John Fogarty: How a knockout GAA summer might look

As Sunday draws nearer, the GAA continue to keep their powder dry about extending the suspension of all Gaelic Games activity.
John Fogarty: How a knockout GAA summer might look

When will GAA fans be travelling down Jones’ Road again on the way to Croke Park? Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
When will GAA fans be travelling down Jones’ Road again on the way to Croke Park? Picture: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

As Sunday draws nearer, the GAA continue to keep their powder dry about extending the suspension of all Gaelic Games activity.

Admirably invested with the HSE in providing coronavirus testing facilities, it makes perfect sense to wait until the Government announce that, as is widely expected, they will extend restrictions beyond March 29.

The next date could fall in line with schools’ Easter holidays, most of which conclude on April 19.

To give counties a three-week lead-in to when the Championship is scheduled to start in earnest on May 10, that is when collective training would have to resume.

The chances of that happening? As likely as Boris Johnson showing some statesmanship.

Even if it were to happen and the Allianz Leagues were abandoned as is now looking more probable than possible, the equation facing the fixture planners would be a troublesome if simple one — subtract what the clubs are losing in next month’s club month from the inter-county Championship and what’s left is what they have to work with for the summer.

To abide by the current All-Ireland senior football and hurling championship structures and shave off a month of its schedule would be impractical.

Counties across the country are sacrificing their own club competition formats.

So to expect the All-Irelands to run as normal and cut into club championship time in the autumn would be unacceptable.

We could yet see a return to St Patrick’s Day senior club finals in 2021 but if clubs are sacrificing so too must the counties.

The GAA mightn’t be uttering the word yet, but everyone else is — knockout.

Depending on when Gaelic Games gets going again, there could be variations like beaten provincial finalists given a second chance but qualifiers, the Tailteann Cup and the preliminary quarter-finals are unfortunately looking more superfluous by the day.

In the case of a knockout Liam MacCarthy Cup, there will be strong calls for the Munster and Leinster Championships to be drawn instead of rostered as they are now.

According to Munster’s five-year rota (Leinster work on an alternate basis), it was Cork’s turn to host Limerick this year and Waterford’s to entertain Tipperary while Clare had their bye.

Simply making one of those games scheduled for May 10 as a first round knockout, with the winners facing Clare in a semi-final and the other game being deemed a semi-final would be controversial.

A draw would be the fairest solution.

On the face of it, there wouldn’t appear to be much need to alter the football championship draw.

Instead of qualifying for the same Super 8 group, the Leinster and Munster champions would face off in an All-Ireland semi-final and the Connacht and Ulster winners clashing in the other.

It would mean either Cork or Kerry fall at the first hurdle in a Munster semi-final.

The same would apply to the losers of Donegal and Tyrone in their Ulster quarter-final but such is the way when expediency is what matters most and there is no safety net.

Needless to say, the duration of the Championship wouldn’t be nearly as long as the 17 weeks it took the last knockout hurling staging in 1996 or the 20 weeks between the start of the last knockout football competition in 2000 and that season’s drawn final between Galway and Kerry.

Played week on week, a knockout hurling championship could be played over five weekends (three provincial, one All-Ireland semi-final and final weekends).

Apply the same to football and it could be concluded in six (Leinster and Ulster would require four weekends to whittle down their 11 and nine counties to one respectively).

A blitz-like Championship is something the GAA would be keen to avoid, not to mention clashes between the codes’ various semi-finals and finals, but such a schedule would have to be strongly considered if there is no return to activity until July.

The Central Competitions Controls Committee might even contemplate scrapping the draws completely and opting for an open format, as outlined by former GAA president Seán Kelly last week.

In football, the counties would be put into a bowl and 16 or 17 pairings made depending on New York’s situation.

Staged over consecutive weekends, that would take five or six weeks.

Applied to hurling’s 10-team Liam MacCarthy Cup, there would have to be two preliminary quarter-finals and it would take four weeks.

There might also be a need for a derogation of rule to ensure all Championship games are decided on the day — replays still apply to provincial and All-Ireland finals that finish level at the end of normal time.

Then there are the knock-on effects for broadcasting (TV stations will have fewer games to show live) and the GAA’s season ticket initiative would require overhauling as would the ticket pricing structure.

All will fall into place, though, with an understanding across the board that what is happening is exceptional.

Better that there be a Championship than no Championship at all.

Keep hopping the ball

The last social distancing of note this writer took part in was on the tarmac of Newark Airport in December 2015.

That year’s All-Stars hurling trip was to Austin but the direct flight from Heathrow to Texas was overbooked so half of us flew first to New Jersey.

As it turned out, the flight on from there to Austin-Bergstrom Airport was anything but full with our travelling party of hurlers, officials and selectors/journalists comprising most of the group in the middle to back of the cabin.

We were clustered so tightly that on such a small aircraft the pilot requested the weight of the manifest be evened out a little more.

Carrying the load of one and a half Richie Hogans, and standing nigh on the two metres we are so often hearing about these days, muggins here was an obvious candidate to move to the front.

But sweetened by the promise of a complimentary drink and food (the stewardess really knew her target audience), I didn’t need much convincing to make my way up the aisle even if it was to a chorus of jeers.

What was a bit of craic was followed by four hours of spacious, blissful isolation, which was only interrupted by TV commentator Mac Dara MacDonncha’s presentation of an amended safety card crudely featuring the Irish Examiner Gaelic Games correspondent.

The story may be judged apropos of nothing but it’s ball hopping that will be vital in getting us through this time of uncertainty.

A best friend, a cable technician, recently declared that he considers himself a frontline worker because he is “still out working so you can work from home”.

You can imagine the slagging. Don’t let it stop.

Richmond's AFL clash with Carlton shows how GAA dodged a bullet

Without a scintilla of irony, AFL football operations manager Steve Hocking stood pitchside at the all but empty Melbourne Cricket Grounds last Thursday and told the Channel 7 reporter that he was there to ensure people kept their distance from one another.

Hocking was speaking ahead of the season-opener between champions Richmond and Melbourne rivals Carlton.

The competition wasn’t exactly hectic as Richmond won convincingly, yet there was more than a handshake exchanged in a physical enough affair.

For each of the 28 overs scored, colleagues high-fived and hugged as if coronavirus was some intergalatical illness.

Three days later on the back of state and national government directives, the AFL shut up shop, after the last of the round one games, for the foreseeable future.

Three days too late, you would think, given how the organisation were putting their players in such a perilous position.

Granted, the footballers wanted to play but the decision shouldn’t have been theirs.

Imagine if, as the GAA had initially considered, they had gone ahead with their league games last Sunday week behind closed doors.

Consider how poor an image that would have projected to followers, especially young people.

“I think that would have been very much out of touch with what the country needs to do at the moment,” said GAA director general Tom Ryan last Friday week.

Looking at the folly of the AFL’s situation, and irrespective of the Australian game being a professional sport, the GAA may now appreciate that they dodged a bullet.


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