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Radio review: Off the Ball is playing the long game to become a sports phenomenon

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Off the Ball presenter Aisling O’Reilly

Off the Ball presenter Aisling O’Reilly

Off the Ball presenter Aisling O’Reilly

Rupert Murdoch famously described sport as “a battering ram” in creating demand for his satellite TV service. Off the Ball (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 7-10pm; Sat 1-5pm, Sun 1-7pm) isn’t quite that — and I don’t think they’d appreciate being likened to old Rupert — but has been a driving force within the station since launching in April 2002.

Ger Gilroy was the creative brains behind it to a large extent, and he remains pivotal. Then, as now, the Kildare man co-hosted and produced; but these days he’s more often heard (and seen) on OTB AM, the early-morning spin-off that debuted in 2017, than on the weeknight show.

Twenty years ago, Off the Ball was three-hours a night, Monday to Friday; we still get that, plus more each weekend afternoon. But the concept — can I call it a brand? — has expanded wildly.

Off the Ball is now a bona fide multimedia phenomenon, probably the finest example across Irish broadcasting. Apart from that extensive radio programming — all available on various podcasting services, in case you miss it live — there’s hours of daily video content (OTB AM) on YouTube and other applications, and for several years now, regular live events. Their roadshows sell out big venues and have inspired other sport broadcasters — podcasts, radio — to jump on the bandwagon.

In fact, Off the Ball has been a pioneer in all aspects: first show to make sport the centrepiece of an evening’s talk radio, first to break big with sport podcasting, first to do what is essentially a daily TV show. More than that, they’ve lead the way with a very specific type of sports broadcasting: the right way to approach it, you could convincingly argue.

The beauty of Off the Ball is that they take the subject seriously — but not too seriously. So, while you’ll get long, in-depth interviews and discussion of topics, often quite serious, there’s also a sense of fun and mischief throughout.

You feel that Gilroy, Joe Molloy, Aisling O’Reilly and the other presenters understand the fundamental absurdity of it all, even as they care deeply and genuinely about it. That’s how we all are as fans: your team winning feels like life and death, yet at the same time you recognise that it’s literally child’s play.

Pre-Off the Ball, media in Ireland either treated sport dismissively — it’s not politics, so who cares — or was overly reverential, po-faced and somehow laughable. These guys know that something can be ridiculous and truly great, simultaneously, and those don’t contradict. For fans, sport is meaningless and means everything. And they don’t rush it: Off the Ball conversations can often ramble on for ages, seemingly without purpose or structure, and are all the more entertaining for it. (They’ve even started a new section with the knowing title, A Slight Tangent, where Molloy and three others make a virtue of aimless digression.)

It’s not perfect: the show is way too fond of covering boring political angles and can be painfully right-on. The conversation is at times peppered with so much cliché and jargon that it borders on unlistenable.

But it is damn good. Off the Ball is ambitious, clever, inventive, flawed-in-a-good-way, irreverent, surprising. And for sports lovers — plus those of us nauseated by current affairs — it’s a godsend.

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