Club or county? At this stage, who gives a damn what comes first so long as Gaelic games return safely. But what are the benefits to each leading the GAA’s return to organised play?
Only when the clubs are back can the GAA truly say they are back. Until such time, they are operating in a limited capacity. The return of club action will be a reason to cheer, the equivalent of a massive sigh of relief as players tog out across the country. But it would also signify one of the greatest examples of the Association’s resilience.
Not to be mistaken with mass gatherings but we know that events up to 5,000 will not be licensed up until September 1. There’s a question of whether that rule applies to sports events that don’t require such permission but it does offer a guideline. The vast majority of club games, certainly not early championship fixtures, won’t challenge that figure unlike the inter-county game.
As it has been said often, counties have no income right now. The challenges in preparing county teams without a revenue stream are obvious, certainly when you consider what has been spent on them in recent years even if that will be a fraction this year. It may be that some counties could source financial assistance from various benefactors as opposed to going through the board but not all are so fortunate to have that option.
For the members.
For those who have given so much to help their communities over the past three months, putting their clubs first would be a real acknowledgement of their efforts and a thank you for representing the GAA so well during the crisis. It is they who led the line, who abided with the current pitch closure. The reward of their colours being worn in championship fare would be a most deserved one.
Staging club championships in late summer would not only be an achievement in itself but, if it’s possible, returning the club, who we’re told are supposed to be the cornerstone of the organisation, to the centre of the GAA would, as former Dublin footballer Noel McCaffrey said recently, highlight where Croke Park’s true priorities are. It may also inspire a more radical fixtures plan in the years ahead.
No more than what Tony Holohan’s daily announcement between 5pm and 6pm has become, it’s a number game for the GAA as well. If mass testing is the advice of the advisory group then that rules clubs out for logistical reasons. Even at that, the cost of conducting examinations at county level would be significant and likely need to be subsidised but it’s more possible than club. Inter-county fixtures could also serve as a dry run or even a buffer until it’s safer for clubs to return in October.
How can the same argument be made for county? Well, there remains the opportunity for the GAA to recoup some of the €19m they were due to collect from commercial rights this year in the form of media rights and sponsorship. In the event of little or no crowds being permitted, that income would be dearly valued as GAA staff this month feel the brunt of heavy cuts to their wages because of no inter-county action.
A point made by Davy Fitzgerald in the media this week. County teams have been training since before Christmas. They at least have some match fitness in the bank as much as it is being devalued with each lockdown day. Clubs, other than those who concluded the 2019-20 season back in January, have hardly played save for some league action. They will need time to build themselves up for championship. Counties may not require as much or should be told that they don’t.
For the people.
Providing the vast majority of games, considering they might be knock-out, can be aired on national TV and radio, pensioners and those either unable or concerned about going to games would be able to follow them. As Liam Sheedy and John Kiely have said in recent weeks, it would give the nation a lift and something tangible to look forward to when so much hope has been lost.
Were a Championship to be played in the late summer and early autumn, it would be a markable show of strength by the GAA in the face of a pandemic, which has shaken it to its core. Fitzgerald and John O’Mahony are among those who have spoken of the benefits opening club pitches will have for members’ mental health. The same goes for the counties fighting it out for the Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire Cups. The weekends they occupy are the markers by which many of us measure our days. Were they to return with the sun still high in the sky, it would mean a part of the world feels right again.