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GAA return without fans would be 'profound decision' and has not been considered yet, says chief



Missing out: Cavan's Killian Clarke and Rian O'Neill of Armagh in last year's Ulster Championship semi-final

Missing out: Cavan's Killian Clarke and Rian O'Neill of Armagh in last year's Ulster Championship semi-final

�INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Simon Harris

Simon Harris

Missing out: Cavan's Killian Clarke and Rian O'Neill of Armagh in last year's Ulster Championship semi-final

The GAA have responded to comments made by Irish Health Minister Simon Harris regarding large gatherings being banned for the rest of the year.

In an interview, Harris appeared to rule out anything involving large crowds for the rest of 2020 until a cure for Covid-19 is found. Such a scenario places playing the 2020 inter-county season in great difficulty.

"What are not going to come back quickly are scenarios in which we can't safely socially distance. So I can't see how people can be in packed pubs again as long as this virus is still with us and we don't have a vaccine or an effective treatment," Harris said, adding that it is "highly unlikely we're going to be seeing very large mass gatherings this year".

It had been suggested in many quarters that, with German soccer clubs having resumed training on April 6, that the GAA could consider playing a Championship behind closed doors.

Such an arrangement could be seen as a way of satisfying the various contractual obligations when it comes to broadcast and sponsorship rights.

The GAA's director of communications, Alan Milton, believes that such a step is a way off yet.

"I can honestly say that the idea of playing games behind closed doors has not been considered at this stage and I think it is a profound decision for the GAA to take," he said.

"I think it will only come into sharp focus if it means no Championship at all or a Championship behind closed doors.

"I think it would be a very different conversation we would have with our players.

"It may be an unfair ask of amateur sportspeople depending on what their personal circumstances are."

Milton also addressed Harris' thoughts in the interview, adding that: "To the best of my knowledge, what we heard is not official government policy as of yet and we would expect it to be communicated differently if it becomes official government policy."

With the pandemic appearing to be slowed in the Republic of Ireland, many are optimistic that Gaelic games could at least be played at club level, with some level of attendance permitted.

"I think most people who have watched this and followed this story would accept that club activity is far more likely to return earlier (than inter-county action). It's fairly obvious as to why that might be in terms of smaller crowds coming to watch games," said Milton.

However, there is a real sense of alarm over what a summer devoid of inter-county action could mean for the GAA with Director-General Tom Ryan making the claim that they could lose out on up to €60m (£52m) over the year.

While the GAA do not exist as a profit-making company, there is an entire network of coaches and administrators across Ulster and the Republic of Ireland who depend upon it for their employment and job losses could become part of the new reality.

"I have to say, the broadcasters and sponsors up to this point have been hugely supportive and very understanding. There is a real sense of us all in this together," said Milton.

"But there will come a time when we have no games to promote, sponsors and partners can't work with us to promote those games and raise awareness, and indeed broadcasters can't broadcast them.

"Without games, we don't have anything else. It's what we do, games and culture, and while it is not as serious as what is going on out there, it is serious for people involved in the GAA and employed by the GAA."

To that end, the GAA have a certain amount of continuity plans, according to Milton. And the first thing to go would be round-robins in football and hurling.

"I think our scenario planning was based on two different things. The first was the amount of time we have to play competitions and the second one was what format it would have to take," he added.

"In that scenario you are looking at two potential models in my view; the first one is the traditional backdoor system that we had, or possibly a straight knockout format."

Belfast Telegraph