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'In March I was seeing a good few cases, I was very pessimistic about GAA this year'

As a GP and Cork club football manager, Paul O’Keeffe is well placed to assess the changed nature of the 2020 GAA season.

Like many other stadiums at the weekend, Páirc Uí Rinn  welcomed back GAA action.
Like many other stadiums at the weekend, Páirc Uí Rinn welcomed back GAA action.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated Jul 27th 2020, 8:16 PM

IF THE SPRING months are a traditional time for the GAA club manager to plot and plan, Paul O’Keeffe could see enough happening in his day job to inform him that the 2020 season was set to be dramatically different.

Early March was not just consumed by the thoughts of the local championship action that lay ahead for the St Finbarr’s senior team that he manages.

Working as a GP in Broadale Medical Centre in Douglas in Cork provided enough evidence of the seismic impact Covid-19 was about to have.

The Cork club campaign resumed at the weekend, part of the competitive fare returning in all corners of the country. O’Keeffe saw his St Finbarr’s side, 2018 title winners and 2017 finalsts, begin in an upbeat fashion last Friday night when they had six points to spare in a group game against Ballincollig.

The scenario of preparing a team and patrolling a sideline again was one he had dismissed as part of the summer 2020 plans.

“When the whole Covid thing started, I didn’t think we’d get out at all. In March I was seeing a good few cases, I was very pessimistic about GAA this year.

“I was just really worried that this is going to be the real deal in terms of what the Government were saying we were going to have in terms of this massive pandemic. If somebody said then we’d be playing in July, I’d have taken that all day long.

“But thankfully as a nation we got it under control and we’re kind of reaping the rewards now. It’s just that we don’t get stupid about it and leave a second wave come and we’re all back into lockdown and we’ve no more games.

“Over the last few weeks I hadn’t seen it in my own practice and the numbers locally were actually really good. You could see what was coming out of the hospitals, the number of positive cases was very low as well.

“Contrary to what I would have felt in March, I was much more optimistic now that we were going to get the green light and we were going to get the first few rounds in anyway. Whether the numbers change or not now is another question.”

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the-st-finbarrs-team-before-the-game St Finbarr's won the Cork senior title back in 2018

The matches have returned but the setting is different. The atmosphere in Páirc Uí Rinn last Friday night was jarring with the stands largely empty, the calls of players on the pitch clearly heard with the bulk of the supporter groups from both clubs unable to attend.

It was a familiar scenario played out in every other county at the weekend.

“You just have to go with the public health guidance, if that’s what they’re stipulating, I think just go with it and it’s working out,” says O’Keeffe.

“Better to be playing in front of 200 than not to be playing at all. Look there probably is an argument when you look around Páirc Uí Rinn, could you put 500 people in here and socially distanced with masks? You probably could, if you made it mandatory for the masks. I think that’s safe enough then.

“The biggest issue for the GAA is they don’t want an outbreak being linked to a championship match and then the whole thing has to shut down. I can understand the GAA’s side of it as well in being ultra cautious, getting the games done, keeping the players happy and keeping the clubs happy. The fact there’s no revenue coming in as well, it’s difficult but I think we just have to roll with the punches on this one.”

The compromises made by clubs with the later starting date and condensed nature of the season are ones O’Keeffe is happy to make. The 2011 county title winning manager with UCC has several players in the St Finbarr’s colours fulfilling dual obligations.

They will play senior hurling championship for the next two weekends before he sees them before their next football outing. The flipside is the unrestricted access to their county stars like Cork captain Ian Maguire, a towering figure in their midfield.

ian-maguire-lifts-the-trophy Ian Maguire captained St Finbarr's to Cork senior football glory in 2018 Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

“I know it’s condensed but it is what it is, we just have to get on with it. Even just having Ian Maguire and the other Cork lads around, it just makes a huge difference. They’re huge club men as well. They give massive leadership. So just to have them full time is great. We were just happy to get out, to get back playing.”

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About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

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