The announcement by the Government today (here) on mass gatherings this summer has cast further doubt on the viability of Championship action resuming any time soon. The Government confirmed that gatherings requiring local authority licences to cater for crowds in excess of 5,000 will not be permitted this side of September. While the statement made no mention of sporting events, it’s being interpreted in the media (see RTÉ report here) as including such events.
Assuming that the licensing requirement does extend to GAA matches, this means that the ban on crowds over 5,000 will remain in place until after the date that’s currently scheduled for this year’s football and hurling All-Ireland finals. I think it’s fair to conclude that those dates have now been blown clear out of the water.
That doesn’t yet mean that the GAA is out of options. It could try to play at least some of the matches behind closed doors, though the practicality of doing so – especially in the months of June and July – has to be questioned.
In any event, what the GAA desperately wants is to see punters flocking through the turnstiles again as the vast bulk of its annual revenues come from ticket sales for matches. Most of that revenue is now unlikely to be realised this year and a decision to push ahead with a closed-door Championship would ensure this is the case.
The GAA could, of course, aim to run off a shortened Championship – a re-run of the 1984 Centenary Cup, anyone? – which, in theory at least, could be wrapped up in six or seven weeks. It could aim for a December decider and work the format back from there. It wouldn’t, indeed, be the first All-Ireland final to be played in the depths of winter.
But you’d have to wonder if there’s any point. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused such dislocation to life in general, obliterating the sporting calendar in all codes right across the world, that it’s almost unseemly to want to see the Championships – whatever the form, regardless of the match-day arrangements – played to a finish before the book is closed on 2020.
The GAA has always said that its clubs lie at the heart of the association. While clubs have become used to a diet of platitudes from on high down the years and have, in particular in recent times, had to play second fiddle behind the inter-county juggernaut, the fixtures hiatus caused by the pandemic presents the GAA with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make the clubs the main focus of its annual activities.
In a way they already are, with club volunteers up and down the country involved in priceless work in their communities, helping to make sure that those in need of support are looked after. That volunteer ethos was always there and it’s still there now at a time in this country’s history when it’s needed more than ever.
What a fitting tribute it would be, then, for the GAA to announce that, once the go-ahead is given for sporting events involving crowds of less than 5,000 to resume, its pitches will be given over exclusively to club action. This would ensure that the vast majority of GAA playing members would get to play matches in the summer months – when did that last happen? – while supporters would be able to get out and sample some live action once again.
If it turns out there’s still time in the back-end to squeeze in a rapid-fire inter-county Championship as well then so much the better. But if there isn’t then there’s no harm done either.
We’re all fated to remember 2020 for reasons other than football and, in relation to the GAA, what we’ll want to recall about this year was the great work done on the ground by club volunteers. Putting club action at the top of the GAA’s agenda for 2020 would be a very fitting way to recognise this.