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Grounds for optimism but doubts linger

GAA forced to sit tight as fast pace of change will continue

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Stephen Cluxton

Stephen Cluxton

Stephen Cluxton

Presuming all goes to plan and inter-county competitions return in mid-October, this much we do know: there will be no social distancing inside the white lines.

But what about in the stands?

This is one of myriad new conundrums facing the GAA - and not even the most urgent. As Feargal McGill, director of club, player and games administration, pointed out, their "entire focus" right now it on getting club players back on the field.

"I'm not telling you a lie when I say we haven't looked at what's going to be happening in October - at all. Certainly in relation to spectators," McGill stressed.

And yet, even four months out from a planned inter-county resumption, many diehards are now asking that question - even more so after GAA president John Horan revealed last weekend that Croke Park could house around 21,000 fans in a scenario where two-metre social distancing rules applied.

Old normal

In the 'old normal', GAA HQ could host 82,300. This begs the question: what venues beyond Croker will be viable options if the two-metre rule applies? And what if a more manageable one metre becomes the yardstick?

In this brave new world, bums on seats appears a more important barometer than actual capacity. Whereas you can control where people sit, how can you ensure physical distancing on the terraces that dominate many county grounds?

More optimistic officials reckon that, if the virus stays suppressed even as restrictions are eased, these terraces could still be utilised for limited capacity, using corralled sections.

Still, it's fair to surmise that several county grounds originally earmarked to house games this summer won't be suitable.

Already this week, the hierarchy in Connacht and Ulster have floated the possibility of bringing their flagship football finals to the capital.

"Depending on the rules, you may have to go to somewhere like Croke Park for your senior final … or even the two semi-finals on the one day," Connacht Council John Prenty suggested.

Ulster president Oliver Galligan concurred that "if Croke Park is deemed more suitable for some of our games, we'd have no problem going."

There is precedent - the venue hosted several Ulster finals in the mid-noughties.

Ultimately it will boil down to public health guidelines - and, as McGill confirmed, the Government has yet to give "any indication whatsoever on what the scenario will be for mass gatherings" come October.

Presuming fans are allowed, a key part of the equation will be the newly reduced capacities under social distancing.

Croke Park is the only GAA ground audited to date: a study by staff deemed it could safely house 21,000 fans spaced two metres apart. This doesn't automatically translate into 42,000 (under a one-metre rule), as other issues such as access, egress, parking, toilets, etc, must be factored in.

However, Croke Park's seating capacity of almost 70,000 eclipses every other venue.

Elsewhere, Munster looks best equipped to host major championship games, given the size of Semple Stadium (47,000 capacity including 26,000 seats); Páirc Uí Chaoimh (45,000 capacity, 21,000 seats); and the Gaelic Grounds (44,000 capacity, 20,000 seats). Killarney can accommodate 38,000 but only 8,600 seated.

"A lot will depend. While our venues have capacity, we may be reliant on using seating only," said Munster CEO Kieran Leddy. "If it's feasible and it makes sense to do so, then certainly we would look at continuing to hold our games in the province. But, you know, it's going to be a balancing act in terms of what the capacity is versus what the capacity in Croke Park would be."

His Leinster counterpart, Michael Reynolds, echoed Leddy's point that all decision-making will be subject to protocols on mass gatherings. At least he has no such worries about a suitable final venue. "Leinster are lucky that Croke Park is in the province," Reynolds acknowledged.

Beyond the Pale, Leinster's next best option is Nowlan Park given that its 27,000 capacity includes 18,000 seats. Other options include Wexford Park (seating on two sides), Portlaoise and Tullamore, albeit the latter two only have seating capacity in the main stand.

Floodlights

But then there is the question of floodlights, required for evening games in October and beyond. This would limit Nowlan Park, as well as Wexford and Tullamore but not Portlaoise, to afternoon throw-ins.

In Connacht, Castlebar has one advantage over the rest: its theoretical capacity of 38,000 (32,000 on match day) is all-seated and so all four sides could be utilised.

In Ulster, Clones is the best option with seating in the covered Gerry Arthurs Stand and two other stands.

But how any of these capacities would translate, under social distancing, is open to guesswork right now.

For now, the GAA is right to sit tight.

"Things are moving so fast, it's such a fluid situation," McGill stressed. "We learned very early in this process not to think too far ahead."