The Seasons of Sundays: in their own words
From humble beginnings almost 35 years ago, The Sunday Game has been bringing us the spills, thrills and bellyaches of the GAA summer
RTÉ Sport’s Michael Lyster presenting The Sunday Game in 1990. Michael began presenting The Sunday Game series in 1984 continually up to the present day.
In the mid-to-late-1970s, the landscape of television sport had a single identifiable feature that stood high above everything else. Match Of The Day had begun on the BBC in 1964 and within a decade it was drawing in over 12 million viewers every Saturday night in the UK.
In a revolutionary move a good two decades ahead of its time, the BBC sold it abroad. It would be a stretch to say they found a worldwide audience but they did okay. One country that did fasten on was Ireland. From the 1975/76 season, RTÉ1 showed the programme late on a Saturday night and its instant popularity inevitably posed a simple question. Why couldn’t there be a GAA version?
At the time, RTÉ showed 10 live GAA matches a year – the two Railway Cup finals on St Patrick’s Day, the All-Ireland senior and minor football semi-finals and the All-Ireland senior and minor finals in hurling and football. But otherwise, coverage of the games was very sparse, leading to constant complaints across the GAA land about how the national broadcaster was letting them down.
No county convention or GAA Congress was complete at the time without a delegate clearing his throat to excoriate RTÉ for its coverage of GAA. In 1976, two motions were proposed at the Limerick county convention – One: “That the GAA demand that RTÉ show at least 26 matches annually live”; and Two: “That the GAA calls for a special weekly programme on RTÉ covering our national games of at least one hour’s duration”. It was a good 20 years before the amount of live matches got anywhere close to 26. But the one-hour weekly programme, well that arrived within three.
FRED COGLEY (RTÉ Head Of Sport at the time)
“In the mid-1970s, the GAA county boards enjoyed nothing better than their annual cut at RTÉ. And with some justification because RTÉ at that stage was very poorly served in terms of technical facilities. There was one outside broadcast unit which was state of the art for its time. But the problem was that it was so state of the art that RTÉ only used it on special occasions. Sport was too run-of-the-mill.”
JIM CARNEY (First presenter): “The reason it started in the first place was simple. There was a movement all around the country from good, young people at county conventions who were saying, ‘It’s just not good enough that England has Match Of The Day and The Big Match and we don’t have anything like it.’ It was a direct response to the popularity of those programmes in England.
FC: “It wasn’t so much that there wasn’t a will for a GAA programme, it was more that we didn’t have technical expertise to do it properly. The GAA, in fairness to them, were keen on their games being promoted. We eventually found common ground between what the GAA wanted and what we could provide, as distinct from them knocking on our door and being told no.”
MAURICE REIDY (Editor): “Mike Horgan started it and I worked on it with him. I was with the programme for 22 years, from 1979 to 2001.”
JC: “Horgan was the brains behind it. Once he got Fred’s blessing, that would have been it. It was him and Maurice Reidy and Joan O’Callaghan that drove it. Horgan was a real innovator, although he’d never make you think that he actually liked his job. He was the only man I ever saw carry off silver hair. He was made for Montparnasse back in James Joyce’s time really.”
JOAN O’CALLAGHAN (Producer):
“I worked on it for 30 years. It was my life. That’s why I retired in 2009 – to find my life. It was very enjoyable and there was a great buzz doing it. But I never really got to see it until I was finished working on it.”
The Irish Times, July 3 1979
By Paddy Downey
Next Sunday’s Munster hurling final between Cork and Limerick at Thurles will be featured by RTÉ1 in the first programme of a weekly series, “Sunday Game”. It will be presented by Jim Carney, who has been absent from the airwaves since last September, when he suffered serious injuries in a road accident. The new programme will be transmitted every Sunday from 8.00 to 9.00, giving extensive coverage of a major GAA game of the day. The format will include discussions and comments by players and officials.
The early years
JC: “I had a very bad accident in ’78 and it meant I couldn’t drive to Dublin. I had to come on the train and it was all a bit messy and awkward. But they wanted someone young and I was 29. They put me on the cover of the RTÉ Guide, which at the time was it was kind of like being on the cover of Rolling Stone. It was usually Gay Byrne and really nobody else that made it.”
MR: “In those days RTÉ weren’t as geared up for this kind of work. You might have had three matches but you could do only one because there was only one OB unit in the station at the time. A lot of stuff wasn’t covered as well as it should have been.”
JO’C: “When you look back on it now, it was a very basic production. It was only highlights and recordings. But there was a great demand from the public for it.”
JC: “Because it was new, people thought it was great and fresh and all those things. But you look back on it now, some of it was dreadful television. The programme was dead nearly once the sig tune was played. We used to throw over to a reporter who’d bring us the soccer news of the day. Or the rugby news or anything else that might have been happening. Bill O’Herlihy often did that.”
MR: “Liz Howard was one of the first pundits. It was different but then Liz wasn’t your ordinary sort of person. Her family background was steeped in the GAA, as she was herself. She was a female in a male world. She went on to be the PRO for the Tipp county board for years and there wouldn’t be too many women in that sort of role even to this day.”
JC: “She wasn’t actually the token woman either, as most people now would assume that she was. She was a kind of a GAA traditionalist and she always had a lot to say for herself when it came to hurling. More so than even camogie, which she went on to be president of.”
FC: “Action replay didn’t happen in those days. It was one of the great developments of the early ’80s. The only way we could do it was by getting two machines in the video editing suite – one to record and one to play out. So we had six guys to hold the tape coming off the recording machine and stand around the room so that we would lengthen the time between the recording and the play-out.
“The director in studio and the commentators had to be very careful to give a pause where there would be a changeover from one tape to another tape if we were showing a replay. If someone took their eye off the game, the whole thing went to pot.”
JC: “We used to have the helicopter. Nobody believes this now. But the tapes had to be brought back to RTÉ from the games. The tape would have to come back by helicopter to get them on air in time. Nobody cared whether we were safe or not in the helicopter. They only cared about the tapes.
“We took off from one of those huge fields behind the studios in RTÉ. I think the Fair City set is there now. There were definitely days where I’d get the helicopter from Dublin to Killarney or wherever, commentate on the match, grab the tape afterwards and run back to the helicopter without even having time to do interviews, fly back to Dublin and then present the show at night.”
JO’C: “You were going into places that weren’t built for television. They just weren’t geared for it. Whether it was Tullamore or Killarney or wherever, everywhere needed a build. You had to build camera positions.
“The unit manager would go with the producer and recce the venue and then they’d have to employ a scaffolding company to come into the ground and build a camera tower and often a commentary position as well. There was a lot of climbing up and down rickety ladders. That was the bit I hated.”
JC: “I did the first year but the accident had had an effect on me and I wasn’t minding myself right. So I decided to stay down in the west. Seán Óg Ó Ceallacháin came in and presented in ’80 and ’81. I came back for ’82 and ’83.”
The late SEÁN ÓG Ó CEALLACHÁIN (In conversation with Radio Kerry’s Weeshie Fogarty in 2011):
“The pattern of my day doing the Sunday Games was this. I’d head off in the helicopter away to Thurles or over to Castleblayney or Galway or wherever, come back with the film after doing the commentary, come back to Dublin and go into Teilifís Éireann to start rehearsing around eight o’clock and start the programme.
“I would finish up the programme about half past 10 and then I would head over to the radio studio where a girl would be waiting with all my results that she had collected for me.
“She would hand me all my results and I would go in and do my 11 o’clock GAA results programme.
“Then I would get into my car and head over to the Irish Press because at that stage I was the GAA correspondent for the Evening Press.
“And I would write up all the matches of the day until four o’clock in the morning.
“So basically from nine o’clock Sunday morning until four o’clock the next morning, I was on the go.”
JO’C: “I think Seán Óg enjoyed it but it was very different to radio, which is what he was more used to. Television is quite technical and being seen can have an effect on you.
“Whereas with radio, you can just sit down and not worry about how you look or where you look or anything like that.”
Carney returned in 1982 and ’83. In those days, the All-Ireland winning team often came into studio with the cup on the night of the final.
JC: “The winning team always came in before they went back to their hotel. They loved it. Because GAA players were never on the TV in those days, not like now. So they were all delighted to come in so that their mammies would see them with their medal on the telly. But when Offaly came in the night of the ’82 final, we had a problem. Maurice Reidy had put together a package of clips from Kerry’s four-in-a-row in preparation for them making it five-in-a-row. But they didn’t obviously.
“Maurice was heartbroken, first of all because he was a good Castleisland man and secondly because the bloody thing wouldn’t be shown. They were great about it though. Eugene McGee and Richie Connor were fantastic. Richie said, ‘Sure go on and show the Kerry five-in-a-row thing, we’d love to see it.’ When it went out then, everybody loved it. It kind of didn’t matter that Kerry hadn’t won.”
MR: “A former president who is no longer with us threatened to have me got rid of one time. He said, ‘If I had my way, that man would be sacked.’ It was during the 1980s and Limerick and Galway had drawn an All-Ireland semi-final. There had been an incident in the game between two of the players and it had sent the Limerick crowd into a rage. The game ended in a draw but as the referee walked off the pitch, there was a hail of bottles raining down on him. And I had the idea of using that as the closing image of the show as the credits rolled.
“Now, at the time, there was no Sky Plus or anything and very few people in the country even had a video recorder. But RTÉ had given the president of the GAA a gift of a VHS machine. And so even though he hadn’t seen the Sunday Game, he was able to watch the show back. Within three days, the place erupted. Your man watched the tape and decided that this was beyond the pale and that I should be sacked. I ended up in front of the DG on the back of it. We had to get the union involved and everything.
Michael Lyster arrives
MICHAEL LYSTER (Presenter from 1984-2004):
“My first year was the centenary year. RTÉ were giving a big push from early on that year, showing old games to mark the 100 years of the GAA. The first thing that happened for me was that I was asked to do a slot and what would have been the equivalent of League Sunday. A kind of a Sunday Sport programme that ran at the start of the year. Fred Cogley asked me would I do it. I think what they were doing was having a look at me to see would I be any good on the telly.
“It was already huge at that stage. It was as big then as it is now. Bigger maybe because there were no live games in those days. The Sunday Game evening programme was the only place you got to see these teams playing.”
JO’C: “As the years went by and coverage increased, it was tough going. It was a very busy programme to work on. The Sunday was very, very fraught. People wanted a good production and that took a lot of people doing a lot of work.
ML: “It was something new to experience. I started getting invited to all sorts of things. In RTÉ, they got me to do Daybreak LA during the Olympics. That was myself and Moya Doherty and fair enough, at least it was sport. Then I was asked to do the All Ireland Disco Dancing Championships down at the Opera House in Cork. Buck’s Fizz were the guest performers on it. It was myself and Moya again and I went along with it.
“But then I was asked to do a new kids science programme and I actually turned it down. I could see where it was going. You were going to be flavour of the month and that kind of thing and you’d be over-exposed. I just had a decision to make – was I going to take on everything and do whatever came my way or was I going to stick to something that I was comfortable with and do it right. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
MR: “It was changing how people looked at the games. Up to then, newspapers had been the barometer of all things in the GAA. John D Hickey would talk about players ‘testing each other’s intestinal fortitude’ – basically beating the shite out of each other. The Sunday Game moved the thing on.”
ML: “Julian Davis was an editor of it for a while and that was fun. Julian wasn’t from a GAA background so he had different ideas of things we could do. All he wanted to do was make the programme entertaining. So we used to wander off into different areas, not always to the pleasure of the GAA.
“If there was an issue going on in the GAA – as there always is – we might get a fella to write a limerick or a bit of a song about it. Some of the things would drive the GAA cracked and we would get into a bit of bother with the higher-ups in RTÉ. It was good fun though. It meant it was a television programme rather than just showing the matches.”
In 1995, RTÉ decided to start showing games live from the start of the championship rather than just waiting until the end. It meant wholesale remodelling of the coverage. The highlights show moved to a new programme ‘The Game On Monday’.
ML: “That was a huge change. It was actually at tea-time, believe it or not. RTÉ got the throw-in times of whatever game we were doing moved to six o’clock. That was regarded as a primetime slot. But in actual fact it didn’t work out well at all. The figures were disappointing and we did away with it quickly enough. I don’t know if it was because it clashed with the news or what it was. But it didn’t work out.
“Tim O’Connor, who was the Head of Sport, said that we were going to show the games in the afternoon at their regular time. And actually, I advised against it. To me, if they weren’t going to watch it at tea-time, they weren’t going to watch it at three o’clock. But Tim knew better in fairness to him and said that this was the way it was going to go. And then the highlights show came back to Sunday night and the Game On Monday was basically a refit of it.”
JO’C: “The editing for the Game On Monday had to happen on a Sunday night. So it was very pressurised. They edited packages for the Sunday night but then they would re-edit them for Monday and maybe make them longer. There was a huge amount of work involved. I don’t think the ratings were great though and it got dropped after a few years.
ML: “I had a couple of years where I was presenting the day-time programme and the night-time programme. That went on until we started presenting from the venues themselves.
Initially, I was just presenting from the studio in RTÉ – apart from when the games were in Croke Park obviously. But once we decided to start doing it from the venues in 2004, it was time to pass it over. Pat Spillane came in and then Des came in.”
PAUL BYRNES (Programme Editor since 2004):
“Pat was someone who’d done a fair bit of radio; he’d appeared on other shows apart from The Sunday Game and he was keen to try something new. We said we’d give him a chance. I always felt that the least someone deserved was a chance.
ML: “It was just a matter of practicality that I would stop doing it. The fact that it was Pat who took over took me by surprise. I didn’t know that they were thinking that way. I felt that Pat was our man as a panellist and that by taking him out of that seat, you were taking away his strength. I felt it was the wrong call.”
PAT SPILLANE (Presenter 2004-2009): “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.”
ML: “Their argument was it would just give a different dimension to the night-time programme. And fair enough, it did that just fine. But my feeling was it took away one of our best analysts from what he was best at.”
“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.
“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.”
PB: “It was a big change for him. To go from one side of the desk to the other is a huge, huge change. It really is. And going from not growing up as a broadcaster or a presenter, it was always going to take him a year or two to feel his way into it. The public missed him as a pundit. When you’re a presenter, you’re no longer a pundit. That was the big change for him. The biggest challenge was not being a pundit anymore.”
Eventually Spillane went back to the other side of the desk and the job went to Des Cahill.
DES CAHILL (Presenter 2009-present day):
“It came totally out of the blue. I always hear young journalists now going, ‘I want to present this or I want to present that.’ I had been around a long time. I was more practical and reasonable than that. I didn’t think about doing the Sunday Game job because there was no vacancy there.”
Cahill was only a year in the job when the 2010 Leinster final happened and referee Martin Sludden was assaulted on the pitch.
DC: “That was a mad night. It was the night of the World Cup final.
“It was Spain v Holland in the final and the game went to extra-time and then the soccer panel had about a half an hour after the game. So the upshot of it all was that we went on air at about five-to-midnight. I think it was that late. It was certainly after 11pm. But the mad thing about it was that over half a million people tuned in.
“They waited and watched it to see what the coverage of the end of the Leinster final would be.
“I thought there’d be nobody watching but it turned out to be way bigger than normal.
“There was a big issue about what Meath were going to do. Would they offer a replay? Would they give the cup back? But we had Colm O’Rourke on that night and I thought he was great. He even had his own son playing that day but he was very even-handed about it and said: ‘Look, Meath people aren’t comfortable with the way this ended, no more than Louth people are.’”
And so it goes. From not being able to send two cameras to a game in the mid-’70s, ‘The Sunday Game’ now covers close to 100 games a year in some shape or form. The biggest complaint the staff hear is the same now as it was then.
PB: “Not enough coverage.
RTÉ never show our county.”
ML: “Ye only show the big boys.”
DC: “Ye’re always anti-our county.”
PB: “I can understand it in some ways.
“That’s the way the media works, not just on The Sunday Game.
“It’s the same in print, the same on radio – the big teams get the most coverage. There’s very few counties in the country that we haven’t shown live. We’ve done the Waterford footballers, the Tipperary footballers, Sligo, all of them.”
DC: “It can be politically awkward because people take so much offence on behalf of their own county. I went to RTÉ from Kerry.
“The night before I came up for my interview, I was in a house with Mike Neeson who was the chairman of Dr Crokes at the time.
“And there were people making fun of what Anne Doyle said on the news or giving out about Michael Lyster said on The Sunday Game.
“And I remember thinking of that when I started on the show – that no matter how good you were or how even-handed you were, people were still going to take offence.
“They were still going to be annoyed. Kerry people would still think you were against them because you showed Tomás Ó Sé or Paul Galvin doing something they shouldn’t have.
“Every county thinks you’re against them.”