RTE launched the new Sunday Game season last Sunday night despite a lack of live games thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, and there was little from the big interview with GAA President John Horan to suggest live action of any sort or creed will be returning to our television screens any given Sunday soon.
Instead of offering any hope for the millions of sports fans across the country, those of a non-GAA disposition as well as the diehards, Horan only deepened the doom that had followed GAA announcements in the wake of the Irish government’s publication of its roadmap to recovery document on Friday.
Speaking to Sunday Game presenter Des Cahill, Horan confirmed July 20 as the earliest possible date for a re-opening of GAA pitches. He also reiterated that county football and hurling will not return before October, and then suggested no play will be possible in either game and at any level as long as requirements for social distancing remain on the government agenda.
The Dubliner reassured GAA members, players, and volunteers that the GAA would not undertake any return to play that would place any of them or their families at risk of catching the coronavirus, even if the GAA could be hit with a €50 million deficit due to a lack of games this year.
“If social distancing is a priority to deal with this pandemic I don’t know how we can play a contact sport, and that is what Gaelic games is a contact sport,” said Horan, despite the government approval for limited sports training in small groups on May 18 and more accessible non-contact training in early June.
“I think everyone was taken by surprise on Friday night because no one knew what was coming. It did give everyone a bit of an uplift to feel that we were coming back.
“We had to examine it and look at it closely and there was a concept in it that people had to gather together in groups of four, but we felt that it couldn’t be marshaled by people in our clubs because our clubs are led by a load of good quality volunteer people and to put the onus on volunteer people to make the decisions to police and organize training within our facilities, we just felt that would be too much on them.
“I’ve had contact since from one or two club chairmen who said, ‘Thanks for taking it out of our hands,’ because we were concerned how we were actually going to police it within our grounds.
“We took our time but we have taken the right decision in this matter. I think people’s health and safety is the key to it all. We’ll be taking our information from the health authorities to see is it safe and it’s only if and when it’s safe that we will actually allow training and our games to recommence.
“Taking that information on board, then we’ll make that decision and we won’t bring it up to the line. We’ll be making that decision on a constant. We’re on executive calls every day and we’ll keep reviewing and updating so we’ll be staying on top of things in the next period of weeks.
“Ultimately there is a huge responsibility to get this right and if one club, be it a playing area or whatever, developed into a cluster for Covid-19 that would be a very bad day’s work on our behalf and that’s one thing we are very conscious of.”
Clubs will come first when the GAA does give the green light for a resumption of activities, and Horan made no apologies on Sunday for putting the county game second on the priority list.
He added, “We’re quite comfortable to say that we are going to go with the club game first because it impacts on the greater number of people -- 98 percent of our games are club games so if we play club games, it’s inclusive of everybody because the county players would get the opportunity to play with their clubs.
“Then we can actually make the decision to return to the inter-county game. It’s a contact sport decision that is going to influence it so whether at county or club level I don’t see a major distinction between the two of them, but the impact throughout the organization would be far greater if we actually got the clubs back.
“I would hate to think as an organization, that we would have made a decision that would have cost any family a member of their family.”
Reaction to the GAA’s decision regarding a return to play has been mixed. Offaly football manager John Maughan, for example, doesn’t believe the GAA will be in a position to play any Championship games this season and says the association can’t plan for any return until a vaccine is found for coronavirus.
Maughan’s team was due to play Carlow in their opening Leinster football championship game last weekend, but the game may never now be played according to the former Mayo manager.
“I love the GAA and I am missing it terribly as everyone is. The reality is while we have social distancing, which is a public health requirement, I certainly wouldn’t advocate a return to play and that applies at inter-county level and also at club level,” said Maughan.
“The idea of 36 people congregating in a dressing room doesn’t work for me with social distancing, and then the players out on the field in close contact would not be acceptable.”
No GAA activities will resume before July 20 at the earliest, with counties not expected back in action until October as the emphasis is placed on the club game once restrictions are lifted.
“We are all extremely disappointed and we know it’s completely out of the control of everybody in this jurisdiction,” added Maughan.
“But I wouldn’t want to see anyone jeopardize their health or the health of their families by engaging in any activity that might create havoc in their lives and remember, playing any sport, whether it’s Gaelic games or other, it’s a lifestyle choice and a pastime and I would not like to see anything being jeopardized for a pastime.
“We are all missing it. We are a structured cohort of athletes and there is a strict, disciplined approach to the way we do things and that’s all been thrown up in the air.
“We’ve been keeping in touch with our players with Zoom calls and just trying to have a bit of fun with them online because I think they need that. Ordinarily, they would have great structure to their lives and you have a group of people who have become very close to one another. It’s the GAA family and they rely on each other and now there’s a huge void in their lives.”
Like Maughan, Laois hurling boss Eddie Brennan believes a vaccine will be needed before top-class competitive sport returns in Ireland for players and fans alike.
A policeman in his day job and well aware of the risks posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, Kilkenny legend Brennan said, “If I’m to be very, very honest at this point and from my own experiences of the last eight or nine weeks, I think we are staring down the barrel of a gun here, and I’m not sure we’re going to see any championship action this year.
“I know there is a focus on trying to get the clubs back, but I think if you were to examine all the things that are going to have to happen for that to happen, the regulations that are going to be surrounding club matches even... there’s so much involved and I think it’s going to be very, very difficult.
“I think the reason the GAA is holding off is because that one answer is definite - and that’s no Championship -- the other one is that we’re hoping against hope that there’ll maybe be a vaccine. You just have to go with what the GAA is instructing.”