The Covid-19 pandemic has seen the unprecedented suspension of all GAA activity, for fourteen weeks and counting. Last weekend the GAA published a road map that it hopes will see a safe return to action at all levels. We asked SEAMUS DUKE to zoom in on the issues arising. He linked up, via Zoom, with four well-known GAA personalities in the county to discuss this extraordinary, barren GAA summer, the mooted return to action, and the challenges that arise both on and off the field, at club and county level
OUR ZOOM GUESTS:- Peter Carney (PC): Peter Carney, the current Elphin manager, is also a well-known underage coach. Michael Finneran (MF: Michael Finneran of St Dominic’s GAA Club is manager of the Roscommon Ladies Senior Football team. Hugh Lynn (HL), Hugh Lynn is PRO of Roscommon County Board and a national ‘PRO of the Year’ winner. Michael McDonnell (M McD), Michael McDonnell is chairperson of St Brigid’s GAA Club
SD: What have you all missed most since the lockdown began?
M McD: I have definitely missed the football, and the activity around the clubhouse. I know everyone talks about championship, but to me, I love the league and I love the league matches. I love going to grounds where you meet the usual three to four guys who are in every club, the old stalwarts that you have the cup of tea and the chat with, and you go out and play the match, and while we want to win every game we play, there isn’t the same pressure on players or officials (in the league). You have a chat after it’s over. You shake hands at the end of it, which you can’t do now either!
SD: You don’t miss the meetings?
M McD: One good part of it is that I don’t miss the meetings! But in all seriousness it is very difficult on clubs at the moment. From our own perspective our income stream has evaporated. I really miss going to the matches most of all. I just miss going to the ground and enjoying a game and being close to the action.
HL: As a teacher, I miss the children in school. I haven’t been in work since the 12th of March. With regard to the GAA, I definitely do not miss the meetings. I do honestly miss the craic at the matches – and that could be an U-14 league game or an adult league game or whatever is on. I miss the craic and the banter. I also miss the actual activity, as in being busy with regard to, for example, the county teams. I also miss being in the car. I filled up the car last March and it hasn’t been re-filled since! But I have been walking and cycling and I’m thoroughly enjoying that.
MF: As Hugh said, from a work point of view, you’d miss the kids, number one. I also miss the social outlet that football is – and it’s more of an outlet than I realised. I really enjoy the social element of being involved with the team, and I miss that. It’s the same with work. I miss the ‘get up and go’ and the drive – from a football point of view I suppose I fed off that drive – of having a training session in the evening time, or having a match to plan for. The rug was pulled from under us on that front…certainly the social thing is a lot bigger than I realised. So I miss that, and obviously the actual football and the actual training sessions.
PC: I miss the matches and being involved with the club. In Elphin, we were going to be playing senior league this year. I miss playing matches, meeting players and meeting people from other clubs. You just miss meeting people. Work-wise, I love meeting the kids in schools and watching out for players and I certainly have missed that too. Also, the social end of the GAA, all the people I used to meet during the day, and in the evenings. Zoom meetings are alright, but they are just not the same. I am involved with development squads, and this year I was due to be involved with the U-14s, so that’s gone for the moment. You’re seeing talent coming through. So I miss all that. But there are other things we don’t miss, such as the time spent at it (the GAA)…the amount of hours we spent with the GAA, the time spent away from home, was unreal. It’s only now we realise that. But it’s the social end of it that I miss most really.
SD: When GAA action eventually resumes, will there be the same level of interest as before?
PC: That’s something that I have thought about over the past few weeks. The amount of time that players, especially county players, give to the game is phenomenal. Their whole life is given to playing football. They are training or playing almost seven days a week. I would say that some players who are nearing the end of their careers might just ask can they give all this time?
MF: I would say that players would be asking the question ‘what am I spending all my time at this for?’. To be honest, a lot of us had too much going on in our lives before Covid-19 came along. I was spending an awful lot of time at football and I didn’t really need to be spending that much time at it. Some of our players are probably doing more now than when this started, but they are training on their own. We did a few online sessions, we’d be on Zoom…but we are in off-season mode now.
M McD: I think the interest will still be there. There will be some people who might be re-evaluating, but I think we had come to the stage where we had to (begin to) think smarter…about club players commuting and all of that. We should be looking at trying to facilitate players in Dublin and stop(ping) this endless hours sitting in cars. We had individual fitness programmes in place there for a while but it is very difficult to keep that going. I feel there is a huge appetite among players to get back on a pitch and start playing football again. The age profile of our team is very young. I would agree that there may be some older players, especially on the county set-up, who may say I can’t commit that time going forward.
HL: The GAA club grounds that have walking tracks are opening. I think there are eight clubs in the county with dedicated walking tracks, so they can reopen, no problem. But there are quite onerous conditions being put on to clubs, to ‘police’ it first of all, and then there will have to be signage, etc. There has been demand for this for some time, because the roads aren’t that safe for walking on. I think most people would welcome a return to training in July, and club games in August, with a possibility of inter-county action later in the year. The other thing that needs to be looked at is…young people have really suffered massively. I want to see young children out in the GAA field kicking a ball in the fresh air. Young people have suffered massively in all this so there is a need to address their situation and to have them out and about would help.
SD: You will all agree that it’s very important for young people to exercise and play. Should the Cúl Camps go ahead this year if they can be safely run?
PC: There is a lot that needs to happen before the camps can be held. To try to achieve social distancing for players…eight-year-olds to 12-year-olds…that’s going to be difficult. We will probably have to have smaller numbers. The Cúl Camps have been very successful and the kids really enjoy them, but if the format was changed and the camps were cut down in terms of size and what they could do, I am not sure that the kids would enjoy them as much as was the case in the past. There would have to be far more supervision as well. Kids need to go to the toilet…who’s going to give them the hand hygiene, disinfectant, etc. – these issues will have to be addressed. There will need to be a number of coaches (present) and they have to be tested. Some clubs may be reluctant to open their pitches to Cúl camps if their own club isn’t allowed to train.
M McD: We might be putting the cart before the horse on this one. If we haven’t been trusting our adult players to adhere to health regulations – and they understand the risks involved – how do we expect kids of that age to? The kids are being told that they cannot go back to school until September, yet we are expecting them to go to Cúl Camps. So we have to be very careful.
SD: Covid-19 will have massive financial implications for every facet of the association…what are your thoughts?
HL: There’s no money coming in. There’s very little going out. The big costs have stopped. One of the big costs for the county board would be the preparation of teams. But definitely, there’s no revenue coming in. Clubs are in the same boat and it’s all going to have a massive impact. That’s one of the reasons that might encourage the powers that be to move things on a bit. I cannot see a provincial championship at club level taking place. Finance-wise, Roscommon needs its gates – and its games – every other county is the same. So realistically there has to be games.
PC: Clubs are finding it hard now. We see that ourselves. All the clubs are the same. There’s no money coming in, but I suppose the good thing about it is there’s no money going out. We will have to see what the implications are for sponsors in the long run and that will be a worry for every club.
M McD: We’re (St. Brigid’s) caught from all angles. Our clubhouse bar has been closed, pitch rental (gone), which would be a big one for us, then you take your club lotto too. We had a major fundraiser planned for Easter but that was called off too, so we have taken a major hit right across the board. The biggest concern you’d have is when you go back out into the marketplace – whenever we open up again – what kind of state are these loyal sponsors going to be in? It will be difficult knocking on doors. It’s going to be a slow build-up again, to get people back onside again. But everyone is in the same boat. Look, it might make us all take a look at ourselves. Maybe we’ll realise within club structures that we were all overspending. We’re all guilty of it to a degree. Maybe when you’re chasing the dream you do over-extend yourself at some stage. But someone has pulled the handbrake with this virus, so it may be time to reassess – because I think clubs are going to be in a different climate.
MF: It’s hard to know what the financial implications will be with regard to county teams but the situation is that everyone is in the same boat and we will plan ahead accordingly when the time comes. The whole fixtures’ situation in the GAA needs to be looked at…the whole system is overrun. I think the season goes on way too long. I’d love to see a discussion on that before the end of this year, but that’s probably a pipe dream.
SD: The GAA have finally produced their long-awaited ‘Safe Return To Gaelic Games’ document, which charts a path forward to the return of action at club and inter-county level. What’s your initial reaction?
HL: I would warmly welcome the plan. At least now we have a set of guidelines. We are taking small steps, but at this stage we know what those steps will be. This plan will be operated by volunteers in every club and the Covid officer will now have a big role to play at club level and with every team. Each club will now have to start to make plans immediately with things like outdoor hand-washing facilities and other requirements under the regulations. We have a few weeks to do that now. I’m delighted that players will be able to go back training and playing and they have dates now that they can aspire to. With regard to the inter-county championship it would be marvellous if the All-Ireland final was played on the 100th anniversary of ‘Bloody Sunday’ on the 22nd of November in Croke Park.
PC: It’s great that we can see light at the end of the tunnel. I’m glad that club players can get back training from July. But it will be a very big job to police all this and clubs will have to get cracking at it straight away. There will be a huge amount of work to comply with the regulations. But the news that there are definite dates about training and playing will give everyone a lift. Players will now have a date to aim for and that’s very positive.
MF: I have to say I was wary about any definite plan but now that it’s here I’m glad we have it. We have something to aim for now, and it is much easier to plan ahead. The fact that clubs will be back first is a no-brainer and I am glad that our players will have a bit of club action under their belts before the county training starts. This situation will have to be policed well but we will have the advantage of seeing how it is being dealt with at club level before the county season starts. You have to say it’s a very positive development.
M McD: The fact that there is a plan is very welcome, but there are a few things that would worry me. Firstly, the Covid officer in every club will be a vital role. That officer will have a huge workload because compliance will be key. I can see a problem with regard to fixtures and club players. There will be no club training until the 1st of July. Then club players are expected to play championship only four weeks later. Does it mean that clubs can play challenge games over that four-week training period? It looks like there will be no league games to prepare teams and my fear is that the club fixtures are being shoehorned into a very narrow window. To be honest, I would much prefer to see the club championship start on the 1st of September. I know that the inter-county games are planned for October, but my fear would be that we are rushing into a club championship without proper preparation.