As manager of this year’s Galway U-20 hurlers, Jeff Lynskey wouldn’t normally be asked his opinion on an All-Ireland senior football semi-final. But these are not normal times.
You’ll go into that thinking the energy and the adrenaline and the crowd will carry them over,” says Lynskey. “But you will see, after about 10 or 12 minutes, who has Covid and who has not. You can spot it straight away, from an energy point of view.”
He was speaking from very recent experience: on Wednesday of last week, his charges were overwhelmed by Cork, 4-19 to 2-14, in their All-Ireland final in Thurles. He has since stepped down.
“Cork were a superior team, don’t get me wrong,” he stresses. But there is a back story: in the build-up to a final already postponed by 11 days after one of the Cork group returned a positive test and the entire panel and management were deemed to be close contacts, 12 of his Galway players also tested positive, with an additional four close contacts.
And when it came to the crunch, several of them simply weren’t right.
This Saturday, 13 days after the appointed date, Tyrone’s footballers will test their mettle against a team that hit them for six goals in the league back in June. You’d want to be in the full of your health for this daunting Kerry challenge. But will they be? Can they possibly be?
The Covid-19 crisis that has enveloped Tyrone for the best part of a month has prompted two postponements of their All-Ireland SFC semi-final, a consequent fortnight’s delay for this year’s final, plenty of questions and not enough answers for the liking of some commentators.
In an interview published by the Irish Independent last Monday week, Tyrone joint-manager Feargal Logan revealed there had been “at least 17 or more positive tests, most of whom have played in this year’s championship” and including one player hospitalised, along with four or more cases in the backroom team.
Logan delivered a positive update earlier this week, saying they had got to that point where every player was “physically present” on the training field and “out of isolation”.
Fellow boss Brian Dooher indicated that the players were in “different stages of integration back into full training” and it was “a bit early to call” whether all will be available for the rigours of a semi-final.
It’s the sixty-four million dollar question: when is the right time for an elite athlete who has battled Covid to go back chasing the dream?
The risk of ‘long Covid’ has been likened to a game of Russian roulette for the young and healthy. Some have minimal symptoms and recover quickly; for others, it takes longer.
Rower Eimear Lambe won an Olympic bronze medal as part of the Irish women’s four in Tokyo, and later recalled her battle with the virus earlier this year: “I’d look at my heart rate and it would be 140, 150, just going for walks. Normally it would be less than 100. It was staggering.”
Chris Silver, a Welsh triathlete, endured a far longer 10-month battle.
“At my worst, my most debilitating symptom was 100pc fatigue. I struggled to get out of bed in the morning. I didn’t know if I’d ever recover from this. I didn’t know if Covid would still kill me,” Silver said last January.
“I have no doubt that exercising while I had symptoms, even though it was just low-level underlying fatigue, led me to have long Covid in the first place. So, my key piece of advice to anyone in the early stages is you need two weeks of no symptoms before you try and do any sort of exercise.”
Dr Kevin Moran is a member of the GAA’s Covid-19 advisory group as well as being team doctor to the Donegal footballers for the past 11 years.
“You’ve got a spectrum of illness, from quite severe to absolutely nothing – maybe a runny nose for a day. I’ve been very cautious over the last year and obviously we had a number of players testing positive in Donegal as well,” Moran outlines.
“The first thing is you treat each player on the basis of their symptoms and their past history. So, at the minor end, the first thing you do is see what their exercise tolerance is like. You might put them on a stationary bike and exercise them for half-an-hour and look at their heart rate and look at their peak flow.”
The latter can be tested by blowing into an apparatus used to monitor asthmatics.
“The peak flow for an athlete should be 500 to 600,” he says, “so if their peak flow goes down or if their heart rate goes up very, very quickly, or if they get tired or dizzy, straight away you say, ‘even though you’ve no symptoms, I’m holding you back for a couple of weeks’.
“That would be at the minor end. Where someone is quite sick, with a temperature, with a lack of energy and their appetite is off and all the rest, first of all you wait and see how long these symptoms persist . . . but there is a small risk of getting myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle, and potentially life-threatening if not treated), which you can get with any viral infection.
“If they have persistent rapid heart rate particularly when they wake up in the morning, or if they get breathless very easily, I would consult a respiratory physician or a cardiologist.”
Managing an U-20 team through a pandemic has been challenging on so many levels, but Lynskey felt his Galway hurlers were “in a really good place” after beating Dublin in the Leinster final last month. “And then Covid hit us.”
This hidden virus, he adds, is everywhere and “you don’t know where you’re going to pick it up. You can follow all the protocols – we togged out the whole time outside”.
When it struck, with a vengeance, 12 players and four close contacts went into isolation just as they were preparing for an All-Ireland final.
“Now, the big impact is on their energy levels and lung capacity. The Sports Institute have guidelines for us to follow. They reckon it’s 17 days – but it can be anything from 17 days to four weeks to six to eight weeks. The lungs don’t recover. They’re working at probably 60 or 70pc,” says Lynskey.
“Most of them were all back on the Thursday before the final, so that gave us two sessions to see where they were at. Some had mild symptoms, some had severe. We had to make a call with a few of them. Now look, by about Sunday, some of them had improved a good bit – but some of them hadn’t.
“So, in Tyrone’s case, it’s a lucky dip really for them. Now, they probably have checked these lads out from a medical point of view; but you just don’t know until they go out. What I experienced with the lads, I could see after 10 minutes, a lot of them were gasping for air. They couldn’t get their second wind, because that’s what this virus does – it affects the lungs more than anything else.”
It begs the question whether Galway should have followed the lead of their Cork counterparts – and Tyrone – and sought a postponement?
“We stood them down for that 10 days,” says Lynskey. “But I was in shock, to be honest with you, when they came back into me. These are healthy young fellas, and they came back in a shell of the players that were there before it.
“From an energy and health point of view, for me in hindsight, we probably should have done a Tyrone on it and said we can’t fulfil the fixture.”
Dr Moran accepts doctors “get emotionally involved” like everyone else in a team group, but stresses: “You must never, ever forget that you’re professional and your first duty is to protect the player.”
He knows the people involved and is sure Tyrone will do everything right. But is there a danger that you may only discover a player is not OK when battle commences?
“All the literature is that if they can tolerate these basic tests, you do a full clinical examination of their hearts, their lungs; then an objective test, an exercise stress test on a stationary bike and a pulmonary function test . . . then I wouldn’t have any concerns.”