Tuesday 12 December 2017

Game on... but can Sky Sports deliver a winning team?

Mock-up of how coverage might look
Mock-up of how coverage might look
Shane Long
Niall Quinn in 1983

Graham Clifford

It was a Bronx-tale with a predictable ending as Mayo overcame the challenge of New York in Championship 2014's opening clash last weekend. The annual curtain-raiser at Gaelic Park was the first tie in what will be an extraordinary Championship season on the airwaves.

For the first time in the history of the All-Ireland series, games will be aired on non-terrestrial television – did we ever think we'd see the day? Sky Sports will broadcast 14 matches exclusively on its pay-per-view channel while it also secured non-exclusive rights to the All-Ireland hurling and football semi-finals and finals.

Expect glamour, drama, beaming presenters, an array of colourful graphics, audible woosh noises and unusual camera angles.

Amid controversy and condemnation, the powers that be in Croke Park have decided increased exposure to our games abroad will be hugely beneficial to all concerned. It was "no longer tenable" for the GAA to see its viewing audience as just Irish people who lived in Ireland, said the association's director general Páraic Duffy.

Those without access to Sky have been advised to subscribe, but RTÉ will still show the majority of games including the deciders in September.

Unfortunately, Sky Sports News' first GAA Championship report of the season – from that clash in the Big Apple last weekend – was far from a resounding success. Two presenters stumbled through reports of the game with Scottish anchor Jim White pronouncing Connacht as Con-nought; his colleague Rob Wotton also tripped up, pronouncing the province's name as "Con-naw".

White also spoke of Sillian O'Connor, the two-time Young Footballer of the Year from Mayo whose first name is of course "Cillian", and Wotton mispronounced Leitrim. These are no more than teething problems, of course, but Irish subscribers to Sky Sports will find it difficult to tolerate such mispronunciations for long.

Unless the problem is fixed, God only knows how the likes of poor old Jim and Rob will get their tongues around names such as that of Galway football goalkeeper Mághnus Breathnach or Donegal's left-half forward Odhrán Mac Niallais?

These errors came just weeks after the same channel reported that Mayo were the reigning All-Ireland football champions when they were beaten by Dublin in last September's decider.

That's why Sky Sports is busy putting together a core of Irish-born presenters and commentators who'll be backed by pundits who've worn their county colours with pride.

Since the announcement, Sky Sports News presenter and Irish Independent columnist Rachel Wyse has been tipped to anchor the station's GAA coverage, though the broadcaster hasn't confirmed this.

Another well-known name who may figure prominently is former Dublin minor hurler and Republic of Ireland football star Niall Quinn.

The one-time Sunderland chairman is passionate about his GAA and has been a football pundit for Sky Sports for a number of years. Additionally, his father Billy played senior hurling for Tipperary and Quinn regularly attends the Premier County's Championship matches. Next week Quinn is even spearheading a fundraising drive for the Tipperary GAA board in London.

The 47-year-old, who also played Gaelic football for the Robert Emmets club in Perrystown, Dublin, and Eadestown, Kildare, is to be a guest of honour at a corporate lunch at the Intercontinental London Park Lane Hotel. Sitting alongside him will be Nicky English. The Tipperary legend was a huge hit when he worked on TV3's hurling coverage and he might decide to throw his lot in with Sky.

Indeed all the former TV3 GAA pundits have been linked with positions on the British broadcaster's new Championship team.

These include Peter Canavan, Senan Connell, Anthony Tohill and commentator Mike Finnerty.

When contacted by the Irish Independent this week, Kerry football icon Darragh Ó Sé confirmed he hadn't been approached by Sky while his brother Tomás, now a columnist with this paper, forged a close relationship with RTÉ earlier in the season working as a panellist on the station's League Sunday programme.

And for many of those already connected with RTÉ, the fact that Sky will be showing relatively few games exclusively might squash any ideas of jumping ship. Through its television and radio coverage of Gaelic games year-round, the national broadcaster could potentially offer a lot more work to jobbing pundits than Sky Sports.

Other GAA stars linked with Sky have been the recently retired Kerry star Paul Galvin and Cork's Graham Canty. The injured Colm Gooch Cooper says he hasn't been approached. In hurling the names of Waterford's John Mullane and Cork's Donal Óg Cusack have been circulating for weeks.

One former hurling pundit told the Irish Independent: "A lot of lads were hoping the phone would ring with an offer from Sky, but it looks like they are using a very small team of pundits for the first season. After that, if they get more games from the GAA, the pool will obviously grow."

He added: "I think guys were hoping that Sky would pay well too ... better than RTÉ and TV3."

A spokesperson for Sky Sports could not confirm how much it will spend on its GAA coverage and the remunerations pundits can expect to receive. They did say that their presenting teams are being put together, though a source told us there have been some difficulties locating hurling pundits.

With Sky's first televised game of the Championship the meeting of Kilkenny and Offaly in the Leinster hurling championship on June 7, the names of those who'll be the face of Sky Sports' coverage may be shrouded in secrecy ... but one thing we can be sure of is viewers of our national games will see them packaged and polished as never before.

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