John Considine: Predicting how normality looks when everything has changed

In the normal run of events Dr John Considine would be shuttling between his office in the Department of Economics in UCC and exam centres dotted around Cork, helping students pick their way through test papers and essay questions.
John Considine: Predicting how normality looks when everything has changed

In the normal run of events Dr John Considine would be shuttling between his office in the Department of Economics in UCC and exam centres dotted around Cork, helping students pick their way through test papers and essay questions.

That seems distant now, of course.

Considine, like thousands of others, is working from home, considering what normality looks like in the dull glow cast by the pandemic.

“People have been talking a lot about uncertainty, which is something we’re all dealing with at the moment.

“Take the Leaving Certificate, for instance — nobody knows what shape the exams are going to take when they happen, how unfair it is to those students not to know what they’re doing, all of those questions.

“And I’m not saying that’s wrong, but think about uncertainty in sport, think about the captain of a team playing in an All-Ireland final. He’s told to put a speech together, to have something prepared, which he may never have to use.

"He prepares it and then to give that to another person altogether if his team wins, someone who lands up next to him with a piece of paper telling him what to say and who to mention in his speech.

Nobody would wish what we’re going through on anybody, but we have to deal with it, and it’s a chance for people to view it as — among many other things — a way to deal with raging uncertainty.

It’s hardly surprising Considine still reaches for a sports metaphor.

He lined out on the hurling side which completed the first leg of Cork’s historic double 30 years ago and often pops up with contributions on sports economics across media platforms.

He made an incisive contribution to this writer’s GAAconomics book some years ago, focusing in particular on one of the hot topics du jour — how to compress the GAA championships into a tighter timeframe.

“Leo (Varadkar) goes on The Late Late Show last week and the whole thing . . . he was very measured earlier in the day at the press conference on relaxing the lockdown in stages, but then he’s on the Late Late, the atmosphere is more relaxed, there’s a mention of All-Ireland championships and finals being played behind closed doors, and the whole thing catches fire.

“I understand that he, and many other people, want these things to come back, to see sport and normality, but surely we have to take these matters as they come.

“As for the intercounty scene . . . take the football championship, because there are more counties involved in that. Surely we could just say ‘okay, this is going to be week-on-week, straight knock-out’. You could do it whatever way you wanted, but if a World Cup can be run off in six weeks, surely you could run off the championships in a similar enough timeframe?”

Before the counter-arguments can even be voiced, Considine himself airs some of the potential objections: “People might object on the basis that you couldn’t squeeze everything into that space of time, or that players’ bodies couldn’t take it, among other points. The first question is worth looking at. In Cork we probably have more of an issue because there are more dual players here than anywhere else.

“Someone like Alan Cadogan is a case in point. He’s playing senior intercounty hurling for Cork but he plays senior club football and hurling for Douglas: there’s a problem with scheduling straightaway.

"Then you have players with colleges, divisions, all those different complications, some of which cut across counties, don’t forget.

“What will have to happen is priorities will have to come into play. If that means getting rid of certain competitions, if it means leagues have to go by the wayside, for example — then almost anything is possible.

“I mean that. Look at the quality of the pitches we have nowadays, and the floodlights which can facilitate night games. If I go back to my own playing days and the way playing surfaces cut up, there was no way you could load matches on pitches even during the summer.

“Now you could play six games in Croke Park over a weekend and the pitch would stand up to it.

“But the basic point stands — decisions will have to be made on what the priorities are when it comes to competitions.”

Running in parallel with the wish to return to sport is a nagging fear about the likely impact of the pandemic on the industry of sport. Without data, though, just how much of what we read and hear is baseless speculation?

“I would say there’s a huge amount of that in terms of the economic speculation, anyway, particularly on what will happen when we get out of this phase.

“Take any club in any sport in Ireland. At the moment they have certain outgoings — they may have a loan from the bank, for example, or staff wages — but there’s nothing coming in.

“How do most of these clubs and organisations earn revenue? From gate receipts, usually, but this brings us to another point — how do we think things will be after the lockdown and the pandemic pass?

“For instance, say intercounty GAA games start again, which the GAA itself is hoping will happen because it’ll obviously help revenue. But that doesn’t take into account how people will feel on the far side of this about going to games.

“Will older people, for instance, take the view that they’ve had a good life so they’re prepared to take their chances at a game or will they decide it’s not worth the risk?

“Will some younger people living at home, perhaps with a parent or relative who’s had medical issues which have compromised their health, take the view that going to a game isn’t worth the risk?

“So now suddenly you may have the turnstiles open but will spectators be coming back in the numbers everyone expected? People are speculating about what may happen but there’s no way of knowing.

“Flip that around. There’s talk about the GAA club championships being played because the crowds would be less than 5,000, in line with the government guidelines. I’m not so sure about that, particularly if those games were played before the intercounty season.

“There might be huge interest in seeing live games in that context so how could a crowd like that be policed in terms of social distancing? In fact, before you even get to the crowd, how about the teams, mentors, officials? The media?”

Quite. Considine’s observations crystallise a glaring contradiction in many people’s thinking: the acknowledgement at one level that everything has changed alongside the fervent wish that everything will be the same when the pandemic ends.

“There are other considerations that people haven’t been factoring into this,” he adds.

“One side-effect of the economic impact of the pandemic is that people’s working habits may have to change.

“They may be working longer hours, or working in different locations, and getting to training and games may become far more difficult — for players and spectators alike.

“In that sense a lot of the speculation is based on a situation we know nothing about, and based on the reactions of people which we can’t predict.

It’s hard to know — we all want to get back to normal, we all want it to be over, but we just don’t know what the far side of this will look like.

Not knowing what shape our normality will take is another stress in this situation, of course. This isn’t helped by the fact that such an unparalleled situation means, by definition, that there isn't a model we can examine for precedents.

“Well, there are none that I can see. You could maybe point to Ireland’s experience during the Second World War. In sports then Cork won a hurling All-Ireland because of foot and mouth outbreak in Tipperary in 1941.

“What you could say there was that an adjustment was made in order to get things done, but the comparison doesn’t stack up all the way. Obviously other teams apart from Tipperary were able to play in that year’s hurling championship, and other sports were able to be played.

“At the same time in America sports changed — there was a growth in women’s sports leagues, for instance, and the War probably helped speed up the acceptance of black players involved in professional baseball, though the evidence for that is dodgy enough.

“This situation is different to that, though. It’s not just affecting the people who are playing sport, it’s affecting everybody.

“It might be more useful to compare this to what was going on in the War in mainland Europe at that point — there was widespread destruction of all sorts of infrastructure and facilities. We’re not at that stage yet, thankfully — we still have that infrastructure and facilities intact — so we’re not as bad as people were in Europe after the War.

“And of course in Ireland we never really had that experience of war in America, we had an ‘Emergency’. You’d wonder sometimes if that’s at the root of the British willingness to take more risks than the rest of us, though that’s a different matter, but that kind of event, a world war, is probably the only comparison you can make on the economic side to the current situation. You’re talking there about five or six years of serious disruption, and even worse disruption because of the destruction. We’ve not had that experience, but we’re having something similar at the moment.”

Considine’s reference to adjustments being made to facilitate competitions returns us to a more granular level of consideration.

“In sports terms kids who play at U16 or U18 level are hearing now that they can’t even sit two metres apart for examinations,” he says.

“So how can they come together to prepare and play sports?

“Go further. Look at kids playing Gaelic games at U20 level, a grade that always seems to be run off at the end of the year.

“Will that grade be done away with for this season in order to run other competitions off? As I said earlier, what are the priorities?

“There are other obvious issues — the notion that rugby might be back last is understandable to some extent given scrums and rucks and how close people are to each other in those, but rugby isn’t the only sport where people are close to each other — there are rucks and scrums in modern hurling as well.”

Well, that’s the man’s game, after all. Little wonder he signs off on a hurling note.

“Tony Holohan (chief medical officer of the HSE) reminds me a bit of Brian Cody,” laughs Considine.

“I’ve seen all of Cody’s press conferences over the years, and seen people’s reaction when he says ‘Offaly are a serious threat, we’re taking this seriously’ — even though they’re beating Offaly by 20 points or whatever. The focus is always on the immediate stuff, what’s right in front of him.

“Holohan is a bit like that, people talk about the rates of testing or whatever but he focuses on today’s numbers, the immediate issues.

“But there was the time Brian Cody wasn’t too happy with Marty Morrissey asking about the penalty that Kilkenny got in the 2009 All-Ireland final, and there was a bit of that in Holohan too one evening.

“One of the reporters at the briefing asked about something he’d explained the previous evening; Holohan said he’d gone into a lot of detail in the previous explanation, and the reporter said he hadn’t been there.

“But there was a flash from Holohan, because he said, ‘No, you were’. Just that one time, but it was there.”

What was in store...

Munster SFC quarter-finals: Waterford v Limerick, Fraher Field; Tipperary v Clare, Semple Stadium.

Leinster SFC Rd 1: Louth v Longford, Wexford v Wicklow, Carlow v Offaly. Joe McDonagh Cup, Rd 1: Antrim v Westmeath, Kerry v Meath. Christy Ring Cup, Rd 1 (Group 1): Offaly v Derry, Sligo v Wicklow; (Group 2): Roscommon v Kildare, Down v London.

Connacht SFC quarter-final: Mayo v Leitrim. Ulster SFC preliminary rd: Monaghan v Cavan, St Tiernach’s Park. Leinster SHC Rd 1: Dublin v Kilkenny, Parnell Park, Laois v Galway, MW Hire O’Moore Park.

Munster SHC Rd 1: Cork v Limerick, Páirc Uí Chaoimh; Waterford v Tipperary, Walsh Park; Munster MHC Rd 1: Cork v Limerick, Páirc Uí Chaoimh; Waterford v Tipperary, Walsh Park.

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