IN the middle of the last week, the completion of the 2020 National Football League looked to be hanging on by the barest of threads, especially when the Fermanagh squad was effectively stood down after an outbreak of Covid-19.
The uncertainty was exacerbated by the deteriorating public health situation, particularly in Northern Ireland, but the decision to proceed with the league was taken by the GAA’s management committee in a remote session.
A similar meeting of the county chairpersons earlier the same afternoon also decided that if any county had to withdraw from a league fixture, the match would be forfeited regardless of the consequences for the counties involved.
The GAA certainly want to try and avoid forfeitures, especially given the impact scoring differences could have on deciding promotion and relegation. But that was never going to be easy for Fermanagh when the bulk of their squad couldn’t come out of quarantine until a day ahead of their first league game against Clare tomorrow.
The whole situation was further complicated again when a forfeiture would relegate Fermanagh to Division 3.
Fermanagh’s formal request with the GAA’s Central Competition Controls Committee (CCCC) to have the game deferred was turned down on Wednesday. All along, the mood within the squad appeared to be that if the request wasn’t granted, the players would decide to forfeit the match.
Fermanagh manager Ryan McMenamin said that the decision would more than likely go to the wire: “It will probably go down to Saturday night,” he said “which is not great for Clare, Croke Park or for me.”
McMenamin though, knew he was in a near-impossible position from the moment the first players on the squad contracted the virus. McMenamin said he couldn’t ask players returning and recovering from Covid-19 to line out in a league game.
“We’re in no shape to play Clare,” said McMenamin. “We do want to play it but you’re looking at the level of preparation. I don’t want the boys to become a circus and kind of going ‘We’re just being rolled out here to play football here when we’ve done no preparation’.”
Yet if Fermanagh don’t play against Clare, they may not field in their last game against Laois either. That’s unlikely to happen but the line is so fine in Division 2 that – outside of Fermanagh - every county is still in the hunt for promotion, with just three points separating the other seven teams.
Fermanagh’s situation though, has compromised the division, and the likely outcome.
“Everyone has to be made aware it’s not going to be an even playing field,” said McMenamin. “You kind of ask yourself should there be relegation in the league, if we’re not afforded the same chances as Clare?”
In that context, especially with potential forfeitures – which could happen any team if an outbreak was to occur in the days leading up to a game – it’s going to be extremely difficult for the GAA to decide promotion and relegation, especially when Division 2 is likely to come down to scoring difference or head-to-heads.
However, scoring difference can’t be considered unless all the teams involved have played the same number of games. If teams were to need separation on scoring difference, with some having played Fermanagh and others haven’t, the Fermanagh difference would be discarded.
The GAA couldn’t set a precedent on Wednesday by granting a postponement to one team when another county could make a similar request next week, which would completely derail the competition.
The situation is more complex again because of the emotional and historical significance attached to what could yet be at stake, especially if league positions are central to the proposed new championship format next year, and the introduction of the Tailteann Cup.
If that is introduced (nobody knows yet what will happen in 2021), a team which finishes in Division 3 this year, may not – unless they reach a provincial final next year – be able to compete for the Sam Maguire in 2021.
The GAA are keen to get the league concluded this year – with the top team in each Division being crowned champions – because next year’s leagues may have a different set-up.
With the championships concluding so late, it is expected the leagues will commence later next year, probably February. They are also set to be played over a shorter period with each of the four football divisions possibly divided into two groups of four, with the groupings possibly based on regions to avoid long-distance travel.
In that regard, if the GAA are to introduce the Tailteann Cup next year, the make-up of the competition would have to be decided on how teams finish in this year’s league.
Fermanagh’s case is the extreme, but teams everywhere will be trying to balance difficult equations over the next two weeks. With the distance involved for some teams, do those squads travel long journeys individually or on buses? Hotel availability is another issue; Fermanagh were told last week they had their hotel cancelled because of Level 3 restrictions – even though inter-county teams have a dispensation to travel.
Despite the lockdown in Northern Ireland, the Ulster teams will be able to play but short term planning will still be a headache for all teams teetering on the brink of relegation, but conscious of not going flat out ahead of a championship match at the end of the month; if Donegal beat Tyrone on Sunday – which would secure their Division 1 status - it’s unlikely they’ll send a full squad south to Kerry a week before they face Tyrone again in the Ulster quarter-final.
Otherwise, Donegal will need to go to Kerry at near full-throttle to try and stay in Division 1.
The league is back. But it’s unlike the conclusion to any league in living memory.