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Monday 20 January 2020

Comment: Eamon Dunphy had become an obstacle for serious debate on Irish football and he will not be missed

Dunphy was always showbiz, but in recent years he had morphed into showbiz without the substance – no pun intended. Photo: Sportsfile
Dunphy was always showbiz, but in recent years he had morphed into showbiz without the substance – no pun intended. Photo: Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

And so it's farewell to Eamon Dunphy. He's already made it clear that we haven't heard the last of him, but his departure from RTE means that those who've long since tired of the cabaret act will at long last have the choice.

'Did you hear what Dunphy said?' is probably the starting point to a discussion that most Irish people have been involved in at some stage. He was clickbait before the internet even existed.

You could argue that his time has passed, but in some ways he was a man ahead of his time, well aware of the power of the sound bite.

Dunphy monetised that pulling power and the anger at his observations was still feeding the beast. Website editors will tell you about the value of Dunphy's name in a headline.

Then again, there's also a market for a website featuring cats that look like Hitler, and there comes a time when enough is enough, when the joke gets old.

Dunphy was always showbiz, but in recent years he had morphed into showbiz without the substance - no pun intended.

Granted, a good portion of the viewers were in on the gag, and the knee-jerk reactions that kept the cottage industry ticking over.

Ronaldo was a cod; Messi was past his best; Italian football was finished, as was Spanish football, English football, South American football.

If you hadn't been written off by Dunphy, you hadn't lived. The scatty research was all part of the pantomime.

Appropriately, the most succinct tribute yesterday was provided by Dustin The Turkey's Twitter account. "You haven't a bog about football Eamon," he said. "But fair balls for all the entertainment."

Dunphy's analysis was a bit of a wheeze for the casual football fan, for the GAA enthusiast in the golf club. It was exposed when placed alongside pundits who have researched lesser-known teams in great depth. Still, it could be argued that it was all harmless enough - albeit on a six figure salary from the national broadcaster - when it was providing entertainment.

When it came to the business of Irish football, however, Dunphy's contribution was no laughing matter.

In fact, that is where he became a bitter disappointment, an invective spewing machine that trained in on the easy targets.

Remember this: Dunphy's contribution to print journalism today is a ghostwritten column that is often a fleshed-out version of his TV analysis.

He was once a brilliant journalist, provocative yet insightful. His book on his own football career, 'Only a Game', was an acclaimed piece of work and he also penned a fine biography of Matt Busby. As a newspaper columnist through the '80s and '90s, Dunphy challenged the authorities - whether that was in sport or politics. That edge has been lost when it comes to his own parish.

When Steve Staunton's tenure came crashing down in late 2007, Dunphy was hugely critical of the FAI board. But he tearfully welcomed the arrival of Giovanni Trapattoni and, since then, has been a vocal supporter of the top brass.

Former Republic of Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile

"Before John Delaney, the FAI would always go for the cheapest manager," he said. "Trapattoni had the best CV in the world. He was expensive. The FAI before John Delaney would have baulked at that."

This has been his go-to stance in a testing decade for the game here.

This morning, Delaney will provide a fresh update on the state of the finances, and the continuing attempts to shed debt. Bank borrowings are a legacy of the poor decisions around the construction of the Aviva Stadium, when the FAI hierarchy were insistent that Ireland's database of millionaires would snap up 10-year tickets.

History has been rewritten to blame the failure on the recession. The reality is that millionaires didn't make their money by paying between €1,200 to €3,200 per year for a ticket that - in certain years - would guarantee you just the one competitive game, and it might be against Gibraltar (that was 2014).

But there was barely a peep from Ireland's foremost pundit during that period. Barely a peep from the pen throwing journalist, the "football man" who cared deeply about the game in Ireland.

He trotted out the recession line. "They were caught a bit by that," he said in 2014. "But John had the vision to see it. And to go to the banks, to create the ticket schemes, to make it work financially."

This was the moment where it became apparent that Dunphy, to use one of his own put-downs, had clearly jumped to the other side of the fence. Instead, the anger was reserved for declaring players as "brain-dead" or managers as "drunk" for making bad substitutions. Glenn Whelan was condemned for driving a Ferrari.

"I don't believe we can, as human beings, excoriate somebody," he said last November, while discussing paedophile Tom Humphries. But when it came to football, he was capable of personal criticism that did upset players and their families - and he was given the platform to do it on national television.

But where was the outrage when the impact of Aviva debt forced the FAI to make staff redundant? The outrage when regional development officers were told their jobs no longer existed, or would face pay cuts they are still trying to restore?

What about Delaney's salary? The governance of the League of Ireland? The curious stewarding of sections in the Aviva Stadium that are critical of the FAI? The survival of the same faces in the boardroom, with age and term limits pushed out to prolong their stay? The old Dunphy would have been all over that. But when a strong voice was required, he was pitifully weak.

A man that used to generate serious debate on the direction of Irish football had become an obstacle to it. He won't be missed.

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