It was during the second half of the recent Ireland/Cyprus nightmare (yes we won but tell me you didn’t despair for 90 minutes) that I realised something. I was longing for something more than the eventual winning goal. I was braced with excitement for more than just the prospect of being one step closer to seeing Ireland in the World Cup again. It hit me. I simply could not wait for the post match analysis. What can I say? I guess I’m an addict.
Football punditry is a strange beast, usually comprised of ex-professionals offering their ‘expert’ opinions in a comfy-looking studio while a smiling host offers up the key talking points for discussion. Oftentimes it resembles a debate you’d see in a pub, and this is never truer than in the case of the RTE panel.
I’d like to think we were all a little upset when on a no doubt overcast May evening; RTE news informed us that Ryan Tubridy had succeeded Pat Kenny as the host of the Late Late Show. Nothing personal against Mr Tubridy, but his appointment spelled the end for the chances of one Bill O’Herlihy, crushing the hopes of a nation in turn.
Sure, O’Herlihy was never actually in the running for the big job, despite Facebook campaigns to the contrary, however his appointment would have paved the way for unmissable Friday night television.
The host of live football on RTE for many years now, the greatest trick Bill ever pulled was to convince some of his audience that he’s a doddery old fool, one step behind the action, not quite cut out for the job at hand. Rest assured, Bill is no Jimmy Magee and subtly orchestrates the chaos that unfurls in the studio, lobbing verbal hand grenades to his panel whilst sitting back with a cheeky grin, admiring his handiwork.
It’s a curious thing, but typically the worse a game is, the more entertaining the post-match aftermath will be. RTE’s panel come close to rivalling the judges on The X Factor for vitriol and negativity. Johnny Giles seems to resent life itself while Eamonn Dunphy has made aggression and contradiction his gimmick. The sheer amount of videos on YouTube featuring the RTE panel is a testament to its popularity and entertainment value. Outspoken, abrasive and unpredictable, it shines a harsh light on rival broadcasters.
Can you imagine a blazing row breaking out on BBC’s Match Of The Day between Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrenson? Or on ITV between Andy Townsend and Steve McManaman? I’m not suggesting that football punditry requires altercations in order to be interesting, but the English analysis often seems to lack passion, perhaps because the on-air talent are afraid of upsetting players and losing out on interviews? Whatever the reason, the coverage is frequently anaemic and devoid of the fire that the game itself provokes.
The difference between the Irish and the English analysis can be summed up, strangely enough, by a Scotsman; Graeme Souness. Souness splits his time between doing punditry for both RTE and Sky, and while he can sometimes resemble Giles and Dunphy’s whipping boy, when he appears on Sky he brings with him a confidence that perhaps leads him to forget his place, as his outspoken views have often left the other guests frozen, unsure of what to say. Such is the neutered environment, it’s difficult to imagine the likes of Eamonn Dunphy unleashed on the Sky cameras.
Speaking of Sky Sports, we get Richard Keys in the O’Herlihy role, throwing out probing questions such as “Should they make the goals smaller?”, minus the knowing irony. Resident pundit and former top, top player Jamie Redknapp sits awkwardly in his unfathomably tight trousers dying for his turn to speak, so he can wow us with such gems as “The ball literally exploded off his foot”.
Redknapp is the ultimate example of an ex-professional who really has no clue about the game that made his living. Rather than offering any kind of intellectual insight, Redknapp comes across more like a walking, talking advert for Topman, stating the obvious at every turn.
The sad fact is that these shows and newspapers are riddled with this, from Paul Merson’s excitable groaning on Soccer Saturday to Ian Wright’s column in The Sun, the viewer is ‘treated’ to gormless insights that would insult the intelligence of a five-year-old.
Sky’s saving grace is its impressive production values, but no amount of slick camerawork and flashy graphics can disguise the bland atmosphere served up. Andy Gray’s Last Word programme sees him hover over a monitor, drawing lines underneath players and showing us the action in super-slow motion replete with constant freeze frame. It’s quite similar to Johnny Giles, only without the familiar combination of the technology failing and Giles’ irritation.
Sky’s hype machine extends to its strangely addictive 24 hours a day dedicated news channel, which can even make Scottish football seem mildly intriguing. Incidentally, I should probably find it concerning that I have watched Sky Sports News so much that I can not only identify all the presenters by name without help, I even have my favourites; namely Jim White for his relentless enthusiasm about absolutely everything and Millie Clode for well, obvious reasons.
Ultimately though it all comes down to entertainment value, and despite lacking the glossy camera angles, the computer-generated imagery and the big name guests, RTE have remembered that football is a game that stirs the emotions, causes grown men to scream at their television and jump up and down like idiots when the ball ripples the back of the net. RTE have embraced this and it’s reflected in its coverage. When the World Cup rolls around next summer, I know what channel I’ll be watching, whether Ireland makes it there or not.
But we will make it, right?