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Crowds set to miss GAA return in six Ulster counties following NI Executive decision



All set: Sean Cavanagh will be a key figure for Moy

All set: Sean Cavanagh will be a key figure for Moy

�INPHO/Ken Sutton

Peter Harte

Peter Harte

�INPHO/Evan Logan

All set: Sean Cavanagh will be a key figure for Moy

The league competitions in various Ulster counties are expected to swing into action on the weekend of July 17-19 - but without spectators.

The Ulster Council had up until yesterday been hopeful that it would get the green light to host crowds of upwards on 500 spectators, but a statement issued by the NI Executive in conjunction with the health authority has ruled this out.

Now, instead of hosting matches that had been expected to see people flock through the turnstiles, the games will be played behind closed doors.

This is in contrast to what currently prevails in the Republic where, under Phase Four of the government's recovery from the pandemic road map, crowds of 500 will be permitted to attend games from July 20.

Given that in most northern counties attractive club fixture lists have already been compiled, GAA chiefs here are understandably disappointed that spectators will be denied the opportunity of heralding the return to competitive action.

The challenges which social distancing is expected to provide, and the fact that the coronavirus is still seen to offer a significant threat, has persuaded the NI Executive to stand firm on a no-spectator policy.

Communities Minister Carál Ní Chuilín said: "The Executive has endorsed a return to competition, albeit without spectators, and has agreed that indoor sports facilities can reopen on July 17.

"These decisions are based on the latest scientific and health advice and it is more important than ever to emphasise that everyone has a personal responsibility to follow the guidance and to protect those around them.

"I trust that sports people, clubs and governing bodies are compliant with the guidance that is out there.

"We all want to enjoy taking part in sport once again and look forward to attending sporting events when it is safe to do so."

And she added: "This news follows last week's announcement of an additional £2m in funding, which will help ensure that people and communities can get back to enjoying their sport safely as the restrictions on the sector gradually ease. 

"I would hope that further relaxations and news on return for spectators to sporting events will be announced in due course."

With club action embracing both league and Championship fare set to be showcased during a 11-week window, county boards are keen to ensure that what is a vast programme of fixtures gets off on the right foot.

While spectators are expected to flock to games in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan, the rest of the Ulster counties are steeling themselves for action behind closed doors - something that was thought might have been avoided at this juncture.

"Obviously we will take our guidance from the authorities. We are conscious that, since there has been no competitive action at any level from the start of March, GAA followers would be particularly keen to come out and see games," stressed Ulster Council director of operations Stephen McGeehan.

McGeehan's aspirations of seeing rather more positive news on attendances at club games had been strengthened by the fact that in some counties there is a particularly attractive menu of opening-round league fixtures on Sunday week.

The appetites of Tyrone followers will certainly be whetted, with the meeting of Errigal Ciaran and Moy one of a number of fixtures that will be spliced with familiar faces.

Peter Harte, Ben McDonnell, Aidan McCrory and Darragh Canavan look set to be in the vanguard of the Errigal drive for an opening-day victory, while it is likely that the Cavanagh brothers, Sean and Colm, will be striving to give Moy an early boost.

And when Trillick go head-to-head with Clonoe, there will be a galaxy of talent on display.

Trillick's considerable resources look certain to be spearheaded by the Donnelly brothers, Matthew and Ritchie, along with the Brennan duo, Rory and Lee. For their part, Clonoe can look to the talents of Declan McClure and Conor McAliskey - and that's just for starters.

Also on Sunday week across the Blackwater Bridge, Armagh officials are anticipating the launch of what they hope will prove a stirring league campaign, and the meeting of Maghery and Crossmaglen Rangers should lend a considerable edge to the competition from the outset.

While the loughshore outfit are likely to look to Aidan Forker and Ben Crealey for inspiration, the Rangers talent will be headed by the O'Neill brothers, Oisin and Rian, James Morgan, Gavin Cumiskey and Paul Hughes.

Belfast Telegraph