How 'Off the Ball' changed the game of radio
I was all set to start this column on the virtues of Newstalk’s Off the Ball by using the Bill Shankly quote about football being not a matter of life or death but “much more important than that”. It would have been a no doubt original and insightful comment on the show’s understanding not just of the great seriousness of sport but also the divilment and ridiculousness inherent in it.
And then I looked at its website: a quote says exactly the same thing. It’s from 2011. And it appeared in The Irish Times.
So it’s not an original sentiment, and the sports show has been praised at various times over its decade-long life, but it deserves repeating, especially in the week of Lance Armstrong’s doping confession. In the curious side story that is the preponderance of Irish in this tale – the journalists Paul Kimmage and David Walsh, the masseuse Emma O’Reilly and the UCI president Pat McQuaid – Off the Ball deserves a mention at the very least for providing an outlet for the telling of whatever tales could be told, the asking of whatever questions could be asked, before Armstrong was eventually confirmed a cheat.
When the pivotal report came out, the show could face its listenership knowing that it had never been equivocal, never credulous, never timid. When much of the world’s media fought for space on the bandwagon, Off the Ball was one of the outlets with which the rest of the world was finally catching up.
Ten years in, Off the Ball should by rights have grown stale. It would be very easy for it to collapse into clubbiness and self-satisfaction; for the jazzy soundtrack underneath Ken Early’s football newsround to have become a one-note joke; for its sometimes daft home-made stings to lose their sharpness. Its maleness remains an issue. Not because of its choice of interviewees – the show’s curiosity wouldn’t allow that – but because it has no regular female voices and when it goes out on the road the audience noise is a shouted baritone, meaning it occasionally has the air of a TV panel show.
Yet, while it flirts with all of those potential pitfalls, it has retained a self-awareness to know when to step back from the edge, a sense of surreality, and an affinity with its listeners that allows it to make even the in-jokes inclusive. The ease of the presenting style, as led by its original presenter Ger Gilroy, is underpinned by a deep understanding of, and interest in, sport from the parochial to the global.