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‘There are times you’re an afterthought as a Gael in the six counties’

Antrim’s Neil McManus says ‘a joined-up approach’ between north and south must be adopted when it comes to the resumption of inter-county games and training.

Antrim's Neil McManus.
Antrim's Neil McManus.
Image: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Updated May 8th 2020, 9:30 PM

WHILE THE GAA have already ruled out the chance of inter-county games taking place before October, it remains a distinct possibility that teams in the Republic will be allowed to return to training and games earlier than the six counties in the north. 

Unless Ireland and the UK emerge from their respective lockdowns at the same time and under similar conditions, there could be major issues over different pre-season times and organising county games.

It’s a major source of frustration for Antrim hurling star Neil McManus who feels the six counties are often an “afterthought” when it comes to the GAA leadership.

“This is a massive one,” he tells The42. “Watching the clip of Leo (Varadkar) speaking yesterday, there are times the political leadership in the south just consider the north to be a world apart, and that’s the truth.

“And it’s very, very frustrating. I would feel very passionately about being Irish and very patriotic. There are times you’re an afterthought as a Gael in the six counties. 

“In fairness whenever lockdown was announced in the south, 90% of the areas in the north took that advice and went into lockdown. It was almost self-imposed here in the north.

“There’s no great allegiance to Borris Johnson’s government on either side of the political divide in the north. He really threw the DUP under the bus and obviously nationalists and the Tory party have never gotten along.

“The more we see of the chief political officers issuing joint statements as we come out of lockdown the better that is and we handle this on an All-Ireland basis. It’s been said many times before but it’s the truth: This virus does not recognise any borders.

“How could you treat Derry and Donegal differently, for example? It would make absolutely no sense. Those communities are entangled together and we have to have a joined-up approach.”

damien-mcglynn-with-neil-mcmanus Neil McManus of Ruairi Og. Source: Gary Carr/INPHO

The Cushendall ace also believes the GAA should open up club grounds to allow teams train in smaller groups from 18 May as per the government guidelines.

“It’s kind of funny because the GAA have introduced a training ban as such but the government have said that in the next few weeks they hope to have people back training in small groups. So it’s strange that those two pieces of advice are conflicting and I think that needs to firmed up.

“This sport is more than a sport, it involves entire communities. What our players put into it is massive and it really is such an outlet for each and every one of us.

He continues: “Even just to have that little bit of interaction, if it’s only with two or three other lads it’s massive. Mentally as well as physically.

“If the government advice is that we can train in small groups again then the GAA should open the pitches to facilitate that because we have to be consistent and if we’re all saying the same thing we’re going to be led by the medical science and experts then that’s what we should do.

“The very same people who are using the pitches are the guys who’ll be going to a park to run together or going to use some other area just to carry out the same training.

“These pitches are the hubs of every community, no different here in Antrim as it is in Westmeath, Cork or Kerry. Although they’re GAA grounds they are maintained by their community so I think they should be opened if the medical advice is that we can do that safely.

“It’s so hard to tell and it can change day to day at times. We can’t be selfish, even though I’d love to be back playing tomorrow we have to do what’s right for the country.

“It’s very, very important our main focus is getting through this with as many healthy people as possible so that has to come first. We have to just do what we’re told by the chief medical officers.”

McManus, who is in his 14th season at senior inter-county level, is in favour of the McDonagh Cup being played before the Liam MacCarthy Cup and All-Ireland football championship if it’s safe to do so.

“If an area, say county Antrim as a whole, becomes Covid free or there’s very few cases in a month or two months’ time, then why don’t we play our club championships,” he says.

“If the counties competing in the Joe McDonagh are Covid free and travel restrictions have been lessened then why don’t we play those games and allow people to come watch them and be spread out.

“Because none of them are going to draw a crowd of 10,000. It poses a different question for the Liam MacCarthy Cup and football championship but looking from a selfish point of view, the McDonagh Cup will be able to go ahead before the All-Ireland.

“I absolutely love the games, I really enjoy the build-up to them and anticipation. As you get a wee bit older it stops becoming something you’re nervous about and you’re more aware of the fact this isn’t going to go on forever and you just try to enjoy it that wee bit more.

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“At this stage of my career, I’ll be 32 in a months’ time, and I really don’t want to miss on any time. I’m playing for Antrim 14-odd years now and there’s not another 14 to come, put it like that. I would hate for the 2020 season to go unplayed.”

The 31-year-old says the older community in the Glens are pining for the return of the games. 

“My father is part of our club management set-up and there’s no two ways about it, he’s bored at this stage. I live next door and he’d have no problem standing and watching me for 20 minutes just hitting the ball off the wall. It’s better than watching Eastenders or Coronation Street.

“It’s a huge miss and I think people are definitely struggling to fill that void. If I’m at the shop or our four a walk with my wife, the older generation are always the people asking me, ‘When do you think we’ll be back?’ and, ‘Are the lads keeping fit?’”

GPA WGPA Pieta REST Image

Neil McManus was speaking at the launch of R.E.S.T, an important new mental fitness campaign developed by the GPA and WGPA in partnership with the mental health charity, Pieta. R.E.S.T reminds us all of the importance of Routine, Exercise, Sleep and Talk. Be the champion of your own mental fitness and never underestimate the power of #REST. 

To find out more or to make a donation to Pieta’s Darkness Into Light Sunrise Appeal visit www.darknessintolight.ie.

- First published today at 17.49

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Kevin O'Brien

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