The Carlow football championships are currently due to begin in September and with the restrictions gradually being lifted for most sports, GAA clubs throughout the country have opened their gates and players are getting back to collective training.
We contacted a selection of club managers from around Carlow to ask them about the mood in the club and what their ambitions are for the season ahead. The issue of Covid-19 looms large above everything and some clubs will face particular challenges in the coming months.
There has also been a degree of disquiet in some clubs about the decision not to allow promotion and relegation in championships this year and that is something of a cloud on a bright horizon as players get back out onto the training fields.
The argument is that clubs should not be relegated or lose out on promotion if they are missing players due to fears over getting the virus or passing it on to vulnerable friends and family.
Some clubs, however, say that a championship without a proper prize at the end of it is not a championship at all.
Meanwhile, Carlow GAA fixtures secretary John McDonald has confirmed he will host a fixtures meeting this week to finalise dates for the championship. He says it might take more than one meeting to sort out everything but he is hopeful a programme will be in place in less than two weeks.
Eoghan Dunne (Ballinabranna manager)
“Ballinabranna lost out in the senior relegation match to Mount Leinster Rangers in 2019 and returned to the intermediate grade after one year at the top level.
“We met up on Wednesday on the field. Before that we kept in contact on WhatsApp, but there is nothing like being back on your own pitch. A couple of weeks ago no-one could see any light or an end to the restrictions. Now we are getting back and we have championship coming up.
“The ambition, from the very first session in the club last February, was to do our best to go back up senior. We had a meeting at the end of last year where we asked ourselves if we had the urge to go again. We were unlucky last year. There were two matches in particular and if we had drawn against Old Leighlin instead of losing by a point we would have gone to the quarter-finals instead of playing a relegation match.
“I can understand totally if there are players who don’t want to play [due to Covid-19]. I have heard stories of people who are living in certain situations and they don’t want to risk anything. At the end of the day football is only a game. We are very fortunate. We have 29 fellas on the field and four more lads rang me with excuses. We have a lot of young fellas and the club is in a very good position.
“I am happy with the structure of the championship and I can understand where they are coming with no promotion and relegation. That is fine, but why not do what Wexford have done and take away relegation. At this time of year in every community there is a hope. Look at the intermediate in Carlow. Every single one of those teams think they can win it. To win it and not go up senior would be such an anti-climax. In 2018 we became a senior club and had that opportunity. It was such a buzz to be up there and now to get back there the lads would be well able for it. We more than held our own at senior level.
“I know Carlow reduced their numbers in the senior championship a few years ago because there were a lot of one-sided games. Things have changed since then. Teams are training properly now. Junior teams train properly. With the access clubs have to trainers and experts to come in to help out, the standard has improved. Teams who might not be as strong can still come up with tactics which makes them hard to beat.
“After coming out of a situation of isolation there is a pep in every body’s step. There is now an optimism. If you were to win the intermediate and not get a chance to up senior, it would be so disappointing. Then you have older players who might be getting one last chance to play senior.
“I think it would be a real good-feel factor for the county board if they were to take out the relegation but leave in promotion. We might have a problem next year, but we will sort that out next year. Isn’t it ironic you have the hash tag Carlow Rising and there is no promotion.”
Stephen Byrne (Ballon manager)
“The mood is good. Players are ambitious. Before the lock-down we were in good form and had played a number of matches.
“At the time the league was going and definitely, every player would have got games which would have helped them build confidence going into the championship.
“You know yourself, when you play football, soccer, hurling it is all about getting a bit of luck along the way. This year we should have the minors involved while a couple of lads who were planning to go travelling won’t be going and they will be available to us.
“We will be taking it one game at a time. I am not sure where we are on practice matches. It all depends on Croke Park when contact games resume and then we could have four or five practice games.
“The idea of promotion gives young players confidence and hope going forward while older players look at it as a chance to play intermediate football.
“I would like the county board to have a look at the promotion-relegation issue because, without it, would players really put in the effort they would normally put in for five championship matches?”
Mick Kehoe (St Patrick’s manager)
Mick spoke to us before the club’s return to training last Thursday.
“This is our first get together this evening. Lads have been very diligent themselves going out and doing 5kms and they now have a pep in their step. What is it they say? ‘You don’t miss the water until the well runs dry.’
“We had a very good start to the league. We had a right good game against Myshall and a good win over Kilbride. We had great numbers out. There were lads up from minor. The really positive thing is we had 21-26 lads togged out for all those games which was great.
“I suppose the one thing which is disappointing is that there is no promotion there this year. I understand you have to mitigate the threat of the coronavirus but I think we are missing an opportunity. If you kept promotion with no relegation, it would really only mean nine teams is senior next year which is not necessarily a bad thing. You could relegate two the following year. Make it double jeopardy.
“I don’t want to put pressure on St Patrick’s by saying they must think they are going to win the championship. It is true for Kildavin-Clonegal, Fenagh, Grange. They all think they have a great chance of going back up. If you were 34-35 years of age and you felt you hadn’t many opportunities left, it is a little bit tough.
“I completely understand that to be relegated in a year like this could be very unfair and very tough because you might lose players to illness. You might be putting pressure on players who have grandparents living with them. You have to be sensitive to all that.
“But, the team that wins it still can’t have a great year. Take St Patrick’s out of it for a minute. Take Fenagh last year, winning junior at the third attempt. Imagine if they hadn’t won it last year, then they could be in four finals in a row and still wouldn’t be out of the grade.
“Senior is the only grade where you would have nine teams in it so who is to say the team who does go up could have a great year? The following year, relegate two if you want to go back to eight teams.”
Mick Byrne (Kilbride manager)
“I started the year with Kilbride and when Covid arrived we had to scrap everything. We are back on Wednesday.
“I have heard there is no-one going to be promoted or relegated. There is more to play for when you know you could be going down or going up. If you lose your first two games then the last one is a dead rubber. That is my take. I am meeting with a couple of selectors shortly and we will be planning what way we are going to start back.
“I believe we can have full contact now which has been brought forward from late July. That is a bit of a bonus as it would have been very hard to carry out training sessions, maybe without a ball and just doing a lot of running.
“If we lose four or five players we are in bother. At the best of times we would have 20-21 players for the championship so we cannot afford to lose anybody.
“We are going to be playing Éire Óg in our first game. They will have maybe six or seven footballers on their intermediate team who will go up to senior. Then when those lads go up to senior, whoever plays them will probably beat them.
“I was talking to one of our selectors recently and he mentioned maybe two lads who would not be coming back. Two very important players. I won’t be pushing any players to come back and I just want to see what I have.
“I would leave the championship the way it is. Winners go up and losers get relegated. I know an intermediate championship is important but, in one way, teams are playing for nothing if there is no promotion. A team winning an intermediate championship would be very disappointed not to be promoted. Everyone wants to win an intermediate championship but at the end of the day whoever wins it will be very disappointed to have put in the effort and not get a chance to play senior.”
Pat Nolan (Kildavin-Clonegal manager)
“I have had the lads together already. We have a few older fellas like John Kirwan and Paul Kelly. Good lads who say they need a goal and would love a chance to play senior football before they retire.
“The intermediate and junior A are very competitive in Carlow. I know that only too well myself as I have been involved since swopping between junior A and intermediate. Any one of the eight intermediate teams could win the championship. If they won it this year and didn’t go up who is to say they would win it again next year. It would be very hard to do it. A young Clonmore team, a young Fenagh team, the Fighting Cocks is a good team. Take Mattie Dowling and Kieran Nolan in the Cocks; if they were to win the intermediate, they would love a crack at senior football again. The Fighting Cocks have been very good and are asking the county board to revisit it. We are not looking for relegation and I know there are people working in the front-line battling Covid. We are not looking for teams to be relegated but if you don’t have a goal to work for it is hard to keep lads going.
“I tell you what I would like to see: 10 teams at senior and 10 teams at intermediate. It might give a team who comes up from intermediate a better chance to compete at senior level. With eight it is hard for teams to go up to senior and stay there.
“In the year that is in it, we have to have respect for teams who might be struggling with numbers. It is great to play sport but we have to do the things which have been laid out for us. We have guidelines to follow and we will follow them.
“This virus could be with us for a few years. If there is a resurgence there is nothing to say we can’t just scrap the championship. Having said that, we have to think positive. I think the government has handled it well, the GAA has handled it well and I think clubs are not stupid. Everyone is very mindful of what they have to do but, at the same time, when we get a bit of sport back everyone wants a goal.
“Every young fella’s goal is to play senior football and at the moment no player has come to me to say he cannot play. The numbers training have been fantastic but if a player comes to me and says he cannot play, then I have total respect for that decision too.”
PJ Byrne (Member of the Fenagh management team)
PJ spoke to us on Friday.
“We will have lads back in the field on Sunday. We have a collection of people coming down to the field to put everything in place: hand sanitisers, washing stations, everything the GAA is required of us. No team is back in the field until everything is right.
“Earlier on in the year when we were in the field the mood was good. We were enjoying training. Now, at this stage, like everyone else we are gathering ourselves and finding out what Covid means and what it will be like when we get back to the field.
“We have a lot of young lads who don’t see too much fear in Covid. They are really looking forward to getting back and meeting up with everybody. Our ambition is to stay up in intermediate. Too often we see a team going up but going down again immediately after being promoted. We have to settle down in intermediate and I, personally, hope we can get to a semi-final. In junior I would hope we could get to a semi-final spot. Maybe we could get to a final.
“So far, while we haven’t been back in the field yet, we have four more senior players who have opted out for the next while until they see what the developments are. I totally understand that. We as a club support them. They opted out and that is OK.
“I am quite happy with the structure of the championship. We can play football without fear of relegation. We don’t have to be pushing all the time and this allows people to go out and play football the way we believe it should be played, going out to express ourselves.”
Mick Murphy (Tinryland manager)
Mick spoke to us on Friday.
“We haven’t been training yet and we are meeting on Monday. We will be treating it as a proper championship. That is basically it. A full championship. Last year we beat Éire Óg and are there or thereabouts every year but we didn’t push on after that.
“I cannot go down the road of knowing what players are available and who isn’t until we meet the lads and have a chat. We will take everything as it comes. If anyone has concerns we will not be forcing anybody to do anything. We are just delighted to see that football is back.
“I maintain you could have 10 teams in the senior championship. The more championship games the better.”