THE sound of summer returned last week.
GAA pitches reopened their gates for the first time since March, as sliotars were pucked crisply between posts and football were planted firmly into nets all across Cork. That was just for the adult teams; a full return for teams from juvenile up commences today.
It will be greeted joyously by those directly involved in teams but also parents and those who work behind the scenes. As we re-emerge from the Covid-19 lockdown, players and coaches need time to recalibrate of course. The endless cycle of wall-ball sessions, trick shots and 5k-runs to fill the GAA gap has come to an end.
Soccer clubs were able to train again since mid-June but many, especially their underage sections, are carefully laying out their plans.
Rugby is in the same situation.
The difference with GAA, of course, is that this is the peak period for the sport. Inter-county sizzles in the summer but this year it won’t begin until October. There are still details to be ironed out to ensure all young hurlers and footballers are provided with a fixture programme, so the adult club window runs smoothly and that Cork teams can prepare ahead of the ‘winter’ All-Ireland series.
A few key dates have already been allocated. The hurlers were drawn in a Munster semi-final against Waterford on the October Bank Holiday weekend, most likely at Semple Stadium. A favourable draw, for both counties, as Tipperary, Limerick and Clare are on the other side, but there is a backdoor anyway.
Cork host Kerry in unique circumstances at Páirc Uí Chaoimh a week later. For the first time since 2000, there will be no safety net of the qualifiers.
After rattling the Kingdom last summer, they’ll be forewarned but Ronan McCarthy has made real progress with the team since coming in at the end of 2017. They’ve a couple of league games from October 17 to tune up, though Kerry have the advantage of facing Division 1 opposition, Cork are in Division 3. That could prove telling.
We don’t yet know how many fans will be able to attend those. When League of Ireland comes back Cork City will host teams at Turner’s Cross behind closed doors in a reduced season.
If watching the Premier League and Bundesliga in recent weeks taught us anything it’s that sport is about the shared experience. Jock Stein famously said: “Football without fans is nothing.”
There have been some stunning goals and deft flicks and tricks. Yet looking at TV games in empty stadiums can’t come close to capturing the connection forged watching with other supporters and enthusiasts, or even rivals.
While the return to training is being carefully managed, the simple joy of a group of players and coaches working on their skills, staying fit and having fun in the process is glorious.
It’s why so many volunteers in the GAA, soccer, rugby and beyond have offered their services to work as Covid supervisors and officers and help players return to doing what they love.
And it’s what makes it so frustrating that there are a few issues that need to be resolved for some of the younger age groups.
Rebel Óg bizarrely decided that U13 and U15 players or those on the second teams in the bigger clubs all the way from U12 up to minor, didn’t matter enough to organise proper competitions. We’re not talking about substantial programmes of matches either, at U12, U14 and U16 it a very basic league is coming in with three hurling and three football rounds.
Since they’ve tweaked it so second and third teams can be entered at U14 and U16, which offers U13s and U15s the chance to play up. Not giving those who don’t make the first 20 at minor a competition of their own is a complete abdication of responsibility.
Equally bewildering is the Camogie Association’s decision to cancel the minor All-Ireland but not the U16 version. This despite the fact two rounds were completed before lockdown.
Cork were going for three-in-a-row but that’s purely incidental to the fact it’s a terrible call, on a par with Rebel Óg’s. Are we not supposed to try and keep everyone playing sport?