While the Premier League in England scrambles for a plan to allow them to finish the 2019-20 season by the end of June – a bonanza of televised games at Wembley behind closed doors was the latest ‘plan’ mooted – we have had a plan in place here for some time, namely resuming League of Ireland activities in June.
The question has to be asked though, is June realistic for the resumption of the SSE Airtricity Premier and First divisions? An awful lot of water has flowed under the bridge since the plan was hatched a month ago after a teleconference involving all 19 League of Ireland clubs.
The ‘June Plan’ involves resuming the leagues on the weekend of Friday 19 June and finishing in December, with the last round of Premier Division games shaved from the fixture list, reducing the season to 27 games from 36. The First Division, it was proposed, would try to fulfil its existing 27-game rota.
It pains me to say it – because like everyone else I want football and every other aspect of life to return to normal – but I don’t think we will be seeing football resume in June. That’s just too soon to be able to have large gatherings of people huddled in stadiums, not to mention players up close and personal with each other on the field.
Too much is still up in the air about COVID-19. We are still in full lockdown as we wait for the pandemic to be brought under control. Hospitals are strained to breaking point. There is no vaccine on the horizon, no evidence that even if we get antibody testing [to see who has had the virus] that it will prove ongoing immunity in those who have cleared the virus from their systems. Social distancing will be a feature of life into 2021.
Major sporting events due to be scheduled over the summer have fallen off the 2020 calendar. No Wimbledon, no Tour de France, no Tokyo Olympics, no 2020 UEFA European Championships. This summer will not be one for sport. It will be one for the serious business of continued social distancing, lifting of lockdowns gradually and planning for how to get back to normal while dealing with COVID-19 on an ongoing basis going forward.
September is a more realistic target for resuming sport in my opinion [off topic, but I think that is when you will see schools reopen too, not before]. That gives sporting bodies here big decisions to make. The GAA need to cancel the 2020 summer Championships. No Sam or Liam this year, unless you want to try to play them off in the autumn and winter. Likewise, the FAI need to take the decision that all football activity remains suspended until the other side of the summer.
What would that mean? It would mean having only the period from September to December available to complete the 2020 SSE seasons. The obvious thing would be to give both the Premier and First divisions a further haircut that would reduce them to two series of games, namely each club playing each other once at home and once away. The FAI Cup would have to be waived for this year.
A recent precedent for a truncated season would be the shortened campaign that was played between the last campaign of winter football here [2001-02] and the first campaign of summer soccer . It worked adequately at the time, and I have fond memories of what I still think of as ‘the in-between season’.
Even this – as extreme as it sounds – wouldn’t be the end of things. You are looking at reduced crowds being allowed into stadiums to allow for social distancing. Add in the wearing of gloves that would muffle both COVID-19 [which we want them to] and the claps of fans [which we don’t want them to], facemasks that would muffle both COVID-19 [which we want them to] and the cheers of fans [which we don’t want them to] and it will make for a very bizarre experience.
I could be wrong – things could get back to normal in June – and I’d be happy to be wrong. We shall see. In the meantime, stay safe everyone.