‘The majority of the people watching aren’t into serious analysis. TV is entertainment’

With summer on the horizon, Pat Spillane, Ger Loughnane and Des Cahill thrash out spats, spades and The Sunday Game


So this is how the summer starts. A round table, a decent bottle and a view out the window of the sun only pinging rays off Howth Head. Lunch in the Radisson St Helen’s is a riot of Páidí Ó Sé stories – literally not one of them printable but be sure to tug their coat and ask the next time you see them out and about – and once the plates are clean, the tape goes on.

And on, and on, and on…

IRISH TIMES: How long are you at it?
PAT SPILLANE: I think it’s 21 years now. I think I started in 1992. The first match I remember doing was Kildare and some crowd down in Newbridge.
DES CAHILL: It was Louth.
PS: I know it was that because the next one was the following week and it was Galway and Leitrim in Carrick-On-Shannon. And the reason I remember it was that a prominent GAA manager at the time was doing co-commentator. There was a girl there who had to sign for our expenses and she asked me what mileage rate I was getting. And I said, “Whatever your man there put down, I’ll take the same!”
GER LOUGHNANE: It was 2001 when I started. Caroline Murphy, who’s married to Seán O’Rourke and who worked on The Sunday Game asked me would I come along and give it a go. And I said, “Jesus, I don’t know.” I had no desire to do it. I had no inkling that I might enjoy it at all. It didn’t come into my mind. But she said to come in for one year and that by the second year I might start enjoying it. But sure after the first game between Clare and Tipperary, there was a big controversy. I found that I enjoyed that well enough anyway.
IT: What was the row?
GL: Dickie Murphy was refereeing and there was a minute of extra-time. And poor Dickie wasted the full minute himself by catching the ball in midfield and walking all the way back to the 21 before placing the ball for the free. The free was taken and he blew the final whistle! Clare were down a point and there was war over it. So straight away there was something to get stuck into on the Sunday night. The funny thing about it though is that I never watched The Sunday Game before I was on it.
DC: Just as well . . .
GL: I know! Especially around 1998, sure it was a defence mechanism as much as anything. But no, when I was Clare manager, I never watched the matches back. The two All-Irelands we won, I’ve never seen the full 70 minutes of them. I go hunting with Mickey Quinn, the former Leitrim footballer. Mickey’s a great huntsman, he probably has the best pack of dogs that there is out there. He asked me one day would I have any DVDs of Clare’s All-Irelands and I said not a hope. I went into the garage and dug out two old videos and gave them to him but I didn’t know whether they were working or not. So I’ve nothing, no DVD of Clare’s All-Irelands, nothing. I liked to have an impression of a game and I liked to trust it. If I watched it back, I might have doubts. You have to trust your instincts.


PS: The thing you’ll find with The Sunday Game is that there’s no agenda, you’re not told what to say or what to talk about. What you hear on The Sunday Game is exactly what you would hear at a club match or in the pub afterwards. You have people who are opinionated – whether they’re right or wrong, it’s coming from a passionate place and you’re talking about people who were there. As players or managers or whatever.
GL: That’s it. One of the great misconceptions people have is that they think you are told what to say. That you’re told to take a certain angle, that you’ve to follow an agenda set by RTÉ. I was doing an interview with a young lad who was doing a Masters in Limerick and he was full sure that when you go in there before a programme, that there’s a meeting in which you’re coached on what to say about this county or that county. It’s absolutely untrue.
DC: Well, there is a meeting before the night programme obviously but nobody is told what to say. Could you imagine?
GL: One of the best lessons I learned, I wasn’t in there a wet week. We were doing one of the live games in the afternoon and when Michael Lyster went to the ads, I talked away about the game. I was there with Pete Finnerty and Tomás Mulcahy, I remember it clear as day. Because what happened when we came back from the ads? The two boys used every line I had just used! They said word for word everything that I had just said. And Lyster came to me and sure I’d nothing left only I had to agree with them! Off camera, Finnerty was bursting laughing at me. So I learned very quickly, I tell you.

Man of the match

PS: The one night you probably don’t give really frank, honest analysis is the night of the All-Ireland final. It’s a kind of a celebratory night. It’s a night for lauding the winners. If there’s an unsavoury incident in the game, you won’t go into it too much with the broadcast coming from the winners’ hotel. I wouldn’t be going to town on some fella for a dangerous tackle and him sitting at a table with his whole county around him.
DC: There’s this unbelievable sub-culture behind the Man of the Match on All-Ireland final night. Picking the Man of the Match, you’d nearly need to bring in the FBI for it. The Team of the Year as well.
PS: The Team of the Year, you’d spend nearly two hours on it the night of a final. That’s serious work.
GL: The Man of the Match, you have to get right. I thought the year that RTÉ gave Man of the Match to Brian Cody, I thought it was a mistake. The people who are on live during the day have very little say in it.
DC: Well that has changed now.
GL: Yes, in fairness, it has changed. But in 2008, you had very little say. It was the night-time panel.
DC: It’s now more secretive as well. Because it became a big betting thing. I could not believe what was going on with the amount of people getting on to panellists and people working on the programme looking for nods and winks.
PS: I had a phonecall one time from a professional gambler the day before an All-Ireland final. He said, “Would ye know around seven o’clock who the Man of the Match will be?” I said we would. He said, “If I gave you a ring, would you tell me?” I said I would not. This fella thought he’d make a killing.
IT: Why did you think the Cody thing was a mistake?
GL: The Man of the Match should be a player. It’s very simple. JJ Delaney was brilliant that day. Eddie Brennan was brilliant. Tommy Walsh, all these lads. I think it took from it a good bit that it didn’t go to a player. There’s no reason to give it to a manager. There are plenty of managerial rewards later in the year. I thought it was the one time RTÉ made a mistake in that regard.

The conversation drifts on the wind like a mishit free for a while. There’s a lot of flagrant traducing of the work of statisticians and so on. You’ve heard it before. You’ll hear it again.

GL: You get so engrossed in the afternoon shows. From the minute that game starts, you’re totally involved in it, as much as if you were a manager. No distractions, no noise from the crowd, nothing gets in your way.
PS: That’s easy for you to say, you don’t have [Joe] Brolly sitting beside you. He will not shut up from start to finish.
GL: Oh yeah, you would find off somebody’s making idle chatter, it is very annoying. You have to cut them dead.
PS: Yeah, I’ll say it again. Try doing that with Brolly.
GL: I think there’s a big contrast between the hurling analysts and the football analysts. The football analysts are bigger characters who are prepared to take bigger risks with predictions and analysis than the hurling people are.
PS: Is that because hurling is a smaller community?
GL: Yes, I was just going to say that. Part of it is that hurling is just confined to so few counties and everybody knows everybody else much more intimately. Not alone that but the live game trio in football are really well established. They have a great balance between O’Rourke who’s solid in the middle of the two . . .
PS: The two what?
DC: Yeah, finish that line!
GL: Two fellas, we’ll say, who have the information but who put out that information in a different way than the norm. Whereas there isn’t that big a contrast between the hurling analysts.
PS: You what I think? You can have serious analysis and that’s fine. But I think that the majority of people watching games aren’t really into serious analysis. At times we forget that TV is entertainment. That’s a big part of it. Yes the anoraks want serious analysis but the anoraks are a small percentage of the audience.
DC: I was doing the programme on the night in 2011 when Pat had the go at Donegal and Antrim.
PS: McStay did it too!
DC: Yeah, but you did it with relish.
PS: Fair enough. I won’t call a spade an agricultural implement.
DC: But at the same time, I felt it was unfair. But that’s what makes the programme. I felt that he was wrong. That was the night you didn’t want to give a Man of the Match.
PS: Oh yeah, that’s the one. Sure the fella who got Man of the Match was taken off with 20 minutes to go!
(It was actually four minutes but he’s on a roll now. The other two laugh away and let him at it.)
PS: I’ll say this for Jim McGuinness. This man knows his sports psychology inside out. He milked that for all it was worth. Suddenly he had a cause. There’s nothing better than for a manager to have a cause or a crusade. Now you’ve been slighted by The Sunday Game . Your team or your county has been blackguarded.
IT: How many teams do you think have used your blackguarding down the years?
GL: 31!
DC: And half of Kerry!
PS: Only half?

In the hot seat

IT: You were a presenter too for a while, Pat . . .
PS: I was. I enjoyed it in one sense but I didn’t enjoy it in another. When you’re sitting there with loads of opinions and you’re feeling that your opinions are probably better than those of the guy you’re talking to, you’re in trouble. I was very hurt by the criticism. It was savage. I used get hurt by it. Well no, I didn’t get hurt by it. Criticism doesn’t actually hurt. Sorry, criticism is water off a duck’s back.
DC: Too late, too late. You said it now.
PS: Look, I wanted to be on the other side.
IT: But if there’s criticism, you must know it’s there?
PS: I did. But when I look back, I go, did I do something wrong there? Did I make a mistake? Did I look at the wrong camera? Did I ask the wrong questions? And I didn’t do any of those things.
DC: It was the fact that you were coming from being the one with the opinions. People were used to you in one role and now you were doing another.
GL: Poacher turned gamekeeper.
PS: It was and I enjoyed it. I did it for four years and our viewing figures went up every year, believe it or not.
DC: They’ve gone up a good bit since.
PS: And bear in mind that I did those years without so much as three minutes’ training.
GL: No training?
PS: None at all in the world. They dumped me in the first night, sink or swim.
DC: Sure I had no training either. Training doesn’t exist.
IT: Were you a pundit when he was a presenter, Ger?
GL: I was on with him maybe twice. Sure we laughed about Kerry hurling and I fired a few shots across the bow just to put manners on him. That’s the one thing I would say about Spillane, he knows nothing about hurling. And the hurling crowd would have always had a problem with him on that score.
DC: I thought that was very unfair.
GL: He had no interest in it and he’d be happy to pass it over to you and leave you get on with it. But he was very professional and he’d read up every paper when it came to hurling.
DC: Never mind reading the papers – he was a top player at the highest level. Just at a different sport.
PS: In a way, I found dealing with the hurling much easier than dealing with the football. Because I was asking questions I didn’t know the answers to. Whereas in football, I wanted to tell them the answers.
GL: Just stand back there lads, I’ll do the two sides of the conversation myself! No need for a panel tonight! I’m here, I’m here!

County ties

IT: Is it hard to analyse your own county? Didn’t the likes of Dara Ó Cinnéide and Anthony Tohill feel a bit uncomfortable doing it?
PS: Well, one of the things I’d be conscious of is not being friendly with anyone.
DC: Anyone at all – family, the lot.
PS: But I mean, I wouldn’t know the Kerry players at all well. I would know the Gooch to say hello to.
DC: Does he say hello back?
PS: I would have met Paul Galvin twice in my life. I wouldn’t know Eamonn Fitzmaurice at all. I don’t know these guys. And I think that’s important for me. When Dara was analysing, some of the guys he was talking about were his best friends. He’d been their captain and their team-mate. That’s almost impossible to do. You have to remove yourself.
GL: You go through different phases in your life. You’re a player. Then you’re a manager. You’re totally loyal to all those around you. But once you move away from that and become an analyst, you have to cut if off completely. You’re not genuine if you don’t say, “Right, I’m cutting the ties now.” It’s nothing personal, it’s just the game. If you’re not prepared to do that, you shouldn’t take on the job.
DC: But it’s different for different people. I must say, I found Anthony and Dara two of the most interesting guys to analyse a game with. They were so thorough and they had only just recently finished playing. We try to do that with the night-time programme. We try to get current or just recently-finished players on board. We had Marc Ó Sé last year, we had Aaron Kernan. People will make allowances for the fact that they’re still playing. Stephen Molumphy was on the week before Waterford played in the Munster final. And he went out and had a smashing game.
PS: That’s dodgy though. If I was a player, I wouldn’t do that.
DC: Why wouldn’t you?
PS: Because you’re setting yourself up. You know damn well that if you make a clear statement that’s open to interpretation by an opposing manager, they will use it against you.
GL: Ah, I think that’s so outdated. This thing of not talking to the media. I think it’s so far behind the times. We had the most inexperienced team of all time with Clare. They were all in their early 20s. And they were completely open with the press. Every one of them was told to be open with the press. Because I think it’s very important for them to develop as men. They will be better on the field if you give them a bit of responsibility off it. And if a fella makes the odd fool of himself, it can actually be great inside in training afterwards.
PS: But Ger, what we’ve done in the GAA is ape the cult of the manager. The idea of media bans is not to protect the player, it’s to massage and enhance the ego and importance of the manager.
GL: That’s true in some cases. Not in all cases, now. But definitely in some. I’ve heard of one manager who not alone wants to do all the talking himself but anyone that’s interviewed, they have to mention the great work he’s doing.
IT: The great work who’s doing?
GL: The manager himself!
PS: Who is that now? Is it a hurling manager?
GL: I didn’t say a hurling manager. I didn’t say anything. But that’s what I heard. Now, that’s an extreme case but it’s what’s happening.
DC: Babs Keating said to me once, “If I’ve a fella who’s afraid to talk to a big fat journalist, what’s he doing to do in front of 80,000 in Croke Park?”

Poacher turned . . .

IT: I have a great quote here. It’s about a Sunday Game analyst. “I thought the analysis made on The Sunday Game last night was totally unfair on both teams. Nobody outside the man that made it would have done anything like it. We all know he doesn’t like our county. He has made that clear on many occasions.” Who said that?
DC: Well, it’s either from Waterford or Donegal.
GL: Is it Kilkenny?
PS: Well, I’m 99 per cent sure it’s probably about me because 31 counties in Ireland would say I hate them.
IT: Ger said it.
GL: What?!
IT: You said it about Éamonn Cregan the day after the 1997 final.
DC: One of the great spats ever.
GL: It was, it was one of the best spats. It was after the All-Ireland in ’97 and we were after winning it. And Jesus, it was a humdinger of a game. Jamesie O’Connor scored a great point at the end and John Leahy missed a chance down the other end. And of course Cregan was like a f***ing lúd . So on the show that night, he was on with Michael Lyster and he was totally negative about it. He was saying there was all this foostering and whatever. And Ger Canning was beside me in the Burlington that night and he went, “Isn’t that desperate now?” And I said, “Pay no heed.” But sure when I got my chance! Ah, f*** it, I went overboard. But sure what the hell. There was a fair cut in it now.
DC: But in fairness to Éamonn Cregan, he was only doing then what ye guys would do a decade on from your own time. It’s just the 1997 version of what could happen this summer.
PS: But it comes back to this whole thing of, “You hate us. You’re always against us.” It’s complete rubbish. I know Tyrone will always throw that at me. Now Tyrone have been responsible for some of the greatest footballing displays Croke Park has ever seen. I’ve said it countless times.
IT: But you’re damned by your use of a memorable phrase. Puke football. You used two words 10 years ago and they stuck.
PS: And I never said them again. Never once.
DC: World Wars started over two words that were never said again.

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