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County players facing a brand new challenge as the Allianz League makes its return behind closed doors



To the point: Down boss Paddy Tally says a lack of fans may affect some but not others

To the point: Down boss Paddy Tally says a lack of fans may affect some but not others

To the point: Down boss Paddy Tally says a lack of fans may affect some but not others

They've known big days around Inniskeen before, of course, and the name would have a certain resonance with Kerry football folk.

In 2018, on a dank and wet February day, Monaghan eked out a 1-13 to 0-14 Allianz League win over The Kingdom despite playing the last 15 minutes a man down.

The main stand and the terracing on the far side and behind the goals were packed, even though the rain hardly let up.

Today, the National Leagues get under way again after the break for the coronavirus lockdown. The very first game to throw in will be Monaghan and Kerry, once again in Inniskeen. But there will be a very different feel to it with the rest of the season set to be played out behind closed doors. The GAA GO streaming service will be available, but that's as good as it gets.

On Tuesday, the mobile phone of Inniskeen chairman Gerard McArdle buzzed. It was Monaghan manager Seamus McEnaney looking a quick word, ironing out a few small details.

"Banty, he rang me this morning and he was saying, 'It's a great occasion, it's just a pity there will be no spectators. It would have been a hell of a day. The place would be jammed,'" lamented McArdle.

The rest of 2020 will be played out, or 'run off' as some put it aptly, in an autumnal, then winter silence. Already, all county boards have received notice that the venues require 40 names for their respective parties. If your name's not down, you're not coming in.

When the games get under way, the only people present besides the teams and staff will be broadcasters, journalists, umpires and referees.

It's a fairly sterile prospect. It was against that backdrop that in recent weeks Tyrone's Colm Cavanagh announced he was stepping away from the county game, citing the lack of atmosphere and occasion as one of the entries in the 'cons' column.

Diarmuid Connolly of Dublin gave no such outline of his reasons, but nonetheless one of the game's great entertainers has stepped away having previously dedicated himself to being a part of the county panel in 2020. As has Jack McCaffrey, a man so much in his prime that he has won man of the match in the last two All-Ireland finals.

Having been involved in inter-county football over the past two decades and having guided St Mary's University College to a Sigerson Cup, Paddy Tally has significant experience in sports science to understand what the key triggers are to get players up for a task.

"There is a lot of individuality in terms of motivation and where it comes from. Some players would feed off the crowd, and that is an external motivation that helps them perform," said the Down manager.

"Other players are very intrinsically motivated and their whole focus is on their own performance and how they play.

"A lot of it will come down to what makes you tick. I always believe that the competitor in sport will always find they are driven by their own performance and how they might play on any given day given the challenge that is put in front of them.

"Certainly, players that are used to big occasions and playing in front of crowds, they might find it more difficult than a young player who is less exposed to that kind of environment.

"Generally, I think most players will be driven by the fact that they are just getting back to play. That, at county level, will be sufficient for most of them."

No cheering and encouragement might mean everything and nothing for the game. But English soccer is experiencing a strange phenomenon with freak results, not least Tottenham and Aston Villa crushing Manchester United and Liverpool respectively.

"That's interesting, to see Man United getting a heavy defeat at home," said Tally.

"It seems to be that the games are higher scoring this season. Maybe that's due to not the same focus on defence and a different atmosphere at games. The Kop end for Liverpool was always a big thing and maybe they work that bit harder with the support from behind them.

"In terms of Gaelic games, it remains to be seen how this will pan out. There will be certain counties who are used to playing to big capacities and big crowds. For others, it may not make much difference."

Whatever effect it has, Tally needs it to play out in Down's favour from 4pm today when the ball is thrown in for their round six game in Páirc Esler against Leitrim. Another win would almost guarantee them promotion, with only bottom-placed Louth to meet next week.

Chairman Jack Devaney admits it will be a game like no other after the success of the Club Championship, even allowing for the reduced attendances.

"It is going to have the feel of a challenge match because it has the environment, in that there is nobody there," he admitted.

"There were some club games, particularly the finals in Newry, where if you moved down towards the stand, you got a fairly good atmosphere, even for a limited crowd. You take all that out and you take the atmosphere away.

"From an organisation point of view, it's harder to manage with 500 than it would be with 5,000, because when it comes down to an inter-county game, you will find there will be a demand, and maybe some come with an expectation that they should get in to see the game.

"Therefore, having no fans from an organisation point of view makes it easier. There's no traffic to steward, all of that."

Ballybofey has struck fear into the hearts of Tyrone folk over the last decade. But tomorrow will have none of the old cauldron effect. Indeed, county PRO John McEniff said: "The only new thing about this is the level of press that will be there and trying to fit them in and have them socially distanced. That's the only different thing for us over the past few weeks since we have been going this way."

Welcome to the future. It's a bit grim, ain't it?

Belfast Telegraph