BE PART OF THE TEAM

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership

Become A Member
Dublin: 6°C Friday 23 April 2021
Advertisement

'It's amazing looking back and seeing how unaware we were': The week when Irish sport shut down

Donal Ó Fatharta, Mike Sherry, Aishling Moloney and Dan Sheridan reflect on how Irish sporting life was turned upside down by Covid-19.

Closures

THE FIRST FLARE of sporting distress in this part of the world was raised in late February last year.

Ireland entertaining Italy in Six Nations combat across the men’s, women’s and U20 levels was ruled out of the question.

The then-Health Minister Simon Harris and IRFU Executive Philip Browne had met, with the rugby body happy to take their lead from NPHET.

That was three days before the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in the Republic of Ireland on Saturday 29 February.

Sport, like every other way of life, stumbled along for the following week before we reached Monday 8 March. Something major was brewing but nobody could accurately say what it was.

So around the country, people busied themselves as usual. Galway U20 football manager Donal Ó Fatharta was getting his team ready for an All-Ireland semi-final on St Patrick’s Day in Croke Park.

Garryowen assistant coach Mike Sherry was trying to get his players set for a return to winning ways the following Saturday when they headed north to play Ballynahinch in the All-Ireland Rugby League.

Tipperary footballer Aishling Moloney was gearing up to jump on a bus with her DCU college-mates and chase ladies football glory in Kerry.

Inpho photographer Dan Sheridan had flown over to Cheltenham, ready to snap away in his job for the sports agency at racing’s annual spectacular show in the Cotswolds.

Snapshots of life for Irish people who moved to the rhythms of sport.

Plans carefully mapped out at the start of the week, utterly disrupted within a few days.

On Thursday 12 March, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar addressed the nation from Washington DC. The gates of schools clicked shut that day, companies closed their doors, sporting organisations raced to shut up shop.

Everything started to change in Ireland.

And a year on, it hasn’t stopped.

***

  • For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

The storms that raged on the western seaboard. That’s what jumps to mind first for Donal Ó Fatharta when he thinks back to the early U20 football moments of 2020.

A native of An Spidéal and teacher nearby in Coláiste Cholmcille in Indreabhán, Ó Fatharta looked after the Galway minors in 2018 and 2019. They reached All-Ireland finals in both years, held off by Munster opponents on both occasions by Kerry and Cork.

The natural step up was to manage the U20 side, working with familiar faces and guiding a batch of underage talents. Their opening Connacht win was achieved by the surreality of a Gaelic football penalty shootout against Mayo. They cruised past Leitrim and then, on Saturday 7 March, bulldozed Roscommon over by 20 points in the final.

the-galway-team-celebrate-after-the-game Galway players celebrating their 2020 Connacht U20 final. Source: Tom O'Hanlon/INPHO

“My memory of that time would be training during the week when the weather was fine, those lovely, crisp evenings. Then by the weekends the storms would come in.

“They seemed to follow us around. The penalties were dramatic against Mayo but I’m telling you, with the weather, it probably shouldn’t have been played. That was a good Mayo team. Three or four of them would progress onto the senior panel to get to the All-Ireland final like Oisin Mullin.

“Then the Leitrim game was postponed and it was same story with the weather for the final. It was difficult but little did we know what was around the corner which was worse.”

The reward for the Roscommon success was a trip to Croke Park ten days later to take on Kerry, the U20 semi-finals slotted in to fill a fixtures void created by the move of the club finals from their traditional date.

Galway trained that week on the Monday and Wednesday nights at the county’s football base in Loughgeorge to the north of the city. Inside their camp they sought normality as the uncertainty started to escalate on the outside.

“We trained that Wednesday night and we didn’t even mention it,” recalls Ó Fatharta.

“I know I was getting texts that night from people saying, ‘Jaysus I wonder will the game be pulled?’

“I didn’t know anything. It came as a shock. At school here, we were the same way, downed tools the next day. I think by two o’clock we had guys clearing out lockers and stuff.

“But look, sure for everyone it was the same.”

It would be no temporary pause from action but a weird and challenging season did at least have a joyous ending for Galway. Thirty-two weeks after the Connacht final, they got to take on Kerry in that last four game, albeit with a venue switch to the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick.

Then nine weeks later they got their date in Croke Park, lifting the crown with a one-point win over Dublin in a largely empty stadium. Add it all up and 315 days spanned the time from Galway’s championship start to their successful conclusion. A unique All-Ireland win.

jonathan-mcgrath-sean-fitzgerald-celebrate-after-the-game Galway players celebrating their All-Ireland U20 final victory. Source: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

The natural inclination is to probe Ó Fatharta for the secrets at managing lockdown so successfully.

But there is no great reveal.

“As a management we decided to take a step back, that we wouldn’t be bombarding them with information. We’ve good S&C guys, they worked with them all the time. That’s the decision we took the first lockdown and we kept that going through the second one as well.

“I’d be big into that anyway, that less is more, try to cut out stuff that is not relevant. You don’t know what guys have going on, families and stuff like that, especially during lockdown.

“Everyone had their own thing going on, it wasn’t as if they weren’t busy. I know being involved in teaching there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between Leaving Cert exams at that time. College guys had to step back as well, get assignments online and that stuff. People were busy, that was more important at that stage than football.”

donal-o-fatharta Galway boss Donal Ó Fatharta. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

Still it was a turbulent time, and the gravity of the virus would hit home later in October.

“It was difficult to know what to do. You were going into the unknown, it was a bit scary at the time.

“We’d a few Covid cases in the squad the week of the Kerry game. I know John Sugrue did as well down in Kerry.

“That was a difficult week in relation to players’ health. Once we got on the pitch against Kerry, definitely we were glad to be back. The week before, the game seemed to be a little bit secondary after what we went through. Your health is your wealth.”

***

Mike Sherry made the call officially on the morning of the first day in July 2019. He was drawing a line under his time as a professional rugby player. The toll of injuries nudged him in that direction.

“I didn’t miss rugby as much as I thought I would. My body started to feel a lot better. I had a couple of surgeries that summer to correct a few issues and help with day-to-day pain, and they’ve been an incredible success. My shoulder feels amazing now; [it] probably helps that I’m not scrummaging and throwing.”

If Munster was the dominant theme of his rugby life and Gloucester had offered a glimpse at something different, then Garryowen was where his sporting interest was rooted.

The home club came calling to draw him into their senior coaching setup, Conan Doyle, an old team-mate, making the approach. Sherry knew the rest of the management team and decided to dip his toes into those waters.

“It was brilliant for me. There was definitely a fear element with leaving rugby, the professional setup with Munster was all I knew since about the age of 18. But it was certainly time for me to move on. Body wise, I needed a fresh start to get away from rugby.

mike-sherry Mike Sherry during his own Munster rugby playing days. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I said I’d go for a couple of weeks coaching and see if I like it.

“And I absolutely loved it, got really invested in it. Brilliant group of lads there, really strong squad.”

The AIL scene was not completely alien to him. It had helped bridge that awkward gap between the schools and provincial scenes.

“It’s a brilliant competition when you’re young and you’re trying to get experience in rugby. It tests you. I remember playing Dungannon and Nigel Brady was playing, he was a seasoned hooker for Ulster at the time. The next day I could barely lift my head up off my chest, it was so sore from the scrummaging.

“Also the social aspect as it was my home club. My father was involved in playing and coaching. My brother was on the team as well and all my friends growing up. A really happy period in terms of my rugby career.”

The coaching role had a mixed input to forwards and backs play. Garryowen’s 2019-20 Division 1A campaign began slowly with a couple of losses in their first three games. Then they cranked into action and won eight of their next nine matches. Defeat in a Friday night derby against neighbours Young Munster stung a little but the mood improved as they looked ahead.

Second in the table behind Cork Constitution with four games to go and entitled to eye up the prize of a home semi-final. A pivotal sequence of games was due to begin on Saturday 14 March, the first of three in a 15-day spell. The team bus was to be pointed north to Ballymacarn Park that morning to face Ballynahinch.

But a bigger issue was starting to take hold and creep into their preparations.

“We trained on the Tuesday night of the Ballynahinch week. I even remember being out in Garryowen, we did a video session and had a good team meeting before training.

“We were speaking about the fact the hospital in Limerick was so close to the Dooradoyle grounds. Telling lads to be careful, if they felt in any way off, that this was getting closer to us with outbreaks in the hospital. We’d a good mix, quite a number of Guards in our team actually, then a lot of students as most clubs do. A lot who were in office jobs as well.

“We’d been speaking to the lads as well about changing after training and we’d provide food. We wanted lads to start hanging around the club, building a bit more of an atmosphere coming into the end of the season. Then once Covid came in, it was don’t hang around, make sure you get home, shower and change there. There was a bit of contrast in terms of what we were saying.

“But we were clueless really, we didn’t know how easily transmissible it was.

“Even when the lockdown came in, we thought it was going to be a couple of weeks and we’d finish out the season.”

general-view-dooradoyle Garryowen's playing base at Dooradoyle. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Those hopes would be scuppered. The initial postponement preceded the plug being pulled on their entire season a couple of weeks later. If there was a temptation to feel aggrieved at Garryowen’s hard work being wiped away, Sherry did not have to look far for perspective.

“Thinking about rugby for me took a backseat. Me and my wife were expecting our third baby within the next few weeks. We were getting scans and trying to figure out if I could get in for the birth.

“I started a new job in April as well. That was pretty intense, it was my first kind of grown-up job and getting used to everything that entailed too.

“Pretty quickly you moved on from the disappointment of rugby. Looking back now, yes it would have been great for that season to play out and we fancied our chances but it wasn’t to be.

“I wouldn’t downplay how significant getting to an AIL final, and hopefully winning, would have been either. A rugby career isn’t that long. These guys are putting their all in, purely for the enjoyment of playing rugby.”

Club rugby has not been properly revived since. There was a window of opportunity they seized last August and September to squeeze in some games, another chance in December for a few training sessions.

But otherwise the fields are out of bounds and Sherry wonders what shape the sport will be in when they get back to it.

mike-sherry Mike Sherry Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

“It is a massive pity. This is a brilliant time of year to be training and playing and competing for something coming into the nicer evenings and the better weather. People are so bored at home, they’re itching to get out.

“I fear also for club rugby at the same time. This extended break from getting up off the couch and going out to the rotten weather and getting sessions done, a lot of people will just fade away from playing rugby. It’s been so long now that they will have moved on and their interest levels will have waned.

“I do have that bit of fear in terms of participation levels moving forward. But hopefully we can get the majority of our squad back out and enjoying rugby again.”

***

A league game on a Sunday in March in Tipperary colours felt routine for Aishling Moloney. They were soundly beaten that day in Tuam Stadium by Galway but it was a good runout and there was another key assignment coming down the tracks. The O’Connor Cup as part of the DCU ranks loomed large the following weekend.

aisling-moloney Tipperary's Aisling Moloney (file photo). Source: Lorraine O'Sullivan/INPHO

Before that there was something else to sort at the start of the week. A couple of days in the wilds of Wicklow with a film crew for a TV ad as part of sponsor Lidl’s promotional efforts for ladies football.

“That video was made then, there were probably about 150 people involved in it,” recalls Moloney.

“The second day, that’s when Government talks all were happening. I suppose there was some panic that it mightn’t go ahead but thankfully they got it done and then it was launched recently.

“I remember the DCU girls were training on the Tuesday. I was involved in that in Wicklow in Glendalough so I didn’t actually make it back up for training. I was beat from running up and down the hills that Monday and Tuesday. The last thing I wanted to do was look at a training session.

“They actually put in place a pitch on a hill. It’s not Photoshop or anything. That’s where it was.”

Source: Lidl Ireland/YouTube

After that glamour, the focus shifted to upcoming games again. In 2018 Moloney kicked the winning point and enjoyed the honour of captaincy as DCU won the O’Connor Cup in Abbottstown. As a metric of the quality that ran through their team, consider that Lauren Magee, Aishling Sheridan and Sarah Rowe – all currently operating in Melbourne for different AFLW clubs – were part of the DCU effort. Moloney craved the chance to replicate that triumph.

“It was that bit sweeter to captain the team that year. It’s amazing when things go right. That day, everything did. We hadn’t really beaten UL and that was the first year we beat them in the league and the O’Connor Cup.

“College football, there’s a different attitude about it. You’re enjoying your social life as best you can while trying to fit into football and there’s a really enjoyable atmosphere about it. It doesn’t necessarily feel like you’re going out playing football. You’re playing with girls that are going to be your best friends for life and playing at such a high level.”

Source: LadiesFootballTV/YouTube

They were set to head to Kerry for the weekend’s action when the script was torn up. Word of the official postponement filtered through that Thursday afternoon. By then, DCU authorities had already made the decision for their ladies football team from a player welfare stance.

“We all headed home that day, we just thought it’d just be two or three weeks and we’d be back playing again,” says Moloney.

“We never thought that it’d be shut down for the length that it was. You’d never think GAA is going to be cancelled, you’re playing it since you were seven years of age. Hail, rain, wind, it’s always going ahead. So it was hard to fathom it wasn’t going to be there for a few weeks.”

That interruption transpired to be for much longer. As the weeks and months passed by, it was club games with Cahir that provided a welcome sanctuary. That was a grateful development. Moloney joined the Tipperary camogie setup and got to play ladies football championship in October, shooting 1-10 against Galway and posting 1-7 in a meeting with Monaghan.

Club and county run outs were welcomed when they came in 2020 but there is an element of regret that the college games never resumed.

Be part
of the team

Access exclusive podcasts, interviews and analysis with a monthly or annual membership.

Become a Member

“It’s a pity. Not even to get a medal, just the opportunity of playing on the weekend. It’s basically going away on holidays with the team, you become a family. It’s the same for everyone involved at any level.

“It’s something you really appreciate, looking back now when I had the privilege of captaining that team. They are memories you’re going to hold together for life.

“We had a strong team in 2020, we really felt we were in a good position, looking forward to it and excited.

“You never would have thought Covid was going to shut it down. At the time you thought it was happening over in China, you never would have thought it’d come to your own doorstep.”

***

Dan Sheridan’s Cheltenham experience started off no different to the previous ones. Fly over on the Sunday, and then get down to work on the Monday in capturing photographs of the horses and trainers and jockeys all out on the gallops.

He would have been working at the Ireland-Italy game from a sideline view on the Saturday but with that having been called off, the attention moved to racing’s four days in the spotlight.

And that focus would grow more intense from when the entrance gates opened on the Tuesday morning.

“The flight over was nothing out of the ordinary but as the week went on, the conversation every day was about the virus.

“There was hand sanitizer everywhere in Cheltenham, one-way systems, people washing their hands all the time, at the time doing what was thought necessary. No one had masks on them bar the odd girl would come in with a fashion statement mask.

racegoers-use-hand-sanitisers-ahead-of-the-festival-as-a-result-of-the-corona-virus Fans at Cheltenham in 2020. Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“At the time people had no idea what was coming around the corner.”

As a regular attendee Sheridan had a well-established Cheltenham routine but he started to question that.

“Journalist and photographer wise, we were all being very careful and cautious as we were staying in people’s houses.

“I’ve stayed with a retired couple, Dave and Jan, in Cheltenham just around the corner from the racecourse for the last 14 years in a row that I’ve covered it. I was very cautious going back to them.

“I’d be great friends with them. They’re in their 70s but we’d have dinner together or go out for dinner most years. I was just staying away from them. I know their daughters very well because I’ve been staying with the family for a good few years and seen them grow up.

“I was saying, ‘Are ye okay with me coming back here? Do you want me to move somewhere?’ They were like, ‘Not at all.’

“That was in my head. You’re going back to these people, you want to make sure they’re okay.

“When I came back, I told my wife to take my kids and I went back home to my house and she went to her parents. I got a Covid test because I’d been in a place with thousands of people and wanted peace of mind, but also I wanted to be able to ring David and Jan to say I’m fine, which I was thankfully.”

At the racecourse it was hard not to be conscious of the heaving crowds.

a-view-of-the-stand-during-the-race Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“I got rang at one stage and asked could I go into the Guinness Tent and do photos of Irish people because it looks like they might be stopped on a flight on the way home. Usually you just go in, shoot pictures of a load of people having fun and enjoying themselves.

“I just looked in and thought, ‘Not a chance.’ They were packed in.

“There were certain Irish ladies that you’d always photograph on Ladies’ Day. They weren’t there because they didn’t travel.

“You might see the odd rugby player but I think it was only one or two of the English lads were there. That was it. You’d usually see the Welsh boys or Gatland but none of them were there. The high-profile people you would always see just didn’t go.”

The theme of punters staying away continued on Gold Cup day. Instead of a rousing conclusion to the week’s action, it was a subdued atmosphere. The wisdom of ploughing ahead with the racing was being widely questioned.

“Coming towards the end of the week, a lot of us were going, this won’t go ahead. It’s probably going to be stopped, especially what was happening at home on the Thursday with schools being closed.

“If you know what Gold Cup day is like, you know it’s a massive difference. Even the amount of people and certainly the amount of Irish, there wasn’t as many there. They honestly just didn’t travel. There was a good few there but not as many as normal.

“That’s what you would notice more than anything from being an Irish photographer. It was so difficult to do features and stuff like that because the people just weren’t there. As regards remembering Irish winners, it really did overshadow it.”

Rugby coverage is the bulk of Sheridan’s work. He was due to head to Cardiff that Saturday for the Six Nations encounter between Wales and Scotland. After plenty of hesitancy, that too was eventually deferred on the Friday afternoon.

Cheltenham is a change in his schedule, something a little bit different. He revels in an atmosphere that crackles with anticipation but that sporting electricity failed to spark last March.

“I mainly just follow an oval-shaped ball all over the world and I love that. Cheltenham is something I fell into years ago. I just loved it. It’s a great festival. It is the best buzz you will get.

a-view-of-the-race Source: Dan Sheridan/INPHO

“You’d arrive at eight o’clock in the morning and leave just after six. From eight to ten, you’re doing previews of horses out on the gallops and looking for an artistic picture. Then you’re moving on to some jockeys and people walking around, then the fans get in, the gates open and once they come in, there’s thousands of them and they just bring this energy. It’s a brilliant thing to cover as a photographer.

“You couldn’t get that buzz around the place last year.

“In the back of your head you’re just thinking, ‘Oh what’s going on?’

***

There’ll be no working trip to Cheltenham for Dan Sheridan this year. There are barriers to travel now, a select group of English photographers will be documenting the racing amidst the backdrop of eerie and ghostly stands. Those images will be pooled and distributed to agencies and media that require them.

Aisling Moloney is resigned to the fact that her O’Connor Cup days are over. She’s in final year of PE and Biology; a teaching placement is due to start soon in a school in Swords. If 2021 brings a return to club and county activity for her, it can be deemed a sporting success story.

Donal Ó Fatharta is presiding over the fortunes of the Galway U20 footballers for another year. There are no fixture dates, no definite idea of competition formats, no clue who their opponents will be. He’s just playing the waiting game, dropping a line to his players every now and again as they tip away on individual training programmes.

Mike Sherry saw another All-Ireland League campaign formally wiped out by the IRFU in late January. It was no great surprise and they’ve placed the Zoom interactions with the Garryowen squad on hold for a time. The coaching brains trust have a chat every few weeks, the best target they can aim for is a summer return when planning for a proper pre-season swings into view.

Twelve months on from a seismic week in March and the reverberations are still being felt.

“It’s amazing looking back and seeing how unaware we were what was coming,” reflects Sherry.

Nobody could have seen what lay ahead.

For more great storytelling and analysis from our award-winning journalists, join the club at The42 Membership today. Click here to find out more >

About the author:

Fintan O'Toole

Read next:

COMMENTS (1)

This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
write a comment

    Leave a commentcancel