'Risk to my heart is high but I'm not going to sit around worrying' - Michael Lyster opens up ahead of his last summer on 'The Sunday Game'
Ahead of his last summer on 'The Sunday Game', presenter Michael Lyster tells Vincent Hogan about his brush with death
Maybe the gently elegiac ambience of Roscommon’s Hyde Park, perched as it is between a respite home and a graveyard, didn’t make for the wisest of places to return.
But within six weeks of almost slipping into the next world in June of 2015, that was where Michael Lyster was re-acquainted with the tremulous energy of live TV and his job of mediating ‘The Sunday Game’ studio analysis of what would unspool as a haplessly lop-sided Connacht football final.
The miraculous set of circumstances that underpinned his survival of cardiac arrest at his home in Loughlinstown was known nationally, but – to Lyster – it was old news now. He’d travelled west, keen to simply re-immerse himself in the familiar rhythms of a live TV studio, touched by the good wishes of those encountered on arrival at the ground, yet impatient too to reclaim some semblance of normality.
And then, maybe 40 minutes before broadcast time, something shifted inside him. Suddenly, he was struck quite profoundly by a sense of his own fragility and good fortune. Just a fleeting moment, the starkness of which has stayed with him since.
“I remember sitting in the presenter’s chair before the programme started and thinking to myself ‘This is just too unreal!’,” he remembers now. “I shouldn’t be here. I should be in a grave!”
Tomorrow in Castlebar, Lyster begins his 35th and final season as anchor of a TV programme that has come to feel like some kind of national heirloom.
He will be 65 next year and, like it or not, that makes it obligatory for him to retire from his work with RTÉ. This parting of ways isn’t his choice then, but neither does its imminence unduly trouble him. He feels privileged by the extraordinary stretch he’s had in a chair that, truth to tell, he arrived at almost by accident.
Because when Lyster moved to RTÉ from the ‘Tuam Herald’ in late 1979, nobody saw him in the context of either GAA or television. On the contrary, most people at home assumed he was moving to Dublin to work as a DJ on RTÉ’s fledgling Radio 2 station. Music, at the time, was his most conspicuous passion.
Other work colleagues with the ‘Herald’ would be RTÉ commentator and presenter Jim Carney, as well as current ‘Irish Independent’ GAA editor Martin Breheny, all three hugely influenced by the guidance of renowned editor Jarlath Burke. But you will gather that the son of Martin and Mary Lyster headed east in ’79 not remotely identified as any kind of future Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin or Mick Dunne. In fact, his earliest markings for Radio Sport would be predominantly rugby-based, meaning he ended up covering the ’83 Lions tour of New Zealand.
Television? That would throw up a whirlwind of opportunity the following year, triggered by a phone-call from producer Maurice Reidy, wondering if he might be interested in “doing a bit of work for ‘Sunday Sport’?”
“When are you talking about?” Lyster asked.
“You OK Sunday?” replied Reidy.
And so, without training, autocue or, frankly, time to process nerves, Lyster found himself sitting alongside Fred Cogley, fronting his first TV programme. Within months, he’d been offered ‘The Sunday Game’ seat and, that August, a bout of ill health for Bill O’Herlihy brought an offer for Lyster to co-host ‘Daybreak LA’, RTÉ’s coverage of the Los Angeles Olympics, alongside Moya Doherty.
Hence, between radio and TV that summer, Lyster might as well have brought a sleeping bag with him to the RTÉ campus he’d begun working such long hours.
“You see, I was still committed to doing all of my radio shifts,” he remembers. “So I was up at 5.30am, working mostly 14-hour days, often seven days a week. And it became a row between Radio Sport and Television Sport. There was animosity between them because I was contracted to do radio and no way did they want me doing the TV as well.
“I was a basket case by the end of the summer. I’d do ‘The Sunday Game’, be back in for the early morning radio shift the following day, then back over to the TV studio to do ‘The Game on Monday’. Around the time the Olympics were starting, I was walking on the beach in Killiney one day, feeling dreadful. Decided to sit down for a minute and completely conked out for an hour and a half.”
A visit to his GP led to a diagnosis of exhaustion and the recommendation of taking a month off work. That couldn’t happen, so they reached the compromise of twice-weekly booster injections for the duration of the Olympics.
It would be the following year before the conflict between two masters was finally resolved after a meeting with the then Head of Radio, Michael Carroll. TV wanted him and Lyster wanted TV. “Michael could easily have blocked me from doing any more television,” Lyster remembers. “And he’d have had every right.
“But he was a decent guy and he just said he couldn’t deny me the opportunity.”
He has, since, been a safe pair of hands as ‘The Sunday Game’ evolved from just an evening highlights programme to the two-part monolith it is today, Head of Sport Tim O’Connor’s gamble on live coverage eventually swelling audience figures almost three-fold.
To begin with, its personality remained a little starched and formulaic, a mirror maybe of the GAA itself. The programme was just five years old when Lyster first took the chair, Enda Colleran (football) and Eamonn Cregan (hurling) the only two analysts deployed. But with experience came the confidence to ease away from an ineffably conservative tone, the marriage of a cartoonist’s etchings with floor-manager Tadhg de Brun’s Limericks gradually reflecting that growing sense of independence.
And across the years, nobody adjusted to that changing editorial tone with greater insouciance or less self-regard than Lyster. He could make the job of mediation between sometimes melodramatic and over-wrought panellists seem no more taxing than pulling giddy children into line. And he knew instinctively when people were trying too hard.
“To be honest, people who did that didn’t last too long,” he says now. “The last thing you want is people putting on a performance for the sake of it. Of course, there has to be an element of performance as anybody can see with the big three in football, Brolly, Spillane and O’Rourke.
“But the whole point is, if they express strong opinions, they’ve got to back it up. They’re not just spoofers.”
If it had been his choice, Lyster’s departure from ‘The Sunday Game’ would be a matter for discussion only at the end of this GAA season.
But a newspaper article some months back compelled RTÉ to issue a statement and, since then, he’s been inundated with well-meaning enquiries about how much he’s enjoying retirement. “I’m sure some people will see me on their TV screens this Sunday and be thinking ‘I thought they’d got rid of him!’,” he says, laughing now.
He has few concrete plans beyond this Championship season, yet every intention – he stresses – of remaining available for work.
That said, the last few years have, undoubtedly, altered Lyster’s take on a healthy work/life perspective. Having struggled through the latter stages of the 2012 season, he was diagnosed with chronic heart failure that November, his consultant revealing that Lyster’s heart was operating at maybe 15pc of its capacity.
“It’s not necessarily a heart attack that’s the risk then, it’s the risk of just dropping dead,” he said at the time.
And that’s almost what befell him in 2015, only his wife Anne’s understanding and heroic application of CPR keeping him alive after he’d collapsed in the front hall of their Loughlinstown house.
The rhythms of their home life quickly returned to normal when he was finally released from hospital, a permanent defibrillator now embedded beneath the skin of his chest.
Anne is currently on a charity hike to Everest base-camp and, while they’ve naturally spoken at length about that awful night, it still reaches into both of their lives in unexpected ways.
“To begin with, it didn’t have a huge psychological impact on me because, in many ways, the whole thing felt so bizarre and fantastical,” Lyster says now. “But in the three years since, I think it’s having more of an effect. Not a deep one, but there is never a day goes by that it doesn’t cross my mind. It might just be getting up in the morning and simply saying to yourself ‘I’m on this planet for another day!’
“Or I certainly find it sometimes lying in bed, staring at the ceiling at maybe four in the morning, birds twittering outside. At that time of night, you can actually hear your own heart beat. And sometimes I’m there, thinking, ‘I can’t believe this thing is still going!’
“But you have to shake yourself out of that oul rubbish. It’s that line from ‘Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Get busy living or get busy dying’. I mean, a school pal of my daughter Rebecca’s passed away a few weeks ago from cancer. Mid-20s and gone. And you think, ‘This is all wrong!’ A sense of guilt kicks in because you’d nearly want to swap places in that situation. It just doesn’t seem fair.
“But, look, I’m not going to sit at home, afraid something goes wrong with me. And let’s be honest, the chances of something happening are very high. But I don’t actually worry about it. I’ve no doubt that what happened took a huge toll on Anne too, but neither of us dwell on it. The nice thing is that it didn’t change our relationship.
“She still gives me plenty of bollockings and that’s good because it’s natural. It hasn’t left any awkwardness between us, which it could have done.”
He will be in Castlebar early tomorrow, energised by the potential of what promises to be an epochal Mayo-Galway collision. If anything, this is his favourite time of the season, everybody radiant with hope and possibility. And Lyster won’t approach his final season any differently to his first. He’s been more than half his life as programme anchor, yet his passion remains undiminished.
Joanne Cantwell will take the chair next year and, he has little doubt, put her own ultra-professional stamp on things. And Lyster himself? “I’m not giving up work, I’m not going to live in a hut in Connemara,” he says with a grin. “Listen, in 2015, there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be here at all, let alone still doing ‘The Sunday Game’.
“So this will be a natural conclusion to it. And that’s good with me. I’ve had 35 years and enjoyed every single minute.”