How GAA grassroots has gone from flattening the coronavirus curve to a steep learning curve

For a club with approximately 1,000 playing members, there’s a truckload of work to get through ahead of June 29. And for those officers overseeing Ballincollig’s return-to-play preparations, the ever-evolving protocols coming down from Croke Park have been both a help and a hindrance.
How GAA grassroots has gone from flattening the coronavirus curve to a steep learning curve
GAA clubs nationwide are preparing for a June 29 return to training. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson
GAA clubs nationwide are preparing for a June 29 return to training. Photo: INPHO/Tommy Dickson

For a club with approximately 1,000 playing members, there’s a truckload of work to get through ahead of June 29. And for those officers overseeing Ballincollig’s return-to-play preparations, the ever-evolving protocols coming down from Croke Park have been both a help and a hindrance.

Ballincollig chairman David Walsh - just to clarify - doesn’t actually use the word hindrance. Adapting to the changing guidelines to make sure the club is ready to reopen its gates on Monday week is very much a “welcome headache”. Indeed, his tone is suggestive of a man for whom the day can’t come quick enough when the club’s senior footballers and U10 hurlers get to step back inside the whitewash.

The GAA released its 25-page Safe Return to Gaelic Games document on Friday, June 5. Ballincollig officers and coaches digested its many tasks but didn’t straightaway set about ticking the various boxes. It was decided to hold off for a couple of days just in case any further requirements emerged.

The following Thursday, a club meeting was held. Jobs were delegated, the work commenced.

A medical isolation room was identified. This is where temperature checks would be carried out. Four thermometers, the same as those seen used in other sporting realms of late, were to be purchased.

Then, of course, it emerged temperature checks would not need to be conducted on club grounds, that questionnaires would not need to be collected before each session.

“We have all got to try and understand that things are moving, constantly changing,” said Walsh.

“You have to prepare, but preparing to what level is the thing. We have got to be patient to make sure we are preparing to the right level as things are changing very quickly.”

He offers an obvious example.

“One of the things we are very conscious about is the signage around pitches. But we have also got to be conscious we don't waste money either because no club I know of has money coming in. We don't want to purchase signage that will quickly go out of date. If we bought the two-metre social distancing signs, they could be gone out of date by next week. We have to be mindful that there is no waste.”

With four pitches available, all teams from U10 upward will return from June 29. The youngest age-groups will return in early to mid-July.

One of our problems is space because the groups that want to come back are so big. It is a wonderful complaint.

“You have to leave half an hour between one group exiting and the next group coming in, which limits the time available, but everyone understands the situation. What is really coming through is people are proud to play for Ballincollig and want to get back playing for Ballincollig.”

Michael O’Mahony is chairman of Passage West. He’s also an engineering officer at Cork University Hospital.

Having been part of the detailed planning that went into readying the hospital to deal with Covid-19, he’s hoping to now transfer this experience across to the GAA sphere as the Cork club dot i’s and cross t’s ahead of June 29.

Unlike Ballincollig, not all Passage West teams will flood through the gates on Monday week. The club has decided only the junior hurling and football sides will return immediately. Any difficulties or issues which may arise upon the resumption of collective training will be ironed out, with all remaining teams then reintegrated on a phased basis.

“It is going to be new to us all, we’re all learning as we go,” said O’Mahony.

“CUH was well prepared, and prepared for the future too, God forbid, if a second wave came. It does help when you're transferring across to the GAA side of it. Now, I received great help from our juvenile chairman, Eoin Barry, and our ladies chairperson Kieran Keane who both have been very proactive. When it came to the GAA for the last couple of months, I was kinda non-active because of being so busy with work.”

The club’s preference is that the Covid supervisor linking in with each team would not be a member of that team’s management group. This, of course, creates the difficulty of attempting to bring on board additional volunteers at a time when people remain cautious to keep to a minimum the numbers they’re coming into contact with.

There’s also the risk of clubs wasting time and energy putting in place a Covid supervisor for a team who may have no competition to come back to.

O’Mahony continued: “In terms of preparing the grounds, we are looking at a one-way system for cars entering and exiting. We’re getting our signage at the moment. We do have hand sanitizer, but we’ll still be asking kids to bring their own, if they have some.”

What they won’t have to provide are temperature checks.

“You would have had to buy equipment. It would have been a lot of money, which clubs aren’t exactly flush with at the moment."

Coaches and officers in Derry club Dungiven, no more than Ballincollig and Passage West, breathed a sigh of relief when Croke Park provided this clarification.

“There is new information coming out all the time,” said Dungiven chairman and 1993 All-Ireland winner Kieran McKeever.

“We had done a Zoom call with all our underage coaches to talk to them about the initial guidelines. Then, all of a sudden, it changed, which took a lot of pressure off as there were coaches worried they would have to take temperatures every night, collect questionnaires every night. A lot of responsibility is going to go back to parents.”

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