GAA Football

Ulster Schools' GAA chief Jimmy Smyth clinging to hopes for 2021 competitions

St Patrick's College, Maghera captain Adam McGonigle is presented with the cup by Jimmy Smyth from Ulster Schools after Maghera beat St Mary's, Magherafelt in the Rannafast Cup Final in 2019. Picture Margaret McLaughlin

ULSTER Schools GAA chairman Jimmy Smyth says he hasn't given up hope that this year's competitions can be salvaged from the Covid-19 lockdown.

In 2020, for the first time ever, the MacRory Cup final went unplayed while many other competitions including the MacLarnon Cup suffered the same fate. With all schools currently closed, there could well be a repeat this year unless current protocols are relaxed by next month at the latest.

“We tried to get the MacRory final moved (Leinster and Connacht managed to play theirs) and we had hopes that we could play it in September,” Smyth explained.

“The problem was that there were only limited windows and we were hoping to wait until the clubs finished their competitions and then dovetail in at the back of that. But we had boys who had left school and gone to university, so how could we bring them to train? Would they be coming in cars? Then you're into bubbles etc and it just became a nonsense, so we couldn't do it.

“We had planned this year to get going but we were faced with another lockdown. We knew that if we got the schools back on board by mid-February we had enough weekends to come to the final stage but that has gone now. The latest is that if we open up in March we could play up to the 1st of May. But it's an ever-changing scenario – we're at the behest of the people who call the shots.

“You can't start if the powers that be pull the plug on you and, much as we would like to do it, we just can't do it.”

Of course the damage done by the sporting lockdown goes much deeper than winning prestigious silverware. Former Armagh skipper Smyth, who spent his career as a PE teacher at St Paul's in his native Lurgan, stressed that competitions were not: “The be-all and end-all.

“We run 70 competitions a year but there is an awful lots of work that goes on within the schools in terms of internal school competitions and all the different training that goes on,” he said.

“So children are missing out on this essential togetherness and fun and memories which are the big things as far as I'm concerned. We're facing the situation now where we will have year nine children who, in two years, will not have played in a schools' competition which is very, very sad.

“Year nine is the competition that we push, we go for total participation in that.”

Smyth's club Clan na Gael won the Armagh Intermediate Championship last year but were denied the opportunity to enter into the cancelled Ulster championship. At senior level, Kilcoo didn't get the chance to defend their Ulster title, while the likes of Tyrone champions Dungannon Clarke's (whose last title had come in 1956), Fermanagh champions Ederney (last winners in 1968) and Cavan titlists Crosserlough (previously winners in 1972) were denied the opportunity to play provincial football which may never come their way again.

“That opportunity to represent their county in Ulster as county champions was lost to them and they may never get it back again,” said Smyth.

“That was the beauty of the GAA last year; that those clubs did come through and they'll not forget winning a county title but they'll always think ‘what if?'”

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GAA Football