western Australia from last week. In New Zealand, there are no crowd restrictions, while in Perth a 50% capacity and two square metre rules apply in Optus Stadium so it is able to host up to 30,633 — its regular Australian Rules capacity is 61,266.
Given so many Melbourne clubs are now based in hubs there, that 30,633 capacity isn’t likely to be challenged.
That there are no restrictions on crowds in New Zealand is not surprising when the R number is zero. Western Australia has recorded low numbers and in recent days has ordered anyone traveling from New South Wales and Victoria to quarantine for 14 days in a hotel at their own expense.
Nobody should expect the Republic of Ireland to allow sports organisations swing open the gates as our Antipodean cousins have done.
Not when the reproduction number has climbed to over one in the last couple of weeks and certainly not when international travel to and from coronavirus hotbeds continued to be permitted.
That being said, the decision last Wednesday to extend the limit on outdoor events to 200 looked excessive in venues like Chadwicks Wexford Park and Parnell Park this past week. Less than half of 1% of Wexford Park’s capacity were there on Friday to watch St Martin’s-Oulart the Ballagh.
Not even 1% of Parnell Park’s 8,500 capacity were there to watch the Kilmacud Crokes-Ballyboden St Enda’s match. According to former Crokes manager and Irish Examiner columnist Anthony Daly, Crokes members were informed there would be no opportunity to purchase tickets.
On Friday, GAA president John Horan echoed Kerry chairman Tim Murphy’s comments in this newspaper that morning when he described the extension of the 200 limit until August 10 as “a hammer blow”.
Loyal supporters will be kept out of games and trying to keep them out will be as much as a challenge as the obvious financial one.
Taking into consideration the security they had in place in and outside of Wexford Park for Friday’s game, the chances are the Wexford County Board made pittance in gate receipts from the game. Had they been permitted to have 500 people in the enclosure of the stadium, they would have been able to wash their faces at least irrespective of the 100-plus passes that were provided to media, stewards, and security.
Nobody could argue Horan hasn’t been cautious during the pandemic.
Delaying the opening of pitches, this column believed he was too wary so when he called on the Government to reconsider the crowd limit for outdoor events he himself wasn’t doing it without consideration.
When there are lives at stake and medical experts are still acquainting themselves with the virus, arguments defending the pausing of phase four are easily made. However, they lack balance and sophistication.
In the wide expanses of the principal county venues, social distancing can be adhered to by far more than the 80 people who were allowed to purchase tickets in Wexford Park on Friday. As should be stressed, spectators were outdoors where the GAA highlight studies have established a person is 19 times less likely to contract coronavirus than they would indoors.
At small club venues, by all means insist on that figure and if social distancing can’t be guaranteed on terraces then insist on them being out of bounds. But in vast stadia where there are several access points and separate stands could be treated as self-contained venues, a limit of 500 never mind 200 feels an entirely disproportionate measure.
If, as GAA stadium and commercial director Peter McKenna says, Croke Park’s Covid-19 two-metre restriction capacity is 7,000, 8.5% of the stadium’s 82,300 old normal figure, might a similar percentage or even 5% be more appropriate to the likes of Wexford Park, Parnell Park, Páirc Uí Chaoimh, and Semple Stadium?
Applying the same measure to each and every venue irrespective of its size is symptomatic of the lack of understanding sport has grown used to from successive governments. Kudos to Horan for making a stand but if he is heard it will make a welcome change.
A rough estimate would suggest almost half of the 32 counties have had one or more clubs who have suspended activities due to Covid-19 concerns. At this rate, the 32 will have done so by the end of the club window.
If the GAA had their time back they might have recommended against cross-county challenge matches.
Already, they have caused issues for Laois clubs Killeshin and Arles-Kilcruise and Donegal’s Naomh Colmcille who played one of the 10 Derry clubs in the Limavady area who suspended activities.
If county boards aren’t already putting together contingency plans for clubs standing down during championships, they should be.
Whether it’s a case of games being postponed into November or teams being removed from the competition, it should be exercising minds.
Given that Laois had been considering staging their football final after the county seniors exited the championship, and given half the country will have exited the All-Ireland SFC by early November it could be an option to reschedule games for then.
It’s less drastic than Leitrim chairman Enda Stenson’s call to abandon the inter-county championship if the crowd limit of 200 isn’t increased.
“If, for instance, we get to the stage of the county semi-finals and final stage where we can’t get people into the grounds, then what is the sense in going ahead with the inter-county scene?” he said.
“I cannot see any sense good, bad, or indifferent to pay good money to train inter-county teams to play matches virtually behind closed doors.” Stenson is right to be concerned about the crowd limit being unfeasible but games have to be played.
As Kerry chairman Tim Murphy said last week: “From a player point of view it is vital that we crack on.”
The show must go on.
If we didn’t know any better, we might think Sky Sports’ abhorrence for profanity was the reason behind them making the fake crowd noise option their default setting during their Premier League coverage.
That hum, those oohs and ahhs, those whistles certainly have a way of silencing the expletives on the field.
As regards their GAA coverage, TG4 were last week asked about following suit and they stated it’s something they are considering but not right now.
Sports editor Rónán Ó Coisdealbha said: “We won’t be using fake noise this weekend but it’s something that we are looking into in terms of the technical and logistical elements of it. We’ll be covering the PRO 14 rugby in August and we’re basically in the same situation with that.”
He continued: “For Premier League games, everyone kind of subconsciously accepts it would have been a full stadium ordinarily, maybe the club game we’re carrying might have had a few thousand at it. Making that sound realistic would be a challenge.”
Notwithstanding that fair point, neither TG4 nor RTÉ appear to be as queasy as Sky Sports about bad language in the heat of the moment. After all, didn’t RTÉ construct a story out of Davy Fitzgerald’s choice of words on the sideline some years back?
But when it comes down to it it might not be their decision. Reputation matters plenty to the GAA as director general Tom Ryan stressed back in May and it might just be that muting or at least muffling the f-ing and blinding is preferable.