IN Croke Park at the moment, the barriers on Hill 16 have been removed.
Those are part of temporary measures put in place by the GAA, which they had hoped might allow more supporters to attend championship fixtures there later in the year.
With the GAA having planned for seats to be installed on the famous terracing when the stadium is allowed to reopen, GAA president John Horan suggested in June that up to 42,000 fans could click through the Croke Park turnstiles if the Government were to reduce social distancing from two metres to one metre.
That certainly seems fanciful now, especially when the Government’s move to place further restrictions on sports events has placed a question mark over the future of the inter-county season.
Croke Park consulted with counties in recent days as to what might happen next, but the decision could yet be taken out of the GAA’s hands, especially if increased restrictions shred a timetable that already has little or no room for manoeuvre.
If the GAA had to shut down club activity for even two weeks, the inter-county season could effectively be dead in the water. There may still be a window just about big enough to conclude county championships, before beginning a heavily condensed inter-county championship. But would the will be there to keep raging on against a tide that everyone knows could suddenly engulf the inter-county championship at any moment during the winter?
Finance is also a massive issue in this debate. With the likelihood of this year’s campaigns being played behind closed doors, any championship is going to cost more than it's likely to be able to raise. A championship would still unlock commercial and TV revenue but that still wouldn’t offset the costs incurred by individual county boards completely devoid of their usual revenue streams.
The Department of Sport’s announced funds of €40 million to be distributed between Gaelic games, rugby and soccer won’t be released to county boards until October at the earliest. That won’t be much help to boards already until pressure to finance the preparations of their inter-county teams.
On Thursday though, Croke Park announced that centrally-sourced financing will be made available to county boards in the coming weeks. However, the GAA would need a separate source of funding to stage an All-Ireland championship. It would be difficult for the GAA to go looking for additional public funding when the economy is on its knees, but there is still hope within Croke Park that additional state funding or credit could be made available to the GAA.
Despite the recent public frustration with the new lockdown measures, and how the GAA have appeared annoyed with the Government’s attitude towards them, the Government are keen for the inter-county championships to go ahead.
There is no doubting their importance from a mental and psychological perspective, especially in giving people something to look forward to at the end of a very difficult year. Protecting public health is the priority but, for many people, the thought of no inter-county championships to shorten what will otherwise feel like the longest winter in history, is already too unbearable to even contemplate.
A final decision won’t be made until next month, a week before county panels are due to return, but there appears to be a growing determination to stage an inter-county championship.
A GAA statement on Thursday confirmed that, pending updated public health advice, there was “an increased optimism and appetite for inter-county games”. The Gaelic Players Association’s chief executive Paul Flynn also wrote to members saying that “there is a positive will within the GAA to complete both the club and inter-county seasons successfully”.
Whatever happens in 2020, everybody accepts that the GAA is facing a long and arduous road ahead. The Association’s biggest challenges may not arise until next year but there have already been portents of what might happen.
The provincial and All-Ireland club championships have been scrubbed from the calendar for 2020-’21. The All-Ireland Colleges hurling and football championships were boxed away before conclusion. The inaugural Tailteann Cup inevitably had to be canned.
At least the success of the club championships has copper-fastened the necessity for a split season but will there be a place for all of the old competitions – at all grades at inter-county, colleges and club level – in the future?
Although these are unprecedented and highly challenging times, the GAA have been here before at senior inter-county level. In the first four decades of the GAA’s history, championship seasons were often dragged into the following year but they always got finished.
In 1918 the Spanish flu outbreak stopped the championships but the GAA still concluded the season by February 1919. The 1920 All-Ireland championships were torn apart by the War of Independence and not finished until the summer of 1922.
The championships in the early part of the 1920s were subsequently delayed. By the time the GAA eventually caught up with itself in 1924, the 1923 and 1924 All-Ireland hurling finals were played that season within the space of three months. The 1924 football championship though, proved more difficult to conclude, with the final not taking place until late April 1925.
In its 136-year history, the only time the GAA failed to declare All-Ireland champions was in 1888. The reason was the ‘American Invasion’ when teams travelled to America on a fundraising venture.
The GAA have always found ways to deliver their All-Ireland senior champions. But this year could be their greatest challenge yet.