LAST night, I got a call from a friend who’s a sports broadcaster. He had something he wanted to get off his chest.
“If everyone who’s been raving on Twitter about Off the Ball had actually listened to it,” he told me, “it would have had far more listeners than it actually has.”
The praise heaped on Newstalk’s flagship sports show was, he insisted, wildly over the top: “Clearly, a lot of these people haven’t heard it in ages. It’s not nearly as good as it thinks it is.”
I happen to agree. The show originally devised and presented by Ger Gilroy and subsequently hosted by Eoin McDevitt often made for wonderfully irreverent and entertaining radio at odds with some of the stuffy, unimaginative competition. But it could be terribly hit or miss too.
And its lustre seemed to dissipate somewhat in recent years as the awards stacked up and its protagonists started to believe the hype and get complacent. While the banter between McDevitt, Ken Early and Ciaran Murphy could be informative, it could also teeter into amateur self-indulgence.
A case in point happened some weeks back. McDevitt and his panel were discussing the BBC’s decision to replace Colin Murray as presenter of Match of the Day 2 with Mark Chapman. But the conversation was seriously impaired by the fact that McDevitt and Early couldn’t agree on what Chapman’s actual name was. Early even insisted – and I’m not making this up – that it couldn’t be someone called Mark Chapman because wasn’t he the guy who killed John Lennon?
It’s the sort of shoddy broadcasting that does Newstalk no favours, but it does feed into the myth of McDevitt, Early and Murphy as fearless, anti-establishment, no-rules crusaders. And who would blame them? With three hours of programming to fill every night, is it any surprise when they began to flex their muscles?
But it looks like they over-played their hand. The trio – plus producers Simon Hick and Mark Horgan – reportedly resigned when the station’s management refused to bow to their request to reschedule the show. They wanted to air from 6pm – eating into a full hour of The Right Hook – but Newstalk were having none of it.
And quite right too: George Hook is the station’s most popular presenter by far, attracting 131,000 listeners; Off the Ball get just a fraction of that – some 39,000 people according to the latest ratings. It would have been a decision of gross stupidity to eat into Hook’s drive-time audience and stitch in a show of limited appeal.
A statement, issued by the quintet this afternoon, makes clear their ambition to work together again. Paddy Power is offering odds that they will end up in RTE. But just how likely is it that the national broadcaster will clear its evening schedule to accommodate the entire team?
Gilroy, meanwhile, is helming Off the Ball again. The brand, clearly, is stronger than the player.