ANOTHER week in the new reality.
Last Saturday evening anybody with a hint of sporting interest in them probably snatched at least a glance at the return of football in Germany, that weird mix of empty stadiums and Erling Haaland still scoring goals like nothing had changed, and the reaction generally tended towards either mockery for being not football or euphoria for being football.
Honestly, the lack of fans or atmosphere kind of drifted away after a while and it just felt good to see a game again, to realise that a different football was better than no football at all. While it lasts of course, it could all fall apart next week because nobody knows and anybody who says they do are bluffing.
And then this weekend, well, we ought to be heading to the Páirc for a proper look at whether Cork’s resurgence of last summer and this spring was real or not. This is sport 2020, wondering if this is what the new normal is and trying to make the most of what we have, the collective realisation that this might be the only show in town for some time.
If GAA games without crowds can happen (the health, moral, logistics) is another argument, but should GAA games happen right now? And what would they look like?
First, the practical elements.
Home advantage might be something that’ll play itself out a little differently. In the games played last weekend in Germany, only one home team won. In studies done on European football, the home team wins 46% of the time, but in closed-door games, that falls to 36%.
Refereeing decisions are a factor here with more yellow cards and frees given against the away team always, where in the NFL they found that when they brought in video replays, the percentage of home wins went down, same with the Premier league after VAR.
There’s just the general home advantage also, of the fans and the different dynamic the atmosphere can add to a game with a bigger noisier crowd level.
We read a piece last year about how one of Jurgen Klopp’s first steps as Liverpool manager was to weaponise Anfield, to create a relationship between team and fans that generated a really difficult overwhelming kind of fury for opposition — Pool’s record at home in the league is incredible for the last two seasons.
Think how different it might be to play at Anfield with nobody there. Think even Turner’s Cross, where every successful Cork City side has always been backboned by a brilliant home record and how this might be difficult to achieve with no fan to make a racket and a tempo.
This translates to GAA as well. In studies done on inter-county games between 2009-2018, the favourite won approx 80% of the time when playing at home, approx 55% of the time playing away and approx 65% of the time at a neutral venue.
Would Dublin be more likely to lose at an empty Croke Park? Would Cork footballers have a better chance at slaying the Killarney problem or would they already have done so in say 2015 or 2010 without the influence of home crowds on decisions?
In a purely statistical sense, the outcome of games behind closed doors would almost certainly be affected.
And then, well, there’s everything else, the very idea of championship matches without supporters and whether that kind of event maintains anything of the substance of what it’s meant to be about.
Yes, of course several Cork footballers already made the joke that playing games without crowds isn’t all that alien to them anyways — anyone who’s been in Páirc Uí Rinn on a dreary February Sunday afternoon to see Cork fans outnumbered by Down or Mayo travelling fans knows what that feels like.
But there are a bunch of loyal followers who go to almost every game, who made the trip to Leitrim back in February, whose best days out in the last 20 years have been comeback wins over Kerry in the Páirc or that semi-final with Dublin in 2010 and who have that awful contradictory feeling about a championship game without fans allowed — they can’t fathom not being at a Cork game that’s going on, but it’s a really desperately long year without games to watch and worry about.
Can a Cork-Kerry game have the same meaning without the boys from Bantry or the Barrs or Ballydesmond making a day of it?
Is a Cork-Tipp Munster hurling final in Thurles real if there’s no walk down from the square or red jerseys packed together on the terraces?
What would a fetch from a puck-out sound like without the ground-shaking roar? Does a GAA game without the crowds and the shared experience still serve the fans or is it more about the players by then?
Look, European football is too big a business with too much potential lost revenue and players being paid far too much to not at least try to get back playing in this half-life.
In some ways the premier league clubs are about their cities and the lives of their fan-bases but they’re also about entertainment and bringing their clubs and game to the millions watching around the world. Aside again from the professional element and wealth which makes this possible logistically now.
The GAA have plenty of direct and indirect earners missing out and the matchday takings would be a severe hit to take on a year or two or more away from any action. Still, a TV audience would surely be a huge draw.
Players aren’t obliged to play and yet you only need to read all the different viewpoints to realise there’s no consensus here yet from players.
Like the fans there’s this nagging feeling that they can’t play until things are safe with the same sense that they can’t just not play indefinitely either, this need for sport in people’s lives that will make everybody (and even reasonable voices like Liam Sheedy are asking for some possibilities here) try and find a way to make it happen in some form.
We’ve gotten messages from players who would play in the right circumstances. It wouldn’t be games as we know them, but it might be games. The call will be if that’s better than nothing right now.