NINE days ago, Colm Parkinson tweeted a photograph of the Portlaoise senior football team togging out underneath a gutter as they prepared to play St Joseph’s in a key Laois county championship match.
As O’Moore Park was host to a quadruple-header of games that day, a small area in the stand was made available for two teams to use at any one time. However, with the Portlaoise-Joseph’s clash the final game on the bill at 7pm, their players were forced to get changed elsewhere as there was only a tiny window of opportunity to use the stand after the 5pm game finished.
Portlaoise’s base is only over the road but they were still forced to make do in the circumstances, with 13 players and backroom team sheltering in a tiny alcove. A physio table was laid out with one player sitting on the verge of the table wearing only a pair of shorts, socks and runners as a physio worked on his back and arm.
At least they had some small degree of shelter from the spilling rain but, for the five other players who couldn’t fit into that space, they were left standing under a gutter, with three wearing hats and two more with their hoods pulled up to prevent them getting wet before playing a key championship game.
The photograph naturally sparked some reaction on Twitter, with Kieran Lillis, the Portlaoise and Laois footballer, the first to reply to Parkinson’s tweet.
“At least we had the gutter, St Joseph’s had nothing, complete madness. Laois GAA are just implementing the rules but inter-county teams were allowed to tog out in dressingrooms for league and championship – what’s the difference? Open the dressingrooms!”
Parkinson, the former Laois and Portlaoise player and now media presenter who runs his excellenton JOE.ie, didn’t need much of a push to keep the debate rolling.
“Togging out in the stand was a nuisance but when the games were behind closed doors at least it was possible,” he tweeted. “Now the stands are full of supporters. Players being shafted. The people making these decisions are not togging out in the cold and rain. 3 more weeks of it @officialgaa?”
Parkinson was still up in arms about it a day later when he sent out his last tweet on the issue. “The St Joseph’s and Portlaoise players were sent home in dirty, wet gear as showers were not permitted. A lot of the Portlaoise lads went home, showered and came back in and sat together in the pub. On what planet does this make sense.”
It makes absolutely none. It makes even less when the rules have an a la carte element to how they are being implemented. In the vast majority of cases, dressingrooms aren’t open. Yet, sometimes, they are.
With the weather getting worse and the days getting shorter, players have to continue to face the elements for the guts of two more weeks until dressing rooms can officially open when the Government plans to lift all restrictions on October 22.
An update from Croke Park in September informed clubs that dressing rooms may be used as changing facilities only before and after games but with a maximum occupancy of six people at any one time. In the North dressing-rooms are permitted to be open but the advice is for usage to be “avoided or minimised where possible”.
Allowing six people use dressing rooms at any time is largely unworkable considering the numbers most senior squads now carry. It’s also impractical from a logistical and coaching perspective, especially in pre-game scenarios.
The GAA’s directive in September also stated that pre-game, or half-time team talks, should continue to take place outdoors, while recommending that “shower facilities are only used where absolutely necessary”.
Delivering team talks while players get cold in the spilling rain certainly isn’t ideal while not allowing them to shower afterwards is probably more of a health risk than leaving players sit in wet and damp clothes, sometimes for up to an hour after travelling long distances, before getting showered and changed.
It’s even more of an anomaly when club players watched inter-county squads use dressing rooms for inter-county matches throughout the summer, as Lillis outlined. It’s even more frustrating again when club players continue to get changed outside in worsening conditions, and particularly when the vast majority of the population are now fully vaccinated.
When nobody was vaccinated last winter, the dressing rooms in Croke Park were open for inter-county squads to use at the latter stages of the 2020 All-Ireland championships.
Even when dressing rooms were open for inter-county teams from the outset of the championship in June, it was initially proposed that July 20 would herald another milestone in the return-to-play roadmap, with dressing rooms everywhere being allowed to re-open.
However, the GAA's Covid Advisory Group agreed in mid-July 'on a risk stratification basis' that they would remain closed beyond July 20.
"One of the key parts of our control measures around keeping clubs safe is trying to keep players outdoors as much as possible," Feargal McGill, the association's director of player, club and games administration said at the time. “Purely from a common-sense basis, it doesn't make any sense for the GAA to open dressing rooms at this stage."
The GAA will hardly back down now but, nearly two weeks out from when all restrictions will be lifted, it does make sense to open dressing rooms now.