Opinion: you have to look at just how different 2020 was overall when gauging the impact on performance of playing in empty stadiums

By Seoirse Bulfin, Limerick Institute of Technology

It is every child's dream to represent their county in front of a packed Croke Park on All Ireland Final day. Now, imagine finally getting the chance to realise that dream, but the year is 2020 and your childhood vision must be played out in front of an empty stadium.

As a sporting nation, there was a collective sigh of relief when it was confirmed that the intercounty GAA championships would be going ahead this late in the year. A flickering sense of hope to cling to at the end of our own annus horribilis.

Much was made of the fact that supporters would not be permitted for obvious reasons. But did we stop and think of the potential psychological impact that playing in these cavernous, concrete carcasses may have on peak performance? Would the lack of crowd take the pressure off these athletes, thus freeing them to express themselves in a fashion that was rarely seen before? Or would it have the opposite effect?

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From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, Colm O'Rourke, Ian Robertson and David Brady on the strange entity that is the 2020 GAA championship

Our GAA players do not play for financial reward, but rather for the sense of pride and connection to their native place. That umbilical cord between athlete and supporter was suddenly gone. Could these players find it within themselves to forego the extrinsic motivation and still maintain the highest standards of skill and athleticism?

Before we even get to throw in and the game itself, we must realise just how out of the ordinary the usual match day routine is because of the pandemic. Most sports people will tell you they play for the camaraderie and bonds that are forged away from the arena itself: the countless nights on the training field, the endless hours in the gym, the nine months spent living in each other’s ears in order to be as good as they can be for the people they represent.

In an instant, this sense of togetherness and closeness was replaced by face masks, social distancing, temperature checks and hand sanitiser. Two dressing rooms became four, post event meals were served in take away cartons and journeys were solitary events unless you shared a house with a teammate then.

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From RTÉ's GAA podcast, Pat Spillane, Oisín McConville, Mikey Stafford and Rory O'Neill discuss what the GAA must do to stage the All-Ireland Championships, admit fans to stadiums and generally save Christmas

On big match days, the ritualistic nature of the sports person tends to mean that players sit in the same seat on the bus or train, surrounded by the same people. Your team mates quickly become your family, and like your family they instinctively know what to say and when to say it. Some lads will sit on their own, lost in their own thoughts, cocooned in the subconscious knowledge of a communal sense of trepidation, purpose and direction with those around them. Others will of course seek solace in the direct company of their teammates. Chatting, laughing, discussing anything but the impending battle.

That comfort blanket of being side by side with people who know just how you are feeling has been ripped away from you. Traveling to a championship game alone in your car allows a lot of time for your thoughts to take over. You do not have to be a psychologist to know that when the grey matter goes into overdrive you are on a slippery slope to sporting mediocrity. The doubts creep in and the self-talk can become negative and completely inhibiting. Ask yourself this; If each soldier had to navigate their own landing craft to Normandy, how many would have completed the journey?

Of course, the "new normal" doesn’t stop when you reach the stadium. There are no traffic delays, no Garda escorts, no hats, flags or headbands. Whether it is the shiny new trinket by the Lee, Tom Semple’s hurling mecca or indeed the monolith off Jones’ Road, you park in silence, and head, without fanfare or fans, into the dressing room.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, ex-Laois hurling manager Eddie Brennan on the GAA intercounty GAA championship in this strange uncertain year

Once the game itself starts, the laboured breathing of the corner forward at one end of the field appears almost within earshot of his counterpart 160 metres away. Every shout, clash and bone shuddering contact reverberate around these cavernous echo chambers. Bang. Thud. Whack. Wallop. So much so, you expect to see the associated graphics flash up on the stadium big screen à la, the old Batman TV show

When you consider all of this, it is difficult to look at the impact playing in front of empty stadiums has on our players, without looking at the bigger picture of just how different this championship, and its’ associated preparation has been as a whole. What is becoming clear, though, at a time where players are potentially replacing Gerry Cinnamon and Post Malone on their match day playlists, with "Fairytale of New York" and "Last Christmas", it is that the teams with the most experience of the big days seem to have handled this unique championship with the minimum of fuss.

The fact that a Celtic Cross was won in front of no-one but teammates and management will matter little. It was won. That is what counts

Regardless of an empty Croke Park, Limerick, hurling's form side since 2018, tucked away another All Ireland with relative ease at the weekend. Mayo are no strangers to the biggest of occasions in the GAA calendar and of course then there’s Dublin, arguably global society's only "Old Normal" in 2020. The blue tsunami has continued unabated, unfazed by pandemics and unnervingly brilliant as always.

What is certain in this most uncertain of years is that once each player receives their Celtic Cross, the fact that it was won in front of no-one but teammates and management will matter little. It was won. That is what counts.

Seoirse Bulfin is a Lecturer at the Limerick Institute of Technology, a PhD candidate at Mary Immaculate College and Wexford GAA senior hurling coach


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ