WHEN the GAA’s director of finance, Ger Mulryan, released his financial report for 2020 last week, which showed the GAA having incurred a deficit of €34m last year, Mulryan was duty-bound – from his perspective - to hint at what may now need to happen next.
Despite the 2021 fixture calendar already been drawn up, Mulryan said that calendar must now strike a balance providing games for all club players and the financial benefits the inter-county game delivers.
“It is not too late to see the Championship relocated to the backend of 2021 and to allow club to go first when restrictions hopefully begin to ease from late spring to early summer,” wrote Mulryan.
“The relocation to the latter half of 2021 would require a further redraft of the current fixture calendar but it would be remiss of us not to continuously review all options during these unprecedented times.”
It is a fair point but what does now happen next? It’s inevitable that many with Croke Park would see it making more financial sense to stage the inter-county championship later in the year when crowds can return to stadiums.
For a start, running the club championships first would more than likely mean no provincial and All-Ireland club championships again in 2021.
Given the tight window of preparations some inter-county teams had for last year’s championships, especially when compared to other counties which concluded their club championships earlier, running the club championship first again could lead to much more club-county friction this time around.
The main equalising factor of an inter-county championship going first in 2021 is that every county would be starting from the same point. Teams will always believe that they need to try and get a jump on everyone else. It’s inherent in the Irish mentality to try and get ahead of the crowd down the road. But if there is no league this season, and if teams don’t have as much preparation time as they’d like, at least everyone knows that all the other competitors are on the same start-line.
The size of the leagues, and the scale of travel involved – even with regional groupings - may have been a factor behind the Government’s recent decision to remove the Level 5 exemption from inter-county activity.
The GAA said two weeks ago that no plan could be put in place before the Government release their revised Living with Covid plan, but clarity is still being craved by everyone in the GAA.
“It’s very difficult for everybody at the moment,” said Meath manager Andy McEntee recently to Colm Keys in the. “Trying to get players ready and then letting them down again, there will be a number of players countrywide who will say ‘I’ve enough of this. This isn’t worth it. This is madness.’”
McEntee outlined his surprise to hear on radio that it was always understood that clearance to allow inter-county games to go-ahead late last year was a temporary exemption.
“It wasn’t understood by me or other inter-county managers and it definitely wasn’t understood by the players,” said McEntee. “Another winter championship is not very appetising. At the same time, if that is the way it has to be, at least come out and say it. Don’t be dragging this on.”
The unknown has been the most difficult part, especially since the downgrading of inter-county from the elite status. That decision may have been laid at the Government’s door, but the mixed messages within a vacuum hasn’t convinced everyone that it was solely down to the Government.
“Look, the elephant in the room here is finance,” said Carlow football manager Niall Carew. “If they (the GAA) said ‘Listen lads, the big thing is we’re not going to get enough revenue now, whereas if we get ye back in September, we might be able to run off the league and championship, and we’ll get more revenue in to keep the whole thing going.’ Just come out and say it. Don’t be hiding behind it.”
Managers, especially football managers, have been keen to have a forum on a range of important issues, such as competition structure changes and what the shape of the season may now look like. The debate has been raging on a WhatsApp group, but short and long-term planning is all the harder again when everyone remains so unsure as to what may happen next.
Trying to prepare training programmes is difficult when the table keeps spinning. Motivation is a whole different subject again, especially when players are unsure if an inter-county season might possibly be pushed back again to winter.
The GAA community fully understands the gravity of the current public-health situation. Returning to train and play is down the list of priorities when compared with getting kids back to school and reopening businesses and the economy. But returning to train and play is also crucially important for so many people in that quest for a return to some semblance of normality.
The phased return of kids to school will accelerate any GAA decision around return to play. As of now, inter-county looks set to go first but Mulryan did hint last week at what many within Croke Park are still thinking.
Whatever happens next, the message needs to be much clearer this week. Because everyone wants clarity now.