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.