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GAA have to plan for September start at best

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Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Minister for Health Simon Harris. Photo: Sasko Lazarov/RollingNews.ie

Maybe it's not quite official, but you can almost take it as read: there won't be any mass-attended festivals of Irish sport before September.

The latest Government decision banning gatherings of over 5,000 is aimed, in this specific case, at licenced events such as music festivals.

Perhaps it's a small consolation to the Croke Park accountants that no concerts were due to take place in Headquarters this summer.

But the inevitable presumption, among leading GAA officialdom, is that this edict will also extend to all sporting events in Ireland, this side of September, liable to attract crowds of over 5,000 spectators.

Such a ban would impact adversely on all major sports organisations in the country - but primarily the GAA, given that high summer is prime Gaelic football and hurling season, the time of year when crowds flock to Thurles and Killarney, Clones and Castlebar, Páirc Uí Chaoimh and Croke Park. But not this summer.

The key clause in yesterday's Government statement was this: "Events requiring licences in excess of 5,000 will not be considered for the period up to the end of August."

Now, whatever theoretical/infinitesimal hope you still harbour of touring Stradbally in early September for the Electric Picnic, the near-certainty is that you can forget about packing your ham-sambo picnic for Croker the month before. It won't happen.

In fairness, the GAA hierarchy already knew the score even before this latest development, which merely crystalises what was already made palpably clear by the Minister for Health, Simon Harris, over the weekend.

In some parallel universe before any of us had heard of coronavirus, let alone understood its all-encompassing and deathly implications, the All-Ireland senior hurling final was due to take place on August 16.

The senior football final was pencilled in for August 30.

But last week, without saying it so bluntly, Croke Park accepted that an August end-game was already off the table.

In a Covid-19 update statement on Tuesday of last week, the GAA declared: "The senior inter-county championships, scheduled to begin in May, will be postponed until further clarity on the current situation is available. However, it is the Association's view that it is highly unlikely these will be rescheduled any time before the beginning of July, at the earliest."

"At the earliest" offered a strong clue that this optimistic timeframe was liable to be overtaken by events beyond its control - which it was, as speedily as last weekend.

"It's highly unlikely we're going to be seeing very large kind of mass gatherings this year," Minister Harris told The Sunday Independent - a comment that threw the very future of Championship 2020 into stark relief.

He speculated that you "could you get to a point where you can't have massive GAA matches, but you could have local kids having a kickabout safely, that's the sort of space that we're in, that we need to work our way through."

These comments shifted the debate in another direction: would it be feasible to run off the GAA's flagship championships behind closed doors? This would come at a huge financial hit - overall gate receipts last year rose to €36.1 million, or over 48pc of central revenues for 2019.

The vast bulk of this income was generated in the championship months, so it's hardly a surprise that the GAA won't countenance this draconian Plan B until all other options are off the table.

However, it may reach a point where the Association is forced to decide between playing a championship with no fans, or playing no championship at all.

All of this presupposes that the Government, and the public health experts, even reach a future decision allowing elite team sports (even behind closed doors) to proceed before a Covid-19 vaccine becomes reality.

Leaving aside the complication of crowded dressing-rooms full of players, subs and backroom teams, how can you reconcile the oxymoronic juxtaposition of contact sport and two-metre social distancing?

All of these yet-to-be-answered conundrums help to explain why the GAA wasn't in a rush to issue yet another public response, last night - even more so given initial confusion over what events were covered.