A FEW weeks backs, one newspaper ran a couple of features across two pages which highlighted, what many see, as the conflict between the inter-county and club game.
The first piece was an interview with Monaghan manager Seamus McEnaney, the headline of which was: ‘If John Horan’s job was not to give us hope, he succeeded.’ The second article was a piece on the Club Players Association (CPA), which ran under the headline: ‘Club Aces reluctant to Return.’
McEnaney described the time in the middle of the previous Sunday, when Monaghan were supposed to play Cavan in the Ulster championship as his “most difficult hour” in the last three months.
McEnaney’s mood darkened even more later in the day when John Horan stated on The Sunday Game that evening that without any end to social distancing, there would be no matches at any level.
The second piece had a more circumspect tone because a CPA survey showed how only 57% of club players are willing to return to training until a Covid-19 vaccine is discovered. The poll – in which 3,008 players took part – also showed that 22% of players are not prepared to return to action for their clubs.
Around that time, some inter-county managers had become legitimate targets for expressing a hope that – as long as health and safety was the priority - there could be a return to action before October.
It was portrayed as the elite inter-county game trying – once again – to put themselves ahead of the club game. Yet as Mayo footballer Aidan O’Shea said recently, putting the county before the club was more about the environment being safer, than the inter-county game being prioritised ahead of the club.
“Is the inter-county game a little bit more controlled in terms of numbers, in terms of resources?” asked O’Shea. “I would think it is.”
Because of that thinking, the return of most sports around the world has centred on the elite first, in that it would be easier to monitor and organise elite teams.
However, the GAA have always insisted that club activity will have to resume first before any inter-county championships. Of course, nobody knows if, or when, games can go ahead, but everybody is still hoping.
That flame will become stronger again if community transmission of Covid-19 dries up, and testing capacity increases.
There is always the possibility of a spike in the infection rates, but the numbers still offer the kind of hope that wasn’t there six weeks ago.
Sport is massively important, but rebooting the economy, and trying to get as many people as possible back to work, was always going to be the priority once the numbers started to become more positive.
In that context, the economy and the speed at which businesses return will dictate the speed at which sport will return.
As that pace hopefully increases, the pressure on sports organisations, especially the GAA, will decrease.
The biggest challenge though, would be trying to ensure safety across the board with so many clubs involved in competitive games.
How might that happen? When the CPA conducted that survey, almost two-thirds of respondents (64%) said they would train or play if there was temperature checking in place.
That would be a solid starting point. If matches did get the green light, could all the rounds of one particular championship (Senior, Intermediate, Junior) take place over one particular weekend?
Teams could come togged and go from their car to the pitch, and back to the car immediately after the game. Hand sanitisers would be in place around the grounds.
Having such a large volume of games at the one time may mean moving matches around the counties to smaller venues. Yet pitches have never been in better shape. Furthermore, capacity to each game could be restricted to 500-1000 people, with tickets on sale in local shops on a first-come-first-served basis. That arrangement would be difficult in the bigger counties, especially Cork where so many club games take place. The availability of enough referees would be another issue. But if certain arrangements needed to be in place for a club championship to happen, county boards could at least try and find a way.
Of course, the CPA figures can’t be ignored either. Any player who doesn’t want to play should be fully supported. Other players may need to be protected from themselves, especially those with a condition like asthma.
Others may need to be stood down, especially if they’re living with a parent or sibling with an underlying condition, but who want to play. That may lead to internal conflict but safety has to be the priority.
On the other hand, would a championship be a fair championship if some teams are short players for those reasons? But that’s a question that the GAA, and the local communities, may need to answer in time.
Is the risk worth taking? Are clubs prepared to go ahead in those circumstances so that the bulk of their community have something to look forward to?
All of this is just conjecture at the moment. But it’s no harm for clubs to be planning ahead, just in case. And at this stage, hope is far better than nothing.