Time to show red to Three Amigos? John Meagher on grumpy, jaded RTE panel
Early on Sunday morning, Ryle Nugent tweeted about the remarkable day to come: "Surely there's room for an All-Ireland final - no?! It's about all today is missing..."
If RTÉ's head of sport and one of its regular rugby commentators was disappointed that his station did not have the rights for the Rugby World Cup and the honour of showing Ireland-France, he wasn't letting on. But then, any envy he may have felt that it would be TV3 basking in a rugby glow, and not the national broadcaster, was surely alleviated by the prospect of an enthralling football game against Poland in the final group qualifier for Euro 2016. RTÉ was showing that one and after the heroics against world champions Germany a few days earlier, there was every chance that Martin O'Neill's men would deliver a night to remember.
Unfortunately, it didn't work out that way, and Poland emerged victorious. For many armchair sports lovers, the main heat of battle did not take place in the National Stadium Warsaw, but at RTÉ's Television Centre where Eamon Dunphy was in especially combative mood. Even before the match had begun, the veteran pundit was riled up by the exclusion of Wes Hoolahan from the starting 11, despite an interview with O'Neill shown just a few minutes before in which the manager told RTÉ that the player himself had asked not to start on fitness grounds.
When presenter Darragh Maloney mentioned that 33-year-old Hoolahan has not played two full matches in the space of four days since 2011, Dunphy rounded on him. "I played the game for 17 years as a professional and so did these guys [fellow analysts John Giles and Liam Brady]. You [Maloney] don't know what you're talking about."
Dunphy appeared irked by the statistic and when Maloney mentioned that he had read it that day in a report by the football writer Neil O'Riordan, the pundit bared his teeth again. "Why did that genius from The Sun point out that statistic?"
Maloney looked shaken by the encounter, especially after Giles had pitched in too, but emerged from the debacle with his dignity intact. A popular and well-respected figure in RTÉ, he took over presentation duties of RTÉ's football coverage from the veteran Bill O'Herlihy last year - a matter of months before O'Herlihy's untimely death - and he was on hand this summer to stand in for Sunday Game host Michael Lyster when he fell seriously ill. "Darragh is one of the good guys," an RTÉ sports staffer says, "and there was quite a bit of irritation out here after the weekend that he had been subject to that. He wasn't trolling the panel, or looking for a cheap dig, he was merely posing a valid question. The journalist in me was affronted by Eamon's reaction - it was completely over-the-top and uncalled for. And, to be frank, the whole thing makes RTÉ look bad."
The exchange led to a strong reaction on social media, with practically none of it in support of Eamon Dunphy.
Several of the comments cannot be replicated for legal reasons but even the pundit himself might raise a chuckle for Today FM's effort on its official Twitter account: under "Eamon Dunphy dishing out the positive vibes!" it posted a picture of Scrooge. (Ryle Nugent, incidentally, was not moved to tweet again until the Tuesday - and this time in response to the news that Paul O'Connell had been forced into international retirement by injury.)
And the popular Irish football forum 'You Boys in Green' seemed to capture the mood too: "Anyone who regards anything Eamon Dunphy says about football as somehow serious really needs their head examined," Greengooner wrote. "The man is a pantomime villain... He's the Simon Cowell of the panel."
"It wasn't just the bizarre response to Darragh Maloney or the over-the-top stuff about Wes Hoolahan," says a seasoned sports broadcaster, "it was the whole tone of the pre-match analysis. There was no sense that there was a really big match to come, one where we could have qualified automatically for France [Euro 2016 host]. I'm not suggesting they should have been clap-happy in studio, but there was this morose mood when they went on air which really jarred with how the rest of the population were feeling after the rugby. And even if they hadn't seen this rugby game before it, there should have been a much better buzz about Ireland playing such an important match, especially after the way they played against Germany. It's not often that we have qualification in our own hands."
The 'Three Amigos', as they were coined by the late Bill O'Herlihy, have been a feature of Irish football punditry for decades, with Dunphy's involvement dating back to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. But should the fallout from Sunday's performance encourage RTÉ to call time on its old panel and bring in new blood. "They should have done it years ago," the sports broadcaster says, "and they certainly had the perfect opportunity when Bill retired last summer. It's just got very tired looking.
"[Tom] McGurk, [Brent] Pope and [George] Hook were a big part of our rugby coverage for many years but I don't hear many people talking about them now that the World Cup is being shown on a different station with different presenters. The reality is we want to see the games and we can take or leave the other stuff. It's not as important as we might like to think."