Patrick Doherty is head of operations for Westmeath GAA.
Patrick Doherty is head of operations for Westmeath GAA.

Counting down towards the big throw in

By Kevin Egan

Part of the rite of passage of any GAA match reporter is to get yourself locked into a stadium now and again. Once the final whistle sounds on a big game, the agenda of the reporter and the stadium stewards are very different – the reporter, who’s getting paid for their work and probably rolled up to the stadium about a half an hour before throw in, wants to get everything boxed off before the feverish emails and phone calls from anxious newsrooms start to come through.

Then there’s the stadium stewards, who are probably there from about two hours before throw in, and who are doing it for nothing more than devotion to their home county – and they want to get home to have a bit of dinner, and maybe even get a few jobs done before the highlights of the day’s games come on TV.

Some will wait it out for the last few hacks to finish their work with characteristic good grace, others will do so through gritted teeth, but the golden rule for the reporter is always stay visible, or keep a light on, or do something to make sure that you can be seen. If you don’t, it’s understandable that once the competing panels make their exit from the ground, the locking up will begin, and if it’s not plainly obvious that you’re still there, you may find yourself on the wrong side of some locked gates.

Then, in 2020, we entered a strange new world where locked gates are the norm, even the whole way through a game. Regardless of the stature or appeal of the game throughout the upcoming Allianz League, less than 150 people will be inside the stadium for any fixture, which brings with it a unique set of challenges.

Last November, TEG Cusack Park in Mullingar hosted the Leinster championship tie between Longford and Louth, and since then the home venue of the Lake County has effectively been shut down, save for serving as the workplace of Patrick Doherty, head of operations for Westmeath GAA.

All across Ireland, empty stands have become a regular backdrop for games.
All across Ireland, empty stands have become a regular backdrop for games.

It’s a busy time for Doherty, who has to think about all the usual preparations for the first game of the year, not to mention the visit of the TG cameras, and all the extra precautions that go hand in hand with sporting fixtures in the time of Covid-19.

“Every year, you’d always make sure the place would be freshened up in advance of the new year, so we’d conduct a deep clean. That’s not really that different this time around, even though we do keep Covid in mind,” said the Downs club man.

“We don’t keep equipment here so we don’t have to think about that side of it, but we have made sure to have ample signage, sanitisation stations and everything else.

“On the field, it’s the same as normal. Peter (Butler) is out there mowing at the moment, we sanded the pitch recently and it’s in great shape. But inside we’ve to configure the ground specifically. The teams use two dressing rooms each, and because our dressing rooms are either side of the tunnel, it means that the two teams don’t have to mix any more than they do out on the field”.

As this conversation takes place, TG4 engineers are putting in place the infrastructure to be ready to broadcast the game, but they too have to factor Covid restrictions into their plans.

“It’s the same for all media outlets, be that TV, local radio, or whatever. Everyone has to greatly restrict the number of bodies needed, just to minimise the numbers. People sometimes think that there are a lot of hangers on going with county teams at the moment, but that’s not true at all. Last year the playing panels were just 26 players, this year that’s out to 32, and then there’s a backroom team of 12 and two county board officers, usually the chairman and the secretary.

“When you consider that each team will have a couple of physios, a doctor, a kit man, a team secretary, that’s a lot of the backroom slots that are full before you ever go near things like coaches and stats men”.

Westmeath and Galway have both discarded their traditional maroon colours when playing against each other recently.
Westmeath and Galway have both discarded their traditional maroon colours when playing against each other recently.

With so much demand, Doherty had been impressed by the restraint of the general public in these remarkable circumstances.

“You do hear stories about people trying to scale walls and stuff like that, but we haven’t experienced that. Whether it was county or club games last year, people have shown huge respect for both the government guidelines and GAA regulations.

“We have our list at the start of the game, all the names that are allowed entry to the ground and we check those off one by one, and it’s very simple, if you’re not on that list in an official role, you aren’t getting in. This year will be 44 from each team, anything up to 20 members of the media and press, six stewards, four county board officers, and then the eight match officials.

“We certainly haven’t had anyone come up to the gate and pretend to be Joe Canning or anything like that, even though it’s part of modern hurling that you wouldn’t recognise a lot of players under their helmets!

“On the day, players are easily to guide, they’re very conscious of their own behaviour. They’re encouraged to dine quickly and to do so while social distancing, and they do that. The Annbrook Hotel look after our catering, they deliver takeaway meals to here and the lads move on quickly, they’re extremely conscious of their own health and not putting themselves at risk either” he said.

Walking out, looking at the ground in perfect condition, it seems like TEG Cusack Park is much the same as the players that will run out onto the field for the game tomorrow. Primed, pristine, and ready for action, but with all the usual preparations bolstered by extra precautions that are unique to the times we live in.