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Pat: Dubs still team to beat

O'Neill is hopeful of return to action for GAA

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Former Dublin GAA football team manager Jim Gavin with another former Dublin player and manager, Dr Pat O’Neill, at the conferring of the
Honorary Freedom of Dublin City on Gavin at the Mansion House in January. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Former Dublin GAA football team manager Jim Gavin with another former Dublin player and manager, Dr Pat O’Neill, at the conferring of the Honorary Freedom of Dublin City on Gavin at the Mansion House in January. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

SPORTSFILE

Former Dublin GAA football team manager Jim Gavin with another former Dublin player and manager, Dr Pat O’Neill, at the conferring of the Honorary Freedom of Dublin City on Gavin at the Mansion House in January. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Some day, probably not too soon, the public health experts and the Irish Government will give the green light for major sporting activity to resume.

We will have a championship, hopefully in 2020, but don't bet your collapsing stock market portfolio on it.

And whenever that happens, Dublin footballers will still be the team to beat.

Even in this troubled and uncertain world, Pat O'Neill is sure of that. He was Dublin manager when Dessie Farrell won his first and only Celtic Cross as a player, back in 1995.

Now, as he surveys the sport-free landscape of Planet Covid-19, he doesn't buy the theory that Farrell - already playing catch-up at the start of this year's Allianz League, a league that remains unfinished - must be the unluckiest inter-county manager out there.

On hold

"There'd be a lot of managers who'd like to be handed a team like Dessie has!" O'Neill counters.

"But look, I think we'll take it that it (the championship) is on hold and it will come back again. I don't think Dublin are going away anywhere, so they'll be still top of the pile when they get back - whenever that's going to be.

"I think whenever is the big question, not who will be up there."

O'Neill describes what Dublin achieved under Jim Gavin, culminating in last September's five-in-a-row, as "phenomenal really. I mean, in this day and age, it's amazing. And to do it in the style that it was done as well."

Back then, no one could have foreseen that the search for six would be disrupted by, of all things, a global pandemic. David Clifford in the south-west was then a more tangible threat than some hitherto undiscovered virus from the Far East.

Even as a qualified doctor, O'Neill has never before witnessed anything like the current crisis.

Infectious diseases are not his realm of expertise; he's a medical consultant in orthopaedic and sports medicine at the Mater Private Hospital and Cappagh National Orthopaedic Hospital in Dublin, while also lecturing in Trinity.

But the former All-Ireland winning wing-back is concerned for all manner of reasons: the health of the nation, the wellbeing of our economy, and society itself.

And while sport may be viewed as secondary to all the above, its role cannot be discounted.

The lack of a sporting outlet, right now, is "terribly disappointing. I mean, it's crucifying everybody ... it just goes to show you how important it is for lifestyle, and life."

This Dublin star of the seventies has no idea when he will next get to see the current generation. He has listened to those in authority this week and, not surprisingly, is wondering what this means for the GAA.

"Where we are today, I can't see that we're going to get games - that are open games anyway," he surmises.

"There is some thought from some of the professional sports that, well, maybe we can get it back and at least get it on television.

"There is some talk that groups of 50 will be allowed to convene … I think it's well down the road, based on the public health and governmental issues."

Might there not be a 2020 championship at all?

"I think we'll have to look optimistically that, late autumn, we would be able to put something in place. It might go back to a knockout championship. It will be very interesting to hear what they have to say on Friday (at Special Congress)," he says.

Croke Park admitted on Tuesday that it will be July at the earliest before its two senior championships might commence.

Adamant

In the current scenario, O'Neill points out, "there won't be any permission to do it because they're adamant that big crowds won't be allowed to coalesce. That's fairly obvious from the messages coming out from the public health people, backed up by the Government."

On the question of playing matches behind closed doors, he views Gaelic Games as a different animal to professional sports where TV is a much bigger revenue generator and where huge salaries have to be paid.

The GAA is "very much about participation and people getting involved and going to the matches," he says. "But to get it back up and people interested, maybe that's what they'll have to do - to get it on. Once they facilitate the situation for players getting back to train together and all that, because that's not in place as is."

Like the rest of us, O'Neill has been alarmed by the rapid acceleration of this global onslaught.

"We've never seen a pandemic like this," he admits. "It's actually quite frightening: one that it happened, and two that it has taken over the world. We've the health issue now but, by God, there's going to be a lot of other issues that will fall out from it.

"I mean, the whole economic and social (ramifications) … I think they are going to be the bigger concerns going forward."