ON THE BALL Balla’s Ger Flanagan is pictured in action against Killala’s Darragh Herbert during the 2018 Mayo Junior FC semi-final. Pic: James Wright Photography
FIRST things first — it’s a brilliant feeling knowing that players will have some club championship action this year after the GAA hierarchy released its ‘Safe Return to Gaelic Games’ document last Friday evening.
Only three weeks ago I was struggling to shake off the thoughts that there might not be club football this year due to Covid-19. GAA President John Horan’s comments on The Sunday Game about not being able to play games while social distancing guidelines were still in place seem to categorically rule out the possibility of any action.
In retrospect, those comments were extremely premature, particularly given how quickly the Covid-19 situation in Ireland and worldwide has changed for the better.
We now know that from Friday, July 31 club championships across the country are set to take place — assuming that the infection rate and number of cases of Covid-19 continues to decrease.
The enthusiasm on social media and in WhatsApp groups from players and managers that greeted the GAA’s announcement last weekend was massive, but the joy reaches a much wider audience.
This is a also a great prospect for the club volunteers and the supporters, who will now have some focus to their weekends and something to talk about during the week! They’ll have referees to shout at, corner backs to blast for not being tight enough, and corner forwards to curse for not putting the ball over the bar.
It will also flash some warning signs for those players who slacked off on training during lockdown, knowing they now have less than six weeks to get championship fit!
Any teams with serious ambitions will have stuck to some form of training programme throughout the lockdown to keep themselves ticking over; I know a lot were doing fitness challenges. But from speaking to a lot of other club players, and from our own perspective in Balla, every team has some players who will do the work and be honest with themselves, but they will also have players who won’t do much.
Therein lies a problem already.
The GAA have stuck to their guns and are not allowing teams to access their pitches until June 29, at which stage non-contact training only is allowed, despite the Irish Government allowing groups of 15 to train together as of yesterday (Monday).
Why not open the pitches straight away? Most teams are now going to be looking for a field to do their training in, or those lucky enough with a community pitch will plough on — despite the question marks around insurance.
Physios will be busy
EITHER way that means teams have only a four-week training block before championship starts, with only ten days of ‘full-contact’ being allowed before club championship is due to begin.
That isn’t adequate time in a training culture that puts such emphasis on championship preparation and the time it takes.
It probably wouldn’t be advised in the player welfare manual either.
So physios and strength and conditioning coaches, I’m sure, will shudder at the thought of it!
There’s going to be huge temptation for coaches and players to try and force a square peg into a round hole in terms of maximising a lot of training into a short space of time. Players will be so mad for road to get back playing and into contact.
So you can be sure that their emotions will over-rule their heads and their bodies, and what we will have is a line out the dressing room door for the physio’s bed!
There are a lot of really good, educated coaches out there right now that will know how to put a proper training structure in place over the coming weeks so as not to over-train players.
But there are also some who might not, and with the ‘feast or famine’ culture that exists in the GAA in terms of training, the likelihood is that the players who may have slacked off during lockdown are potentially at greater risk of picking up injuries, which will probably rule them out for the condensed season.
Another reality in the new normal may be that GAA clubs won’t have their full squads to choose from as some players may decide against returning to play for fears of their health —or their families’ health — due to the Covid-19 virus. And that is perfectly understandable. We all play sport because we enjoy it, but kicking a point from the sideline off the outside of the boot isn’t worth risking your own life for, or that of a loved one.
All teams will be different in that respect and everyone has their own personal circumstances.
In Balla, our squad is primarily made up of players under 25 years of age and most are students. Two players are married and, to the best of my knowledge, only one has children.
It’s quite likely that some players will not risk spreading the virus at home to their children or their elderly parents. Some may have underlying health conditions too and may not feel comfortable, so it’s important that clubs respect the decision of any player who opts out.
Club championship will be much different this year, especially with clubs having full access to their county players.
Hopefully inter-county managers allow that to happen and we’ll see an exciting few weeks.
I, for one, can’t wait.
Ger Flanagan is a member of the Balla squad who will be competing in the Mayo Intermediate football championship this year.