Tuesday 16 January 2018

Hanging on their every word

Hold the Back Page

John O'Brien

A couple of years back, on the eve of its 30th anniversary, Jim Carney reflected on the road The Sunday Game had travelled since its infancy, from wide-eyed innocent to confident man about town. It had started off in 1979, with the Galwayman in the anchor role, against a backdrop of suspicion and mistrust in Croke Park.

"It was of its time," Carney said. "They [the GAA] were reluctant to make it too jazzy."

There was no surprise about that. The Sunday Game arrived at a time when the GAA hierarchy tended to regard television as a threat to its games, rather than something that could enhance their appeal. Over the years, hardly a season would pass without some high-ranking official, surveying the burgeoning list of live matches, sounding the death knell of the Association. To some degree that attitude still smoulders today.

It is interesting to observe how Carney portrayed the programme on its gestation. The show might have been an RTE production, but the GAA's position as overseer is quite clearly alluded to. The inference is obvious. We will tolerate the show but only on our terms. As long as people don't get ideas above their station, everything will be fine. It was, at most, a conditional blessing.

The world, of course, was a different place back then. Three great institutions still dominated Irish society. In 1979, the six-time All-Ireland medallist Jack Lynch was leading a Fianna Fáil government with the State's largest ever majority. The Catholic Church was basking in the glow of the Papal visit. The GAA was savouring the greatest rivalry in the 95 years of its existence. And Ireland, at heart, remained a deeply conservative country.

Why the GAA hasn't gone the way of its two rival monoliths isn't difficult to understand. The Association's oft-trumpeted 'democratisation' can be a crippling weakness when it comes to implementing even the most cursory of change, but it also makes it virtually impervious to corruption at the top. A great institution can hack off the odd cancerous cell lower down in the chain, but once the head becomes infected, it's game ball. The entire edifice crumbles.

And yet, it's also true that the GAA's ability to shape its own future isn't quite what it once was and the rise of The Sunday Game from obedient pup to top dog, its readiness to get ideas above its station, is just one obvious manifestation of the erosion of that power. Those suspicious of the new show from the outset arguably had a point. Three decades on, The Sunday Game isn't just setting the modern GAA agenda, it is increasingly becoming the agenda itself.

In one sense, this seems strange. In terms of quality, there is nothing very good or very bad about the programme. It is highly formulaic, a tepid cocktail of highlights interspersed with a panel of ex-players offering analysis that is, at various times, dull, informative, cheesy, amusing, bizarre, sometimes hitting the bull, occasionally completely missing the board. Dispense with the trolls and it's not far off what you'd expect on any half-decent online discussion board.

So why do we obsess about it? Why does the average water-cooler discussion on a Monday morning revolve around the question "did you hear what Joe Brolly said about Paul Grimley?" rather than "can you remember the last time Armagh were that bad?"

And we have to appreciate the irony that, in asking such questions, we too are inevitably feeding the agenda. So it goes.

Manna for RTE, of course. Manna for The Sunday Game.

On its own Twitter feed two weeks ago, it trumpeted the Galway and Mayo Connacht championship encounter thus: 'Summer starts here!' That might have been news to the footballers of New York and Leitrim or the hurlers of Westmeath and Antrim who had actually set the championship ball rolling a week earlier. But it is a popular trope nonetheless. The championship starts when The Sunday Game says so.

And how it's hit the ground running. Brolly's hard-hitting assessment of Grimley on the opening day was a mere prelude to the slash-hook Eamonn O'Hara took to the reputation of Sligo manager Kevin Walsh last week. The story kept us busy all week. Oisín McConville joined the fray on Monday. Sligo officials kept the wheels turning the following day while Walsh got his right of reply on Wednesday. Four days of heavy coverage and dominant headlines: fair mileage for any GAA story. And whatever the legitimacy of O'Hara's near three-minute rant – for no other word adequately describes it – the wider point is why we should care so much about a team ranked 22nd in the country that their woes should be elevated to a story of national importance, dwarfing even Donegal's impressive dismantling of Tyrone the same day.

The answer, of course, is the almost reverential respect accorded to any opinion, however intemperate, delivered under the bright lights of an RTE studio.

If you doubt this, consider what might have followed had O'Hara not been signed up as an analyst on the programme. Almost certainly, an eager newspaper reporter, sniffing an angle, would have sounded him out and asked the same question Des Cahill posed last week: "How come you weren't there?"

And, quite likely, O'Hara would have given the same answer and the story would have found its way to the bottom of a page the following day. A minor ripple would have ensued. Within two days everybody would have moved on.

In a way, none of this is O'Hara's fault. He was given a golden opportunity to air a personal grievance and, new to a gig which carries a limited shelf-life, he had the chance to

make some noise and create an instant impression. In grabbing it with notable enthusiasm, he didn't just set the agenda, but made himself the story for four days in the process. What employer wouldn't be impressed by that?

In truth, though, we're the real story. Why all this stuff should so unduly distract us. We treasure our age-old tradition here of sports analysts speaking their minds, but the line between forthright analysis and the desire to be bigger than the story itself is becoming an increasingly blurred one. It's an odd thing too to regularly encounter so many people who claim Match of the Day – with its cheesy presenter and array of anodyne analysts – as one of their favourite programmes. Go figure.

For whatever reason, we demand higher standards here. We hang on their every word and those doing the talking know it. So when Pat Spillane resorted to a terrible carpet metaphor to illustrate a point about the blanket defence last week, it served a reminder of how savagely competitive the world he inhabits has become nowadays, everybody trying that bit too hard to make an impression, to mark themselves out from the common herd.

And us? We just need to learn how to not take all this stuff so seriously and we'll be alright.


Bertie's foresight comes into focus

He was the most devious and cunning of them all, of course, yet not so durable that his grand vision would come to pass, block by block, without him at the apex of it. No gleaming statue. Not even a modest plaque. And how it would have galled him to see the news bulletins last week, his old rivals smiling for the cameras, cracking jokes about the Bertie Bowl. Reaping political capital from the ashes of his plan, his beautiful dream.

Whenever an unpopular leader, or one who fell from grace, leaves office, it's always easy, of course, to overlook any positive legacy he or she might have left behind. For all he dragged Irish politics into the gutter, it's difficult to argue that in making stallion fees exempt from tax and bravely tackling the tobacco firms on the issue of sponsorship, Charlie Haughey didn't leave a legacy to Irish sport that will live long after his death.

It wasn't a surprise then when a coterie of Fine Gael politicians showed up at Abbotstown last week to announce details of 19 sports moving their headquarters to the national sports campus and wilfully wrote Bertie Ahern out of the picture. Leo Varadkar, who holds the sports portfolio, even managed to talk about "my vision", as if he himself had devised the idea of a centre of excellence off the N3 in Blanchardstown.

He was fooling nobody. What ultimately takes shape in Abbotstown might always be a far cry from the grand scheme initiated by Ahern in 1999, lacking the centrepiece 80,000-capacity stadium he dreamed of for a start, but bit by bit something useful is evolving. A place where athletes can converge and avail of top-class facilities and access all the medical and physiological treatment they could want close by. Even the troubled aquatic centre next door is beginning to turn a profit.

None of this means the former Taoiseach should be reconstituted as a noble visionary. Still, it seems reasonable to wonder whether anything would ever have happened without his initial prompting. It's a slightly inconvenient truth, perhaps. But a truth nonetheless.


Mask slips to show betting's ugly truth

IT seemed like a good day's work for quick-witted punters last October when availing of juicy odds of 64/1 about the Jim Bolger-trained Dawn Approach completing the Guineas-Derby double. The price was on offer from the bookmaker William Hill: a combination of 4/1 to land the Guineas and 12/1 to prevail at Epsom. The bets were struck and accepted, apparently, in good faith. Seven months later, all hell broke loose.

The issue and solution are instantly apparent here. Some time after the bets were placed, before the Guineas had been run, William Hill should have contacted the punters and pointed out its error, offering a refund or bets recalibrated at more realistic odds, 20/1 or thereabouts. They would be sorry for their customers' troubles. Mistakes happen and the punter loses out. That's just how the game works.

Instead, it took them seven months, a week before the Derby, before they got in touch, offering revised odds at a risible 15/1 or, tweaking their funny bones even further, two single bets in place of the double. Unfortunately for the bookie, one of the punters, a British journalist and editor of the Jewish Chronicle, Stephen Pollard, wasn't going to be mollified. Especially on such stingy terms.

Pollard wrote to Hill's customer service and then to the company's CEO, Ralph Topping, but failed to receive even the courtesy of a response. So he turned to Twitter instead and began stamping his feet in anger. And pretty soon others started stamping their feet in anger too and the cacophony finally woke the bookie from his slumber. A PR scuffle was about to ensue with William Hill, effectively, stuck in the starting stalls.

Lesson number one for the self-styled world's largest bookmaker: never try to reason with aggrieved, righteous punters through Twitter. Basically suggesting Pollard accept his medicine, Hill's clumsy response was made to look more curt and insensitive than it needed to be, in front of an audience of millions. The story had only one possible ending. The bookie caved. Pollard's bet stood.

In a way, though, we should probably applaud William Hill and its appalling handling of a situation the bookmaker itself created. In getting so ruthlessly exposed, we got a glimpse of the true face of the industry and it's not the smiling, cheerful one that beckons you into clean, modern shops, offering free coffee and custard creams, bamboozling you with all kinds of special offers and making you feel like a dullard when you walk out some time later without your pockets bulging from all the easy profit-sharing schemes on offer.

Every so often the mask slips and the ugly truth is revealed. Like when a memo from Ivan Yates to his Celtic Bookmakers' staff was intercepted, warning them to be on the look-out for sharks (ie winners). Or when Paddy Power appeared on Liveline to tackle a punter whose crime had been to actually win money off the firm and, for his temerity, had his account shut down.

In there lies the reality. Behind the smiley, punters' pal exterior lie ruthless, bottom-line pursuers who loathe winners and those clever clogs, like Pollard, they suspect of pulling a fast one. They prefer losers and the vulnerable who will return day after day to help bump up their share prices. Let's not ever forget that.



Irish Independent

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