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Lilies roadmap a signpost for GAA

Counties preparing for return of club activity in August

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LYING IN WAIT: St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge, Kildare. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

LYING IN WAIT: St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge, Kildare. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

LYING IN WAIT: St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge, Kildare. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

As county boards anxiously await the unveiling of the GAA's 'return to play' roadmap, there is a growing sense of optimism and a pressing requirement for fixture planning.

Kildare's draft fixture plan includes a proposal to start running league fixtures from the first week of August.

They are not alone in planning for a future that appears increasingly likely to embrace football and hurling games earlier than most of us had anticipated.

But uncertainty still abounds, on several levels. There are the practical issues, soon to be answered by Croke Park.

Will pitches be allowed to reopen on June 29? When, in a world of social distancing, can collective, full-contact training resume? Might clubs be given the green light to actually play matches in early August?

But there are other uncertainties, prompted by ingrained fears of a virus that may have been suppressed but still hasn't gone away.

On Tuesday, even as just ten new cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the Republic of Ireland, a fresh clutch of Monaghan 'positives' in the stats sounded a cautionary caveat for its county board chairperson, Michael McMahon.

"It didn't help the football fraternity or, indeed, the general public because you're hoping that this was going away, bit by bit," McMahon admitted.

"There's a terrible fear in the country of people getting it, and vulnerable people getting it, and we've seen all sorts of sad cases and funerals going on in terrible conditions.

"So, yeah, the fear is still there, and football is well down the pecking order."

By the same token, football and hurling appear to be edging closer and closer to a return.

"We will be totally governed by the guidelines," stressed Kildare chairperson Mick Gorman. "And we're well aware that things might move … but we would be looking at, in early August, having league games."

Kildare's draft plan was presented to club chairpersons via a Microsoft Teams meeting last week - a sign of the times. Clubs have been invited to make their own submissions and these will be considered by Kildare's CCC.

But Gorman confirmed that, as of now, it remains Kildare's intention to run off club leagues as well as championships in 2020.

Potential

Their draft programme would start with two league rounds, followed by the commencement of club championship action. The latter would proceed until the senior inter-county championships kick in - October has been widely speculated as a potential start date.

At this point, Kildare hope to resume club league activity in the absence of their county players.

"There's a very competitive league in Kildare and it's a very important competition for the clubs," said Gorman, who confirmed that completing their club championships after a shortened county season "would definitely be an option."

"We would be very keen - if we get a games programme up and running - to have a worthwhile, competitive games framework for all club players for the rest of the year," he concluded.

His Monaghan counterpart declined to reveal contingency plans until after their clubs are informed - and this will only happen after clarity comes from above.

But as Michael McNamara conceded: "You're going to compress seven months of fixtures into seven or eight weeks, but you don't know when you're going to start. And that's a massive challenge.

"It doesn't matter if you're in Monaghan. If you're in Cork it's ten times' worse because they've ten times' more clubs, and we're a small county of 30 clubs.

"Dual counties have absolutely massive challenges. How you dissect juveniles, under-11s, 13s, 15s, 17s, and get them a game. The ladies will want their field as well, and of course they're entitled because they're a big part of every club … it's going to be a massive balancing act."

Monaghan's club league programme has traditionally worked very well - clubs play nine games with their county players, and nine without. But no matches had been played prior to the 'lockdown', placing an obvious question mark over its viability if you are also to run off a club championship.

No panic

But as McNamara pointed out: "We're going to have to take 2020 into 2021. There's no panic on us. We've great facilities, we've great fields, and we will be going in with our 2020 programme into 2021.

"If we get an opening to play, we'll play away. That's what we've promised the clubs, where possible."

Westmeath chairman Billy Foley has made a similar promise, even though his county's preponderance of dual players is an added complication. He is adamant that, even in these one-off circumstances, those players won't be asked to choose one code over another.

"We will run our championships on the basis that we've a hurling week, and a football week. We are very cognisant of the fact that we have two codes," said Foley.

"We will get a window from Croke Park, I'm sure, and we will run our championships within that window. We have all the different plans made, depending on the window we get.

"There's going to be compromises made on everyone's part here. We are very much supportive of what Croke Park is doing. But it is our view and we're very, very clear - the club comes first, before the county teams."

And if the GAA blueprint transpires to be club games starting in August and then an inter-county season from October? This, according to Foley, would be "difficult" but "doable".

It normally takes Westmeath 15 weeks to run off all their club championships. The original 2020 plans, primarily embracing round-robin groups of six, are "clearly not going to happen now," he accepted - but they have a series of possibilities devised "for whatever window of opportunity we get."

But, even as hope grows, Foley sounded one final note of caution.

"This is all dependent on the Covid being controlled properly. If there were to be an outbreak in Westmeath in the midst of all this, that just changes everything. We will protect the community at all costs."