Silent sidelines: A Championship weekend like no other

Players weren't the only ones pining for a return action as stadiums remained locked and empty across the land.
Silent sidelines: A Championship weekend like no other

Players weren't the only ones pining for a return action as stadiums remained locked and empty across the land.

The sights, the smells and sensations that marked the start of summer

Michael Moynihan, Irish Examiner columnist

Items missing from last weekend: coins stashed in the car door for the tolls, and empty to-go coffee cups in the footwell. Match programmes in the bag with the scores scratched in, and the third spare pen slipped into the bag with them. Another - another! - ticket wadded in the pocket and a car pass - hopefully - folded on the dashboard.

More from the missing in action file: the oniony tang that lives under every stadium stand, along with the briny breath that comes from every wide-open GENTS. The sharp smell of liniment and embrocation and Deep Heat that gasses out from behind the dressing-room doors as you’re waiting for a player to come out, or the Lynx-and-soap combination that comes radiating off the player who does come out. Other elements that weren’t available last weekend: white and blue and blue and gold, red and white and green and white, and whatever combination was nearest yourself.

The only one to be seen was green, and that wasn’t available because the grassy rectangles all over the country are shut away behind closed doors. Another missing strand from yesterday: the fuzzy yaw of a PA telling you about a substitution, the clanging of different accents in the stand, the faraway hiss of a voice on a transistor radio relaying another match in another county, the ‘well’ and ‘good luck’ that start and end the conversations.

Also absent: the rhythm peculiar to all of those Sundays, with the early start and the sky still bright on the way home, the way time concertinas in the middle of the afternoon with the match, and the traffic jam afterwards that works like a decompression chamber.

Missing from last weekend, all of it. Not forever, though.

No more than everyone else at the moment, I am missing the games

Conor Lane, intercounty referee.

Us referees typically cover 11.2km during a championship match, or at least we should be. I ran that distance on Saturday, but not within the confines of a pitch or with a whistle in my mouth. Instead, it was just myself and a quiet road, my 11.2km run feeding into the combined 810km total which 72 referees clocked up over the weekend to raise money for Pieta House.

No more than everyone else at the moment, I am missing the games. The GAA is such an integral part of our summer, always has been. You’d miss the smell of freshly cut grass arriving into a venue, the atmosphere, parsing through the game with my four umpires on the drive home, making sure to get home in time to see The Sunday Game, reading the papers on Monday morning; you’d miss all these small things. It is an absolute privilege to be involved on championships Sundays. I never take it for granted. Hopefully, we will get it back at some stage.

I do my final session on the Tuesday before a championship game, a 45-minute speed session in the GAA field in Banteer. I’ll do another small bit on the Thursday, but only to loosen out the legs. My four umpires travel with me to all games, we’ll have a chat about the day ahead before we set off on the road as once you get to the venue you simply wouldn’t have time given all the boxes that need to be ticked, such as getting wired up, warming up, signing sheets, and all of that.

I really enjoyed my opening championship game in 2019, Mayo v New York in Gaelic Park. It is such an iconic venue, the train practically running overhead. It was lovely to be able to mingle and chat with supporters that weekend, particularly after the game, where normally you’d nearly be lifted off the field by security lads and you wouldn’t see anyone between the final whistle and getting back out to the car.

The GAA statement, as disappointing as it was, gives clarity at least.

Shane O’Brien, Westmeath manager.

Westmeath were to play Antrim in the first round of the Joe McDonagh Cup, probably up in Dunloy, so we would have been going up the night before and staying overnight somewhere in Belfast. It would have been a busy weekend moreso for me given this would have been my first championship game as an intercounty manager. It’’s a full-time job and you’’re constantly communicating with players, management, county board. I’’d love to have been doing it all over the weekend.

We were in a very positive position in that we had a good conclusion to the first-half of our season after beating Carlow in the league relegation final so I’’d say there are very few teams who could have said the same given the way it all ended. The key thing for us is that we maintain open lines of communication with the players. The GAA have given their guidelines which we fully respect and understand. We have had regular Zoom contact – the latest buzz – and a few creative challenges that we have done with the players, quizzes and skills challenges and stuff with their S&C coach, Mike Frawley. There’’s only so much of that you can do without an end point. In some ways, the GAA statement, as disappointing as it was, gives clarity at least. It’’s a very serious situation that we’’re facing with COVID-19 but it has been beneficial in being able to pause and reflect. Like all inter-county people who’’d been going non-stop for so long, I’’ve done a lot of GAA webinars. That’’s an opportunity to upskill and keep in contact with people. I’’ve engaged with the team Zoom workouts as well so I’’m being put through my paces.”

A new world for the GAA, and for media coverage of the GAA, lies before us.

Enda McEvoy, Irish Examiner columnist.

Here are some of the things I didn’t do yesterday. Get up at a respectable hour. Be on the road at a respectable hour. Sit in a press box. File a report or postmortem of some kind. Go home. Watch some or more of the Sunday Game. Get to the pub just before closing time to mull over the events of the weekend with Tony, my Sunday night guy. Here are some of the things I didn’t do in that non-existent press box yesterday.

Drink tea. Eat cake. Exchange one or two items of industry gossip. Reflect, not for the first time, that the – ahem – style on show in a GAA press box is unlikely to form the basis of a photo feature in GQ magazine. Enquire loudly, “Hey, who hit that ball into Callanan again?” Chances are that, give or take the press-box stuff and the friend called Tony, you too would have been discussing the same things last night.

What esoteric new formation in purple and gold did Davy unleash against an unsuspecting Eddie Brennan? Did Dublin manage to go the distance against Kilkenny? How did Waterford cope at home to Tipperary? And have Cork finally learned to defend? It’ll be nice, and vastly reassuring, to be back in a press box again, whenever that will be. It’ll also be different.

Numerous sports reporters have been laid off around the country. Some will be back in the fullness of time; some, on the basis that this in an inflexion point for the Irish newspaper industry in a way the recession wasn’t, will not be. I’d always assumed that provincial papers here would, like those Japanese soldiers still fighting World War 2 on obscure Pacific islands, be the last ones to hold out. I’m not so sure now.

The Tipperary county board, bless them, tweeted support during the week for local business and in particular for the county’s three newspapers. “They have provided excellent coverage of our games for generations and we want to ensure that continues in the future.” A new world for the GAA, and for media coverage of the GAA, lies before us. It is unlikely to be a better world.

The good days will come again, but last weekend wasn’t the same without them.

Mike Finnerty, Gaelic Games commentator with Eir Sport and Sky Sports.

Instead of being immersed in the start of this summer’s GAA championships on Irish soil, I found myself looking forward to seeing Mayo take on Dublin in the 2017 All-Ireland Football Final (one more time), followed by the 2018 All-Ireland Hurling semi-final between Clare and Galway. Go figure!

Who’d have thought a few short months ago that we’d have to make to do with classic games from the archives instead of high-tailing it all across the four provinces in search of new memories? This will be the first summer since I was 9 years-old that I won’t get to see a championship match in the flesh across the high season months of May-September. As the years flew by those trips gradually became busman’s holidays, and for more than a decade now I’ve got to see the championship unfold from the crow’s nest of a TV commentary box.

The days leading into most summer weekends for as long as I can remember have been filled with homework, note-making and watching teams ‘on tape’ to spot the tell-tale wrist strappings, helmet colours and body shapes. All the hard work that goes into being ready when the ball is thrown in. Last weekend I missed all that that hard work, not to mention the sheer thrill and the adrenalin rush of the 70 minutes. Those days will come again, but last weekend wasn’t the same without them.

There’s only a few crows and pigeons looking in at it.

Jim Kelly, Groundsman at O’Connor Park, Tullamore.

Looking after grass is very simple at the moment, there’s nobody doing any damage to it. It won’t stop growing.

I’m in at the pitch every day, doing four to five, maybe six hours a day. You’d be pottering around at bits and pieces, cutting grass in the evening when everything dries up, getting machinery into order in the morning times to keep everything sharp, and we’re after doing a good bit of reseeding. The goalmouths have been fully repaired and we’ve germination sheets down.

We’re keeping everything ready but there’s not an awful lot we can do only try to keep the place clean. Everything is locked up. There’s nobody in here only myself in the evenings and the other caretaker, Michael, does a small bit in the mornings. It has to be kept. You can’t abandon ship on that part, you have to keep it looking good. If grass gets out of control, it’s very hard to get it back into shape.

We’re in a situation where very little work will have us ready for the weekend when we get the call to go. If it were the first week heading into Championship, we definitely wouldn’t have germination sheets. We’d have everything ready for it, without having the same amount of time to get repairs done. Getting everything trimmed up, getting the pitch marked, checking nets, checking goalposts, it would take up our weekend from Thursday night until the match on Sunday.

You’d miss the company coming in, you’d miss the chat with the stewards, you’d miss the action, and you’d miss the supporters, having the banter with all them coming in. It’s the time of year when there’s a bit of atmosphere around the place but there’s nothing at the moment. There’s only a few crows and a few pigeons looking in at it, and other than that it’s quiet.

Unfortunately, piping is not compatible at all with social distancing.

Ger Neville, Pipe Major, Seán Treacy Pipe Band.

Usually, the Munster Council would book the bands for the pre-match parades around six weeks beforehand. The Sean Treacy Pipe band are generally involved in the early rounds and last year we got the Munster final as well.

We had four games in Thurles last year. It’s our summer activity. Once Patrick’s Day is over, GAA is the main thing. Inter-county and the county championships as well. We’’d have been getting serious the last couple of months. Fellas would need a better excuse to miss practice. A match coming up in Semple Stadium, you have to get straightened out.

We have a band hall of our own, purpose-built in Littleton in 1991. But you’re only going down to check it once a week, it’s locked up. We suspended practice since the Monday before Patrick’s Day. Fellas are probably doing a bit at home but the dynamic is completely different. It’s no-man’s land, same as everyone. We don’t meet at all. And fellas miss the coming together, the chat you take for granted.

The bit of news and craic. We’ve a couple of lads who are 77, with 60 years service. It’s tough on them. The virtual practice wouldn’’t really work. It’s not practical. It’s all about playing together. When you’re playing in a circle you are going to hear the fella beside you made a feck of it, and you can go again, but you can’t really hear that on a Zoom call. It might be a nice once-off to keep fellas interested, or for a chat. And that’s an important aspect too, the social side. Life has changed utterly. We’d travel together in cars to outings. Close contact.

And if a fella is missing a cap or a tie, you’d give him your spare one. But everything will change, even when this is over. Unfortunately, piping is not compatible at all with social distancing. Saliva is a major player. There’s a lot of blowing in those reeds. And sometimes a fella might be struggling and ask you to give a blow of his pipe. It’ll be a long time before we do that again.

It’s the lack of freedom that I miss most.

Micheál Egan, Semple Stadium scoreboards operator.

I’d have been in Walsh Park as a supporter yesterday but next Sunday I would be on duty in Semple Stadium doing the scoreboards for the Clare game. I’m at it seven or eight years now. Micheál Hassett was doing it before me when they became electronic and before him it was Larry Barrett with the zapper on the side. I sit beside the press box in the gantry over the Kinane Stand.

Liam O’Donoghue, the public address announcer and myself, would be in the one booth. I’ve a laptop in front of me to input the scores and I’d have Twitter open beside me to cross-check that them with what the reporters are putting up there. The fourth official is also watching and if he thinks there is something wrong he’ll tell Tom Maher, the stadium secretary, and he’d phone up to us. You have to be open to the fact you might not be right.

You can vary what is put on the scoreboards but for the Killinan End we have the regular score and the Town End with the points combined between goals and posts. The Killinan End scoreboard is  out of action at the moment and it will be either be repaired or replaced. The HawkEye system is a different one in Thurles to the one in Croke Park as we don’t have the screens so we have to wait for the Tá or Níl above the Town End goal.

It’s okay if the umpire puts up his hand for HawkEye to check a shot but if HawkEye contradicts it then you’re the same as everyone else to see what happens and you change the scoreboard accordingly. It’s the lack of freedom that I miss most. It’s not that we’re tied to our homes but we can’t go where we want. The fact nobody knows what’s going to happen with the GAA year adds to the confusion. If we were told it wouldn’t be on until next year we would have to try and get on with it. You’re hoping it will happen but there’s something in the back of your mind telling you it won’t.

I’d have likely been in Cork yesterday and Tipperary next weekend

Robert Ryan, Semple Stadium chief steward/Munster and Championship senior steward.

There’s a great buzz and excitement on Championship day and like any other fan you feel it but as chief steward and making sure everybody is doing what they should be doing on the sideline you don’t see all of the action. People would often ask me what I thought of a game and I couldn’t give them an opinion. I have to record the games I’m at just to see what actually happened. You’re there on the sideline to keep the peace but it’s all just heat of the moment, harmless stuff.

Two minutes after a heated word or two and you could see the two managers up the sideline having a snigger with one another. There are some great characters involved but the most important thing you have to realise is they have a job to do. Rules and everything like that have to be adhered to but they’re under serious pressure at that time, 20,000 people shouting for them and 20,000 shouting against them.

Then with the crowd, there simply has to be rules for their safety. Some people don’t like that they can’t bring in drink but we have to insist on it. We would be there from early in the day to ensure that everything is in place and for hours afterwards just to sign off and debrief from what went on earlier. I would be directly employed by the GAA - Tipperary GAA, the Munster Council and Croke Park. I’d have likely been in Cork yesterday and Tipperary next weekend. I also have my own security services company and we supply security for the outside broadcast units in rugby too.

For Sky Sports, we would also look after their staff and help to get interviews. It’s only a small part you play but you’re glad to play it.

It is almost like being in a corporate box with the great view of the pitch

Brian Stapleton, former Laois hurler who lives alongside O’Moore Park.

“I didn’t need much persuasion when we were looking at buying this apartment back in 2013. It is on the top floor of a complex which runs alongside O’Moore Park, Portlaoise and is situated almost bang on the halfway line. I was involved with Laois at the time we bought (playing hurling for the county from 2009-2015) so it made a huge amount of sense in terms of being closer to training in Rathleague and then for matches itself.

It is almost like being in a corporate box with the great view of the pitch - and then you can stroll back a few feet and make a cup of tea. Last year, when Laois hurling was going well, we were very popular on matchdays! On the day of the win over Dublin we had 21 people here watching the game. My brother Colm is still playing for Laois so that would have meant another big crowd here over the weekend for the match against Galway. It is so strange nowadays looking out on the pitch.

The surface looks in fabulous condition but there are no markings, no flags, no colours, all of the things you would associate with O’Moore Park in early May. Instead the ground is now being used as a testing centre so at least it is being put to good use. One of my proudest days since I moved here was on the pitch in 2016 when I captained Borris-in-Ossory/Kilcotton to the club’’s first Laois SHC title.

It was a wonderful occasion for the club and was also nice to get bragging rights at home as my wife Róisín was the one with all the medals from her time playing camogie with Johnstownbridge and Kildare.

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