Eamonn Sweeney: The Sunday Game's job is not massage the egos of managers but to serve the viewers
Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government except for every other kind that's been tried. I feel the same way about The Sunday Game.
RTE's old workhorse is far from perfect but it is still compulsory viewing on a championship Sunday. After all these years the programme remains capable of arousing fierce and partisan passions among the sporting public, of provoking debate and of setting agendas. Very few other RTE shows have the same kind of impact.
Think of The Late Late Show, which these days is little more than a life support system for the annual toy programme. It's impossible to imagine anyone getting het up about its contents like they did back in the Gay Byrne days. But part of the joy of The Sunday Game is that you'll usually be shouting at the screen before it's over.
Over the past couple of weeks there's been something of a concerted attack on the programme. Jim Gavin led off and Kevin Walsh and Mickey Harte jumped in to offer their support. Paul Galvin called for every aspect of the show to be rethought and revised. And journalist Declan Bogue, Jim McGuinness's old pal, called it a 'panto' and declared it to be 'a liability to the GAA.' They all seem to agree that The Sunday Game is simply not fit for purpose. In a way this chorus of disapproval merely proves the continuing relevance of the programme. You wouldn't see that amount of energy being expended over The Late Late.
I'm no propagandist for the RTE sports department. There is a litany of complaints from RTE head of sport Ryle Nugent about this column to prove it. But I think that the current attacks on The Sunday Game are fundamentally wrong-headed.
Mickey Harte and Kevin Walsh happen to be two of my favourite managers. Harte isn't just one of the finest managers in the history of Gaelic football, he's a man whose dignity and decency in the face of personal tragedy has made him an inspirational figure to many people. Walsh's current tenure at Galway is a fine example of a manager bringing about steady improvement more or less under the radar.
Still, it can't be denied that both men have axes to grind with RTE. The Jim Gavin controversy has provided an opportunity for some serious grinding. The causes of Mickey Harte's feud with the national broadcaster are well known, while Kevin Walsh appears to be still fuming over the way Eamonn O'Hara went for him bald-headed after Sligo lost to London four years ago.
Having said that, I think Walsh is probably expressing a general attitude among GAA managers when he says that "constructive analysis is absolutely perfect if somebody knew exactly the deep coaching and the deep things that would affect a team and were qualified to do that on television".
This is an outwardly reasonable attitude. But deep down there's something profoundly condescending about it. You could explain 'deep coaching and deep things' to Sligo football fans till the cows come home and they still wouldn't find it acceptable that the county had lost to London. On the night in question O'Hara was exhibiting the natural rage of someone who had strained every sinew for years to pull Sligo towards football respectability. It was probably impossible for Kevin Walsh to stomach. It was possibly unfair. But it made compelling viewing because there was an emotional truth about it. A lot of Sligo fans would have been delighted to see O'Hara speak out like that.
Had one of Walsh's ideal experts been on The Sunday Game last week they might have told the Cork fans that while on the face of it their team had been humiliated, in fact Peadar Healy and his cohorts had done some serious coaching and devised a system and got through some great work in training and achieved some of the goals they'd set themselves and so on.
But the real truth is that in Killarney Cork looked like a badly prepared team, low on morale and apparently devoid of strategy, shipping a horrendous beating. It wasn't much more complicated than that. To tell Cork fans, and anyone else who watched the game, that it was would be an insult to their intelligence. Most supporters have been watching matches long enough to believe the evidence of their own eyes.
Declan Bogue's article on the subject stressed that GAA pundits should, instead of providing the type of vulgar entertainment he dismissed as 'panto', be striving to educate the public. I've heard this kind of stuff before. It's the language of the avant-garde artist complaining that critics should explain the worth of his work to the philistine public. It's a bit precious.
Purveyors of this line are very fond of the statement, 'Football isn't getting worse, it's evolving,' which they deliver with all the self-satisfaction of a young boy informing you that the tomato is actually a fruit. They're people who believe that every field of human endeavour is forever progressing towards new heights of sophistication and accomplishment.
Donald Trump made the same kind of point last week when, berated for being unpresidential for levelling gross insults at a woman online, he retorted, "my use of social media is not presidential, it is MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL." To the GAA's Neophiliacs, there is no such thing as boring football, it is MODERN DAY FOOTBALL. If the pundits would just tell the fans it's great, they'd think it was great.
The oddest thing in Paul Galvin's jeremiad against the show was his suggestion that "the powers-that-be in Croke Park" should get together with RTE and take The Sunday Game off the air before "rebranding it and relaunching it with new talent in a new direction". In reality the GAA shouldn't have any say at all in how RTE covers Gaelic games. The responsibility of the broadcaster is not to "the powers-that-be in Croke Park," but to the viewer. Its job is not to massage the egos of managers or put the Association in the best possible light, it is to do its best by the audience.
The best way to do that is cover the games without fear or favour. And the best thing pundits can do is give you their honest informed opinion. The one great triumph of RTE Sport has been its willingness to let them do just that. It's why its soccer panels, notably the classic Giles/Brady/Dunphy line-up, were streets ahead of anything the British stations ever served up. The same goes for its rugby analysts at their best. Look at who the English viewer has to put up with. There's Sky, a station renowned for its insistence on telling viewers that a bad match is actually a good match so they'll keep watching and whose hype-impaired coverage of the Lions has gone close to bringing the tour into disrepute. Think of BBC's shameless Olympic jingoism and the toothless platitudes of ITV's soccer panels. We don't know how lucky we are.
RTE's talking head format may look old fashioned but in terms of content its sports programmes are far more sophisticated than their cross-channel counterparts. There seems to me something essentially Irish about the way they privilege robust argument over sycophancy, slickness and shallowness. And that's why they continue to strike a chord with the audience. The Sunday Game's passion, inconsistency and sometimes infuriating partisanship mirror that of the Association it covers. You can look at it and say, "This is how we talk about sport in this country".
Not all of us, of course. It will never please the manager or the media wannabe or the journo who shakes his head at the debased nature of popular taste, but it does provide a good reflection of the concerns of the ordinary viewers. On Sunday afternoon you watch Ireland at play and on Sunday night you watch Ireland arguing about Ireland at play.
Sky's GAA coverage is by comparison a bloodless, technocratic thing. It will never go too far because it never goes far enough. No-one will ever feel strongly enough to either hate or love it. There is an alien feel about it and that is why, no matter how many games Croke Park shovels into its corporate maw, Sky's GAA viewing figures remain a pitiful thing. No amount of Skycophancy will change that.
Could The Sunday Game be better? Undoubtedly. It needs some new faces to step up in the way that Dietmar Hamman and Richie Sadlier have done in soccer. Ciaran Whelan is getting there and is a refreshingly forthright and honest presence. More panellists should follow his lead and aim the odd shoulder at the big three.
It's interesting too that complaints about the programme centre exclusively on the football side of things. Everyone seems to like the hurling panellists. It's often said that they are much more positive than their football counterparts. But there's a simple reason for that. They are commenting on a much better sport which produces much better games than football. It's easier for them. They don't harp on about what's wrong with the game because there is hardly anything wrong with the game. Loughnane, Sheedy and Shefflin also say what they see. It's just that what they see is a lot better than what the football people have to look at.
Brolly, O'Rourke and Spillane are not beyond reproach. But I'd take them over Walsh, Galvin and Bogue any day of the week. Especially on Sunday.
Sunday Indo Sport