GAA Football

There must be no ambiguity surrounding the 'elite status' of inter-county players to cope with Covid: Justin McNulty

Justin McNulty (right) hopes the inter-county season will be played

FORMER Armagh footballer and SDLP MLA Justin McNulty says there should be no ambiguity surrounding the “elite status” of inter-county players and insists the playing of the National Leagues and Championships are of critical importance to the “well-being of the nation”.

While the 2002 All-Ireland winning defender praised the GAA’s decision to suspend club fixtures yesterday, McNulty feels the inter-county season can proceed in a “sensible and safe” manner, as long as there were no anomalies relating to the elite status of inter-county players in the north.

Last month, the GAA revealed they were working on a rapid Covid testing system for inter-county players in order to ensure the National Leagues and Championships season went ahead, even though the association intimated in the early throes of the pandemic that this would not be the case.

“I feel the GAA is doing all they can to protect the inter-county scene which I think is vital for the well-being of the nation,” said McNulty, MLA for Newry and Armagh.

“I’m so excited about the League and Championship going ahead especially for the players who put their lifeblood into being an inter-county player. For them to have that taken away from them would be really sad and short-sighted and I don’t think it would necessarily go any way to curtailing the spread of Covid.”

McNulty feels reasserting the elite status of inter-county players would increase the chances of the season being concluded.

He added: “I feel strongly that our GAA season should go ahead at county level because they are elite sports people and they should be treated as such.

“If one player tests positive it doesn’t necessarily mean that every other team-mate has to self-isolate, but the rest of the squad are tested.

“If you test negative you don’t necessarily have to self-isolate. Anybody who knows anything about sport and the GAA, they know how elite inter-county players are, so that’s crucially important.”

The fact the Irish government has made a significant financial contribution [€15m] towards the inter-county Championships being played in 2020, an Ulster Council official said “by consequence [of that] the players have to have elite status and you don’t want two different situations either side of the border.”

With the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) wanting the southern government to make the drastic move from Level Two to Level Five of Covid restrictions, the GAA made the unilateral decision yesterday to suspend club games.

However, the Irish Government last night resisted NPHET’s calls, opting for a more graduated response to the increased spread of the virus by moving from Level Two to Level Three across the 26 counties.

Dublin and Donegal were already sitting at Level Three.

The Donegal SFC final is one of 11 senior county finals still outstanding across the island. John McNulty, whose Kilcar side were scheduled to face Naomh Conaill, insisted the GAA “jumped the gun” especially when the Irish Government didn’t cede to NPHET’s request to lockdown the 26 counties.

In a statement, Donegal expressed their “disappointment” but insisted their county final would be played once their county team exit the All-Ireland series or before the calendar year ends.

On the GAA’s decision to suspend club fixtures, Justin McNulty said: “I think the GAA has been mature and sensible and led the way in many respects from this Covid virus.

“It’s probably not so much to do with their on-field activities; it’s probably the after-match activities that’s most concerning for the GAA, which they don’t necessarily have control of, but they’re just doing the sensible, mature thing. So the GAA needs to be commended in that respect."

GAA President John Horan last night insisted the reason to “pause” club fixtures was due to “post-match events” and not the games themselves.

While acknowledging that it was a “difficult call” for the GAA to suspend club games, Ulster Council chief Brian McAvoy felt it was the right decision.

“When you see where the [positive] clusters are in GAA clubs, they tend to come from clubs who are competing in county finals at some level or other.

“And that has become a new phenomenon. It wasn’t the case from July up until the last couple of weeks. It almost leads you to believe that there has to be some sort of a link; and the link must be away from the field of play. If the county finals are contributing to this, then we just need to hold back and put a halt to it to see where things are.”

McAvoy also defended Derry GAA after it was criticised for breaches of social distancing at their SFC final between Slaughtneil and Magherafelt in Bellaghy on Sunday.

“They took the game out of Celtic Park but the problem was you were moving to a smaller venue,” McAvoy said.

“It would have been much easier to social distance there than it was in Bellaghy. But the reason why it was moved out of Celtic Park was for public health reasons and not going into the city where there are a high number of Covid cases at the minute.

“My understanding from people on the ground was there were plenty of PA announcements, plenty of stewards, but unfortunately people migrated in clusters [at the game].”

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GAA Football