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Better late than never for  managers who had lost star men for 2020, through travel plans or injury, but who will now have them back - all because of Covid

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Roscommon’s Diarmuid Murtagh, Tipperary’s Michael Quinlivan and Kildare’s Ben McCormack were all expected to spend 2020 travelling until their plans were turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic

Roscommon’s Diarmuid Murtagh, Tipperary’s Michael Quinlivan and Kildare’s Ben McCormack were all expected to spend 2020 travelling until their plans were turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic

SPORTSFILE

Roscommon’s Diarmuid Murtagh, Tipperary’s Michael Quinlivan and Kildare’s Ben McCormack were all expected to spend 2020 travelling until their plans were turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic

Today in Hyde Park, Diarmuid and Ciaráin Murtagh are due to feature for St Faithleach's against St Aidan's as the Roscommon intermediate football championship gets under way.

A fillip for Faithleach's - but also a boost for Roscommon manager Anthony Cunningham as he contemplates the GAA's Project Restart.

In a world without Covid, Roscommon might be still in the championship - or they might not. Cunningham would definitely have been minus Diarmuid Murtagh (goalscorer in last year's Connacht final win over Galway) and his older brother Ciaráin, who had opted out last season. "They were to go travelling but that didn't happen," Cunningham explains.

They are not alone. The pandemic has wreaked havoc on the travel plans of many county footballers who had stepped away this season.

Immersed Quite a few of them are now back home and immersed in club activity. All of which means that when the Allianz League resumes in mid-October, followed by a straight knockout championship running almost until Christmas, they will jump straight back onto the inter-county treadmill.

You will struggle to extract any positives from this global catastrophe, but here is one. For those counties who will have star players back in October, either because they never got away or because season-threatening injuries have cleared up, an end-of-year Sam Maguire race is definitely a case of better late than never.

* * * * *

Managers are relieved, not merely to have a season rescued from the claws of coronavirus but to have game-changing players back.

Yet it's all relative, as Mickey Graham reminds you. Reflecting on last weekend's return of competitive club action, the Cavan boss quips: "I think the Accident and Emergency Department on Sunday evening was pretty busy with footballers!

"But look it, that's the risk. I'm sure every manager is probably just fingers crossed that all their key players come through the club season without any serious injuries.

"But it's inevitable," he adds, "because most counties are going to be playing seven-eight games in eight weeks. So, it's going to be a big ask ... you'd like to think a lot of your players will come through it all unscathed but you have to be prepared for the worst as well."

As matters stand, Graham is one of the luckier ones. Niall Murray underwent surgery to repair a quad injury back in February. Initial reports suggested he would miss the season; he played for Cavan Gaels last weekend.

"Covid has given him an opportunity to get serious work done. Hopefully he'll be able to get back into the swing of things and be another option for us," says Graham.

Cavan were beset by several high-profile defections in the closed season, most notably Dara McVeety, Conor Moynagh and Killian Clarke.

McVeety is still in Australia and Moynagh in New Zealand. But Clarke, who opted out to clear up injury niggles, has returned for Shercock.

"Dara and Conor are still on their travels," Graham confirms. "I don't think they'll be back, as the club season is up and running ... but who knows? The situation might change in the next couple of months.

"As regards Killian Clarke, he's basically back playing with the club and we'll see how he perorms. Hopefully he'll come through without any repercussions of the knee injury that he had."

Likewise, Graham will be keeping a watching brief on several other erstwhile panellists who had stepped away: "I've said it from day one, the Cavan panel is always open. Players playing to form and if players want to play, they'll get the opportunity."

The Cavan case study is replicated in several other counties. Off-season defections were particularly prevalent in Divisions 2 and 3 this year - but now several of those counties are poised to reap the fringe benefits of a pandemic.

Potentially, Clare could have three key players back in harness: All-Star nominee Jamie Malone had planned to go travelling for the year; their evergreen totem, Gary Brennan, had also opted out after getting married and amid talk of summer travels; while centre-back Aaron Fitzgerald was out after tearing his cruciate on club duty last September.

Clare boss Colm Collins has lost Seán O'Donoghue, an American citizen who has emigrated to the US, but Brennan and Malone are on home soil and could well rejoin the panel "depending on what happens in club championship."

In a normal GAA summer, Fitzgerald wouldn't have made it back; Collins is confident he should be fit and ready by October.

The only trouble is that Clare's Munster quarter-final opponents, Tipperary, will also be stronger in this unique 'staycation' year. Michael Quinlivan, their 2016 All-Star attacker, had aimed to spend the whole year travelling but returned early and has committed to assist David Power in his maiden campaign. Three others have also become available: Liam Casey, Colin English and Paudie Feehan.

Several Leinster counties are also set to be bolstered. In Kildare, Ben McCormack's Australian odyssey was cut short and Mark Dempsey is also back on Irish soil - two important players at either end of the field that otherwise Jack O'Connor would have been denied this summer.

In Longford, Robbie Smyth, Barry McKeon and Darren Quinn are all back available to manager Pádraic Davis. The Mullinalaghta trio of David McGivney, Aidan McElligott and John Keegan won't be, having ventured to Australia.

Laois were another to suffer off-season departures. Stephen Attride is still in Australia while neither Donie nor Paul Kingston is expected back. But two players who wouldn't have been around for a summer championship - Gareth Dillon and Paddy O'Sullivan, the latter on an overseas tour of duty with the Army - will now be available to new Laois boss Mike Quirke.

Among the top-flight elite, defections are less common but the Covid injury gods have shone on both Tyrone and Mayo.

After suffering a hamstring tendon injury last November that required surgery in London, it's a moot point whether Mattie Donnelly would have been fit to feature if Tyrone's Ulster quarter-final with Donegal had gone ahead in early summer.

But early November is a very different story, especially as Donnelly made his comeback for Trillick last weekend. Meanwhile, having almost lost All-Star Cathal McShane to the AFL, and then actually lost him to an ankle dislocation in February, Mickey Harte will hope to have his renowned double-act back in tandem later this year.

Time has already proven a healer for Mayo forward Jason Doherty, whose league return for Burrishoole last weekend was his first competitive outing since rupturing his ACL against Donegal last August.

Moreover, Colm Boyle, who succumbed to a season-threatening knee injury against Dublin last February, may now conceivably not miss a single championship match.

* * * * *

Has any county actually suffered because of Covid and how it has skewed the season? "Yes" is the short answer. Carlow boss Turlough O'Brien had planned to retire at the end of this season but, with one delayed campaign pushed almost on top of the next, he stepped down in early June. A month later he was followed into retirement by veteran player Daniel St Ledger.

Even the best are not immune. Jack McCaffrey's call to step away from Dublin came as a bombshell when the news broke a month ago.

Whereas the Sunday Independent reported that his decision was not related to the pandemic and his work on the frontline as a doctor, it seems reasonable to surmise that if Covid hadn't happened, McCaffrey probably would have carried on this summer. After all, he had made his seasonal return in Omagh, Dublin's last outing before the lockdown.

Back in Roscommon, Anthony Cunningham has gained two Murtaghs while the delayed championship has also allowed Ronan Daly to recover from a spleen injury suffered at the end of January.

Shane Killoran, who broke his ankle in February, has resumed running but October might still be "too early", Cunningham concedes.

A more general worry is how his players will be on returning to county training. "We won't have every single player on September 14 because the club championship finishes after that," he points out.

"You just have to be awful careful with players because of the mileage they will have put up. And you see that, day in and day out, from professional sport across the water ... the management of the load on the players is essential, so we'll have a lot of work with our S&C coach to get that right. But hopefully we will."