From Rivaldo to Breffni Park, TG4 have led the way on sport for others to follow

For two decades now, the Irish-language station has had sport as a key part of its make-up

Micheál Ó Domhnaill and Brian Tyers at Croke Park

An té nach bhfuil láidir ní folair dó a bheith glic.

Final whistle, Breffni Park. Crowds scud onto the pitch as Cavan fall to Dublin in the first league match of the year. Dubs to find, shirts to get signed. Selfies out the gap.

Odhrán Mac Murchú makes a beeline for Niall Scully, the Dublin utility player who's just been chosen as Laoch na hImeartha. They head across to the touchline opposite the main stand, over to where the familiar TG4 desk is set up. As they arrive, Micheál Ó Domhnaill is voicing over slow-mos of the Dublin win just gone and as he does so, he looks up to catch Mac Murchú's eye.

“Béarla,” mouths Mac Murchú. Ó Domhnaill has his cue.


“Agus Niall Scully, laoch na himeartha, tagtha chun labhairt linn. Niall congratulations, good form shown in the O’Byrne Cup in the last few weeks and I suppose you wanted to hold onto that jersey . . .”

To everything, there’s a system.

“It hasn’t always been foolproof,” laughs Ó Domhnaill later in the week. “Sometimes you find people who feel that it would be important to start off with something in Irish, which is terrific. And often the way they answer the first question, I’ll be wondering, ‘Now, does he want me to keep going in Irish here or was that it?’

“And then I’ll start a sentence in Irish and I’ll watch the eyes widen as panic sets in. So I’ll revert to English. That’s happened a few times. Lots of bilingual interviews. Some of them pretty inadvertent.”

And with that, another league has begun. This is where GAA followers live through the winter and spring. Last year, TG4 broadcast 94 football and hurling matches either live or deferred. Apart from the under-21 championships that played out through the summer, the majority of them came between October and April. League, club and colleges, wind, muck and rain. A niche of their own imagining, a USP entirely of their own making.

“There’s an Irish proverb for every situation,” says TG4’s deputy CEO Pádhraic Ó Chiadhra. “And the one that suits here is ‘An té nach bhfuil láidir ní folair dó a bheith glic.’”

If you’re not strong, you have to be nimble.

Basil Fawlty and Garry Mac Donncha’s Goal

In the beginning, there was light. But this is television so before the beginning, there needs to be a fortnight of test transmissions. An upstart TV station takes what it can find for these purposes and so a job lot of the classic BBC comedy Fawlty Towers was used to fit the bill, alongside a programme called An Cheathrú Rua Abú!

Thus, in the last two weeks of October 1996, in between repeats of John Cleese explaining to Mrs Richards that the sea was over there between the land and the sky, an hour-long highlights show from that year’s Galway county football final was shown. There was playing footage and a few interviews wrapped around it, a shaky camera and excitable commentary in the mix as well.

This wasn't any old Galway county final, after all. As if through pure kismet, 1996 was the year that An Cheathrú Rua won the first ever Galway county title to be collected by a Gaeltacht club. And alongside future All-Ireland winners Seán Óg de Paor and Seán Ó Domhnaill, future RTÉ and RnaG sports reporter Garry Mac Donncha popped up to score the winning goal. Given the heavy rotation, it's almost certainly the most replayed winning goal in the station's history.

After opening night on Halloween, An Cheathrú Rua Abú was the first sport ever shown on the station. It went out at seven o'clock on November 1st, the first programme of any sort to come on after the kids' shows that had taken up the rest of the day's schedule.

The message was fairly obvious. They weren’t strong enough to do a whole lot with sport just yet. But they were nimble enough to do what they could. And if you stuck with them, the rest would follow.

Luis Enrique and the accidental broadcaster

In the early days, they leaned on the Welsh-language station S4C quite a bit. S4C had been going since 1982 and knew where the landmines lay and how to plot a path around them. When you’re running a minority language TV station, sport is more than just a handy schedule filler-upper. S4C had been running highlights of Spanish and Italian soccer and it had done well for them. The game is the game, whatever language comes attached.

Micheál Ó Domhnaill was a teacher from the Ring Gaeltacht in Waterford. After college, he'd spent three years living in Pamplona teaching English but by the mid-1990s he was back in Ireland, subbing away and waiting for a full-time job to open up somewhere. One day, he got a call from Irial Mac Murchú, a friend of his from Ring who had set up a production company called Nemeton with a view to providing sports content to Teilifís na Gaeilge when it came on stream.

“He was having trouble closing out the soccer deal with a company in Spain,” says Ó Domhnaill. “He basically needed somebody with a bit of Spanish to come in and help. They couldn’t understand Irial, Irial couldn’t understand them, and the thing had got stalled. So I went in one day after school and this was pre-internet so we were talking on the phone and faxing each other over and back. We got the contract closed off that afternoon and I went back to doing what I was doing and thought no more about it.

“A couple of weeks later, Irial rang me and said the contract was sorted and the programme was ready to go and asked would I have interest in working on it. The original role was as a researcher but it being TG4, you couldn’t justify just having a researcher. You’d have to be doing something else as well. And so he said they needed someone to stand in front of the camera and introduce the clips and go over there the odd weekend. So that’s how it started.”

If nothing else, Olé, Olé was a bold opening statement. The Spanish league had Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Raul, Seedorf, Suker and Stoichkov and if you wanted to see them do their thing, TnaG on a Monday night was the first place to go. Sky wouldn't get interested in La Liga for another couple of years and the internet's capacity for ferrying this stuff with any decent quality was the guts of a decade away.

For Ó Domhnaill, it was a glorious time. He’d never had a notion of becoming a broadcaster of any stripe and yet here he was, doing links to camera over the best footballers in the world. And every few weeks, they’d head to Barcelona or Madrid and do a show from there and be given the run of the place.

“Access to players was so much easier,” he says. “First of all, you could go into the stadium a couple of hours before the match and as long as you didn’t go on the pitch, you could film your links from anywhere you liked. You had total free rein. And then during the match, you sat up against the advertising hoarding. The ball often came over and you’d throw it back and look up and there’d be Luis Enrique or Rivaldo taking the ball off you.

“Then you’d go to the mixed zone afterwards and the players would just be hanging out. They always stopped, especially when you said you were from Irish TV. They often just loved the idea that people in Ireland would be interested in Spanish football. It was a mad idea to them really.”

By 1999, Sky had woken up and Spanish highlights were becoming more widely available all over the place. Olé, Olé was never going to be forever anyway but once the big beasts got involved, their ratings flatlined. But by then, they had another avenue to go down, one far closer to home.

All-Ireland Gold and all that

Unusually for a good idea, it's impossible to find anyone to take the credit for it. All-Ireland Gold landed fully formed in the early part of 1997 and continued for seven series – football on Tuesday nights, hurling on Thursdays. Old classics had their make-up smudged a little on repeated viewing but nobody minded too much. It was TnaG's first ratings smash.

"In the Gaeltacht heartlands, there was no problem," says Pádhraic Ó Ciardha. "But outside of those places, All-Ireland Gold was a massive help. It meant that in counties that mightn't have had too many Irish speakers, we could still be attractive to people. All-Ireland Gold was a total door-opener for us."

And not just with the public. By the last year of the decade, they were sitting down with Liam Mulvihill and Joe McDonagh in Croke Park and asking could they start showing league games and the club championships. All-Ireland Gold had proven their initial bona fides and a Tuesday night highlights show, Ard San Aer, had furthered them. This had to be the next step.

“When we came in and proposed to do club and league games,” says Rónán Ó Coisdealabha, TG4’s sports editor, “I think deep down a lot of people thought, ‘Why would you be covering the league? Sure nobody’s going to watch it.’ You have to remember that there was a perception back then – and even into the noughties – that intercounty managers didn’t want to show their hands in the league. Teams weren’t taking it seriously.”

That suited TnaG down to the ground. They came with a pitch for all the crumbs nobody else wanted – league, club, colleges, under-21. If the GAA wasn’t beating many suitors off with a stick for these rights – or indeed any at all – they still weren’t going to dish them out for nothing just because someone had thought to ask.

“Without being too folksy about it, it was a fairly blunt conversation,” says Ó Ciardha. “We told them what we wanted and they said, ‘Well what have you got?’ And we said we have a TV station that will give you much more exposure, quality programmes with great commentators. But of course that wasn’t quite what they were asking.

“In the end, there was some direct talking and it pretty much ended with somebody saying, ‘So what you’re saying to the Irish public is that unless we come up with more money, you’re happy enough for them to spend from the last day of September until St Patrick’s Day watching different live sport to Gaelic games.’ And I think that sort of swung it our way a bit.”

In the end, they got what they were after and though they won’t say what they paid for it that first time, it’s thought they came away with change out of £50,000. “We couldn’t offer big wads of money, we just didn’t have it. But what we could offer was our undying support and interest and far more hours than any other broadcaster was willing to give them.”

And look what happened. This is TG4’s 18th season showing live football and hurling league action. Ballyea’s win over St Thomas’s in Thurles last Saturday is part of their 20th club championship. This weekend, they’ll have club football All-Ireland semi-finals from Newry and Limerick, live league hurling from Kilkenny, deferred league football from Roscommon. If it’s winter and it’s the GAA, it’s TG4.

Women, Wimbledon and whatever else

For a station whose motto is “Súil Eile”, it would have been too obvious just to be a GAA channel. But they’d never play down the importance of it to them either. TG4’s GAA coverage has been the foundation stone for most of what they’ve built over the past two decades. Ratings, brand, identity, reputation for quality – everything has flowed from it.

And if some of that sounds wishy-washy, none of it can be understated in a station where financial muscle will always be a problem. TG4 lost the Saturday night league games to Setanta in 2005 and undoubtedly would have had the Sunday action picked off by now as well if money was the only determination.

“In fairness, the GAA has been itself quite nimble in knowing how to adapt to the changing world,” says Ó Ciardha. “They have been and continue to be extremely accommodating to our mission. However, in the end, you put a value on things and that value can be monetary or it can be something else. And I think ourselves and the GAA understand each other. The things that we do in terms of coverage of GAA events like Scór and Gradam an Uachtaráin – that are not sports events and not high-rated – those things are part of it and we get that.”

Over the years, they branched out wherever and whenever they could. They took risks where nobody else thought to. They were the first station to cover schools rugby, the first to snap up the Celtic League, the first to show a floodlit intercounty GAA match. They covered European swimming in Galway, followed Katie Taylor to Baku, covered women's Gaelic football and sponsored its championship. They snagged Wimbledon and the Tour de France in the mid-2000s for half-nothing and filled out the dead summer schedules for weeks at a time.

In 2014, they whipped the Women’s Rugby World Cup out from under the nose of precisely nobody and quietly delighted in the outrage that went in RTE’s direction when Ireland beat New Zealand and the national broadcaster didn’t have it. It was announced this week that RTÉ have bought the rights to the 2017 version. Sometimes that’s just how it goes. You’ve got to take it as a compliment.

“We had a sports property one time, not Gaelic games,” says Ó Ciardha. “It was working well for us and we came in to negotiate the second contract. As soon as we sat down, the agent representing the sports organisation said, ‘Great to see ye. Just before we start – and this is in no way to put you off – the people who just went out the door there have offered eight times the amount per game that you’re giving us.’ And sure at that stage, there’s only one thing to do and that’s stand up and shake hands and say, ‘Thanks very much, let’s not waste any more of everyone’s time, good luck with everything.’

“Now, it has never come to that with the GAA and please God it never will. We do understand that they do have commercial realities to live within. But we know too that if it’s only a conversation about money, at least one of the sides around the table is missing the point.

“We’re going to be small, for the foreseeable future. We’re never going to be able to buy sports rights because we outbid somebody. If somebody wants to outbid us, they will. It’s being agile enough and nimble enough and having the relationships to understand each other.”

And on they've gone. Always moving, always trying something. Irial Mac Murchú's incredibly successful Nemeton company has grown along with them, not just delivering sport to TG4 but long-term viable jobs to Ring as well. There have been documentaries, magazine shows, Laochra Gael and Rugbaí Beo and all the rest.

They took a kicking online this week with the news that Dara Ó Cinnéide's Friday night weekend preview programme Seó Spóirt will be discontinued in April after 10 years on air. On the face of it, the move looks like a careless axe to take to a popular show and newly-installed chief executive Alan Esslemont won't be popular for it. Maybe he'll change his mind or maybe he'll decide that they've always taken risks and this is just another of them.

Decisions, decisions. The tick-tock of station life tipping on into a future that leads who knows where. Sport at the heart of it, always.

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin

Malachy Clerkin is a sports writer with The Irish Times