Peter Canavan turns 49 today. “I’m expecting to see the whole parish parade in their cars outside my house,” he laughs, referring to the heartwarming birthday ovation Sligo girl Katie Regan received from friends upon her 12th birthday last month.
Family health will be at the forefront of his thoughts when he blows out the candles this evening, but there might be a silent wish or two for the return of Gaelic games.
He has swelled with pride as his club Errigal Ciaran and others in South Tyrone have assisted their communities during this time of crisis, and their reward will be games.
It won’t be a case of the South waiting on the North, he believes, when Croke Park look to recommence games.
The fact that Belfast was slower to act than Dublin in implementing restrictions and precautions shouldn’t have any impact. Why so? The GAA, of course.
“We took our lead from the GAA up here,” says Canavan.
“They had been very proactive and showed very strong leadership at the beginning. Their guidelines have been very well adhered to here, as far as I’m aware. Clubs have been sticking rigidly to them.
I don’t think we will experience the severity of the virus, or at least the same as it is in other countries, because we did take action fairly quick.
“I would like to think come the summer when people have to get out and back to work and try and resume their lives as best you can, one of the ways you do that is getting involved in sport — and there may be restrictions in terms of the crowds and capacities.
“You may not be allowed to sit beside somebody or there may be a seat or a space between you, but Gaels going to games would have no issue with that or following guidelines.”
On one hand, Canavan’s account underlines the importance of the GAA — but on the other, it highlights the dearth of political leadership in the North. “Tell us something that hasn’t changed there!” he utters wryly.
“Even in the midst of crisis and severe pressure on the NHS and people struggling and dying, there is still argument and division within Stormont. Is it likely to change? No, it’s not.
“I think things are starting to move eventually, while they were slow to get going with the terms of the restrictions. They have kicked into gear now.
“The other thing that has helped is the amount of goodwill from GAA clubs, from schools, from the different community groups who have pulled together to support one another — be it simple things like food and provisions, but also to support the NHS in sourcing proper PPE.
“It has been amazing, and I think that’s going to stand to people and society here as I’m sure it will in the South as well.
“What this coronavirus has done is accentuate the positives of the GAA. People realise how much they need their clubs for socialising, for recreation, for health and well-being.
“If anything, it reminds us of the importance of the club and there’s more to the GAA than what goes on at the higher level. That has definitely struck a chord.”
Canavan is optimistic that the GAA season can still be rescued, despite the long hiatus.
“I see no reason why there can’t be a championship played off both at club and county level. The GAA and the county boards are going to have to be creative in what way they’re going to do that.
“The GAA could opt for the previous provincial championship-qualifier format, or even just the losing provincial finalists going into quarters and the straight knock-out with the provincials feeding into All-Ireland semi-finals.
Guaranteeing each team two games would be great, but it depends on what time will allow.
“The other advantage of having a knockout competition is 16 counties after the first round are gone and they can’t concentrate on their own championships.
“If you bear that in mind there may be no provincial championship but then that would give county boards more time to run off their competitions.”
Having said that, the 1995 Footballer of the Year doesn’t have fond memories of playing under the old format.
“Some older folk have struggled to warm to the principle of the backdoor, that it’s not dog-eat-dog. When I was playing, yes every game was important, but I felt it was so unfair, the effort we were making, that it all hinged on one game.
“If you were unwell, injured, or suspended, virtually your year’s work was down the drain and there was something about it that didn’t sit well with me and I think it’s unfair to county players.”
But what if there is no safety net for Donegal or Tyrone after their Ulster quarter-final?
“But there could be a beauty in that too. Tyrone and Donegal played the last game of the Super 8s in Ballybofey a couple of years ago and it was do-or-die. The atmosphere that day was electric.
“If that’s the price we have to pay for this, then that’s the way it is.
“It’s not the way it was, where you trained for months and months for this one game. Players have been working away themselves, but there hasn’t been any collective training.
“I wouldn’t be changing the draw for the football championship in any shape or form.”