Brendan Crossan: It takes a pandemic to step outside the inter-county bubble for perspective
IT is true lockdown changes your perspective. How much depends on the individual. Only the few among us will emerge from this period in history with the same set of values and beliefs that went before.
Had we never heard of the word ‘coronavirus’ and life tumbled merrily along, I hope I'd be reflecting on a glorious summer covering the Republic of Ireland at Euro 2020 and Mick McCarthy handing over the managerial reins to Stephen Kenny after reaching the semi-finals.
I’d pictured Dublin still feeling the warm after-glow of being one of the host cities of the championships and savouring another pitch invasion at Clones on Ulster final day – who knows, St Tiernach's Park might've been a sea of green as Fermanagh finally win the Anglo-Celt, and images of the hipster ‘Ricey’ McMenamin being carried shoulder-high into Creighton’s for a few free pints, and eyeing up Tier One.
By this stage of summer, I would have been halfway around the country, covering GAA matches in Tullamore, Dublin, Mullingar or Sligo.
That’s a lot of car time.
You get used to being on the road in this job. It’s part of the gig.
And there’s part of you that likes climbing into your car on a Sunday morning leaving the domestic bliss behind for an entire day and feeling eerily content to be the last man to leave O’Moore Park as the light fades.
I miss covering GAA games – but I don’t miss the car journeys.
Lockdown conditions us in different ways. I've found I like the sedentary life. I don’t like going any further than the local grocers these days.
My colleagues in the sports department will be gutted to hear this, but I don’t miss the office life in Donegall Street either.
I thought I would but I don’t.
I like working from home. You get more done. That is when the kids aren’t around.
Strangely, the pandemic has produced better sports journalism too. With no ‘live’ sport, we as a sports team had to get creative. Some of the stuff produced over the last four months, I would humbly say, has been exceptional.
I still like journalism as a career. I think. At least some of the time.
With such a radical jolt to our lives brought on by lockdown, a fair sprinkling of GAA players I’ve spoken to and interviewed over the past four months have had time to reflect on their own lives.
Take Mick McCann as a case-study. A few weeks before the pandemic struck, the Cargin man made a surprise comeback to Antrim to aid the county's promotion hopes out of Division Four.
After sitting with Mick at his home for two hours, he candidly admitted he wasn’t missing the rigours of rushing to and from work and onto county training several times per week.
“As much as I love my football, I just don’t know whether I’m ready for it – and that’s the truth,” he said.
A while back I interviewed Cavan footballer Gearoid McKiernan and he was enjoying ‘life outside the county bubble’.
Gearoid is due to get married in October – just when the inter-county season will be in full throttle.
“Once you step away from it,” Gearoid said, “you realise that you are in a bubble and you realise there is a lot more to life. You just realise how much more you can do…”
Of course, it depends on the individual. For instance, Armagh's Rory Grugan says the lockdown has made him realise how much he loves his football.
Other players I’ve spoken to would be happy to just chip away with their club and confessed that they probably don’t have the heart to go again with the county especially after a potentially unforgiving and demanding club season.
Ryan McAleenan has been a regular starter in the Down team. Last week, he announced he was stepping away from the panel.
The Warrenpoint man admitted that had there been no pandemic he would still be playing for Down.
The lockdown makes you take stock.
So many players I’ve spoken to have gone hiking, cycling or started doing 5k and 10k runs. Others have spent more time with their loved ones and are happy with their lot.
This time last year we were staring down the barrel of the Super 8s – an unashamed TV construct. A mixture of dead rubbers and barely average football matches.
You wondered then and now: what was the point of the Super 8s?
You question, with greater clarity, the direction the GAA was heading and the crazy amounts of money showered onto the GPA.
I don’t subscribe to the view the GPA is an innately bad thing – even though they appear to thrive in the role of playing the mean-spirited summer panto villain with each press release they send out.
It goes without saying they have helped vast numbers of their members – but my issue with the GPA leadership is that they have become to all intents and purposes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Research findings in ERSI, commissioned by the GAA and GPA, revealed in 2018 that inter-county players could spend up to 31 hours per week on commitments to their county team.
Unsustainable in anybody’s estimation.
Rather than calling for a radical reduction in those time commitments, the 31 hours per week per inter-county player were tacitly held up as evidence for the need to have a well-resourced players body such as the GPA.
But no amount of counselling services, educational workshops, careers advice and other well-meaning provisions can help a player find balance in their lives.
There is a clear fault line with the GPA. It is designed to fight the symptoms and not the causes.
In a strange twist of fate, it has taken a pandemic of life and death proportions for many GAA players to reflect on the amount of time they give to their sport, especially when they could be giving more time to something else or someone else.