Wednesday 16 October 2019

If The Sunday Game is back can our summer be far behind?

The Sunday Game returns tomorrow night for a long summer of hurling and football.
The Sunday Game returns tomorrow night for a long summer of hurling and football.
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

IT kicks off with a familiar, almost startling trumpet blast. The low drum-roll. The return of the trumpets, into a pause of expectation and tingling anticipation, then that strident three-note motif . . . and we're off: song and season – and for countless people, the entire summer – starts here.

'The Sunday Game' returns this weekend, with football matches from Ulster and Connacht. Its theme tune, composed all those years ago by James Last, is as iconic in Irish life as Guinness, Bono, rain, and moaning about the rain. It's the soundtrack to a Sunday TV institution, the annual GAA championships, and the dreaming thousands of fans across the land.

You hear the famous tune and settle in for another crack and think: this year is our year.

The show has been running since 1979 – can that really be true? Empires have risen and fallen in shorter time-spans. And this year marks Michael Lyster's 30th season as host.

Can that be true, too? Surely not. It only seems like – well, not quite yesterday, but certainly not three decades, since a young Galway man took over at the helm.

Compared to the sombre, grey faces inhabiting RTE back then, Lyster looked preposterously fresh-faced and handsome, even cool, with his big hair and inexhaustible collection of groovy sweaters. He was the closest thing Irish telly, or indeed Irish sport, had to a rock-star.

Nowadays, of course, the skinny youngster isn't quite so skinny, the hair is silver-grey, and the groovy sweaters were long ago swapped for suits. But Michael Lyster is a constant in three decades of 'The Sunday Game', and his longevity perhaps explains its enduring appeal.

In short, the show is reassuring.

It's comforting. It never really alters much, and in a world of constant flux – and a media environment endlessly changing at unbelievable speeds – there's something very appealing about that.

Critics might carp about how 'The Sunday Game' relies on the same old fall-backs, year-in year-out, but that's what we like about it. We don't want innovation, cutting-edge, or what someone more intelligent and pretentious than me might term "a paradigm shift".

The programme has tried some relatively radical changes from time to time, and it didn't work. I remember one year, they had a giant interactive screen behind two pundits sitting on stools; it was like the holodeck off 'Star Trek'. The people involved looked uncomfortable and the viewers didn't like it.

We want the usual faces, talking the usual gibberish, in the usual way. It's like having a couple of slightly demented old uncles in the corner of your sitting-room: you have a laugh listening to their stream-of-consciousness bickering, and the odd time, glean a nugget of worthwhile information. Another criticism of 'The Sunday Game' is that the analysis isn't rigorous and methodical enough. Nerds galore lament how post-match discussions are more concerned with soundbites, one-upmanship and general tomfoolery than forensic analysis of the action.

So what? As Pat Spillane recently said, it's entertainment. And who needs a simple ball-game explained to them anyway? I have eyes, I can see for myself what happened and who made it happen.

If you need an "expert" to dissect a goal or save or sending-off, you clearly never played and have zero feel or understanding for the games, so maybe should switch to that 'Diagnosis Murder' rerun on the other channel. The rest of us can enjoy a bonanza of over 30 live games, including 22 in something called high-definition, whatever the hell that might be. They didn't have any of that back in 1979, at any rate.

What do you know – maybe some things change after all.

MichAEl Lyster talks about his brush with death: Weekend Review

Irish Independent

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