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comment Why the 2020 All-Ireland Championships will certainly be more enjoyable watching it on television than being there

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Taoiseach Micheál Martin wanted the All-Ireland championship played and his government invested €5m of taxpayers’ money in the project

Taoiseach Micheál Martin wanted the All-Ireland championship played and his government invested €5m of taxpayers’ money in the project

Taoiseach Micheál Martin wanted the All-Ireland championship played and his government invested €5m of taxpayers’ money in the project

I HAVE been privileged to cover the Olympic Games in Sydney, Beijing, London, and Rio de Janeiro.

Whenever I’m asked what the experience was like, I give the same answer.

‘Well, if you want to see the Olympics sit in your armchair and turn on the television. But if you want to experience the occasion you have to be there.”

The 2020 All-Ireland championship is a bit like that. It is certainly more enjoyable watching it on television than being there.

Admittedly, I have been sceptical ever since those two well-known GAA aficionados, Leo Varadkar and Ryan Tubridy, discussed the possibility of the All-Ireland championship being played behind closed doors on The Late Late Show.

Initially, the GAA were sceptical as well. In an interview on the Sunday Game in May, President John Horan said: “I don’t think (games) behind closed doors is going to happen to be honest with you."

As we now know, a limited number of spectators were allowed to return when club games resumed in late summer, before being banned again.

But the new Taoiseach Micheál Martin wanted the All-Ireland championship played and his Government invested €5m of taxpayers’ money in the project.

Then the country was locked down again. Much to the surprise of everybody, NPHET still gave the green light for elite sport - including the All-Ireland series - to be played behind closed doors.

Maybe they felt they were imposing enough hardship on the population. Having initially prevaricated on the issue, the Government rowed in behind NPHET’s recommendation.

So, at the stroke of a pen, GAA players, coaches, referees, linesmen and others, including gaelic games reporters, were elevated to the status of ‘essential workers'.

Being classed in the same category as real front-line staff like nurses, doctors and hospital carers is not just incongruous, it is not right or reasonable.

And please spare me the rhetoric that the championship is essential for the mental well-being of the population.

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It might be for those of us who are GAA anoraks, but a sizeable chunk of the population doesn’t get their kicks from football and hurling.

Given the appalling weather conditions across the country last Sunday nearly everyone must have been indoors and close to a TV in the afternoon.

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Leo Varadkar wanted to see the All-Ireland happen

Leo Varadkar wanted to see the All-Ireland happen

Leo Varadkar wanted to see the All-Ireland happen

Yet, the TV audience for the Tipperary v Limerick Munster hurling game peaked at 450,000, which is less than ten percent of the population of the Republic.

Even the most-watched GAA game in 2019, the All-Ireland football final replay between Dublin and Kerry fell short of breaking the one million audience barrier.

Covering the games has only reinforced my scepticism about the wisdom of staging a winter championship behind closed doors in the middle of a pandemic.

Admittedly, the fun went out of GAA reporting a long time ago. There was a time when the top managers didn’t regard us with barely-concealed disdain, and we could have adult conversation with players.

Going to games was still enjoyable: finding the best route to avoid the traffic, a bite to eat beforehand, the banter in the press box and the sense of camaraderie when the deadline was rapidly approaching and the scorers wouldn’t tot up.

Now the experience is akin to a military expedition. There is a formal application process followed by the completion of a health screening form.

It is best to do the packing the night before because the list of essential equipment has grown enormously.

Laptop, power-lead, extension lead, mobile phone and charger, notebook, pens, tape recorder, spare batteries and earphones were the standard items.

We now also pack face masks, selfie stick - will explain presently - a flask, food and, if you wear glasses, anti-fog cloth wipes.

On the plus side, we can arrive half an hour before throw-in safe in the knowledge there will be parking space available in the official car park. This comes in handy because the car must double as a mobile office afterwards.

Understandably, social distancing must be observed inside the stadium, so everybody sits at least two metres apart which, along with having to wear face masks, means that any conversation is barely functional.

At the best of times the after-match interviews with team managers was the equivalent of a simple visit to the dentist for a check-up. Now it’s like having root-canal treatment.

Interviews must be conducted outdoors; social distancing rules must be observed - so tape-recorders or mobile phones are mounted on a selfie stick - and if the wind is blowing hard it drowns out the sound.

And afterwards there is a long drive home through the dark on an empty stomach.

Match day has become a sterile, surreal, and soulless experience.

But hey, the Government say we’re front-line workers, so we soldier on and say a silent prayer that we don’t contract Covid-19.

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