Explainer: Lots of questions facing the GAA, but the answers are far less plentiful

Players being tested for coronavirus, club vs county, games behind closed doors, and the financial implications: there are plenty of issues for the GAA to work through. Here is John Fogarty's explainer of the situation as it stands.
Explainer: Lots of questions facing the GAA, but the answers are far less plentiful

Players being tested for coronavirus, putting club before county, games behind closed doors, and the financial implication: There are plenty of issues for the GAA to work through. Here is John Fogarty's explainer of the situation as it stands.

Q: Be honest, can you see any organised Gaelic games played this year? There are just too many risks.

A: I’m saying there’s a chance. Not because there is likely to be a vaccine any time soon but that’s not to say safety measures can’t be stringent. Risks? Of course, there will be risks but it will come down to a choice for players. Many will have to be convinced and so they should. Mass testing would have to be well in place. It may only be feasible that testing is done before and after games at inter-county level. The British government sees the return of the Premier League as helping lift the nation’s mood. Those reported government plans for a testing regime at inter-county level were coming from the same place.

Q: Ah, here. You’re talking chalk and cheese. That’s a professional sport. And Boris and his boys don’t exactly have a great record with sport and this virus, do they?

A: True but sport will play a significant part in the mental health battle that faces the country, especially as the lockdown is likely to be extended beyond the middle of next month. Did you see the pitiful €1.1m given to online and telephone mental health supports in the wake of this crisis? The mental recovery will be expected to be done on the cheap but don’t underestimate the enormity of it for a second. Participating and competing in individual sports will help considerably but there is nothing as communal as team sport. Gaelic Games would help to restart the national psyche’s clock.

Q: But the GAA seemed pretty miffed at the idea of inter-county players being seen to be prioritised in testing?

A: Would you blame them when for the second time in seven days they’ve learned of the Government’s thinking in the media as opposed to their private conversations? Would you blame them when they have made their facilities readily available for drive-thru testing facilities? To quote Cool Hand Luke’s Captain, what we’ve got here is failure to communicate. It wasn’t so much the idea that angered them as how it was divulged.

Q: The GAA are insistent that clubs are back first, though.

A: That has been the policy since earlier this month alright but that wasn’t always the case. Remember what GAA director of player, games, and administration Feargal McGill said at the end of March about counties returning: “We’d like to give teams a fortnight breathing space if at all possible before asking them to come back into competitive action.”

And GAA president John Horan twice said on Monday that clubs returning first is what they’re focusing on “at the moment”.

In a nutshell, nothing is set in stone.

Q: But Horan did say there won’t be a return to action until contact sport is safe.

A: Yes and that can be interpreted in a number of ways. Fifty players or so and their management teams testing negative for coronavirus the day before or of a game could certify that fixture as being safe to proceed. There could be a way to ensure dressing rooms are not used. Testing afterwards would likely be necessary too.

Q: You’re not talking about club games, are you?

A: No, simply because of size and scale. It wouldn’t be feasible.

Q: But could the GAA literally put county before club?

A: That’s the big question. Dr Noel McCaffrey said in this newspaper last week that this crisis would highlight the GAA’s true priorities. However, if the organisation wants any more games to take place this year they may have no other option but to organise county ones initially when activities resume.

Q: Doesn’t that raise the possibility of games behind closed doors?

A: It does. Clubs coming back first would be appealing to the communities they represent, as Horan articulated. Why, it’s what the GAA is all about but they would also allow the organisation to bide their time for limits on mass gatherings to be eased later in the year when some gate receipts could be clawed back in the Championship. A late summer start to the Championship would mean little or no crowds in attendance. Right now, it is in the financial interests of the GAA to delay the All-Ireland inter-county competitions.

Q: Money. I was wondering when you were going to mention it. What’s the feeling at the top table?

A: It’s the economy, stupid. Like it or lump it, the GAA is a business. Matches behind closed doors is as much anathema to us for all the obvious reasons as it is to the powers-that-be that recognise the financial difficulties with nobody paying in to watch them. And yet games going ahead on television and radio would bring in media and sponsorship revenue. You’ve heard county manager after county manager in the last week or so saying any games are better than none; well, any revenue is better than none. The Government would also look favourably on anything that represents a return to normality providing it is done safely.

Q: So the Government will make the GAA’s mind up for them?

A: Not necessarily. The GAA say they will take their guidance from the Department of Health but if the safety of a certain cohort, ie inter-county players, can be guaranteed or at the very least they are protected it leaves them with a decision akin to Sophie’s Choice. County before club would be a hard sell but if they are the only matches possible, if it allows the GAA to function even in a reduced capacity then they might acquiesce. At the same time, there are at least two directors of the GAA wholeheartedly against the idea of games behind closed doors. The stark cultural, psychological, and financial realities may convince them otherwise.

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