Ger Canning interview: still immersed in the job 40 years on

‘Do you speak Irish?’ RTÉ commentator remembers phone call that opened the door

Midway through the summer of ‘81 with the All Ireland championships already in full swing, Ger Canning picked up the phone to have a conversation he could hardly have countenanced until that very moment.

"Do you speak Irish?" asked Michael O'Carroll, a senior producer with the sports department in RTÉ, at the other end of the line.

Canning, still a teacher only dabbling in sports commentary and predominantly at local level, confirmed that he did indeed boast the cúpla focail, prompting O’Carroll to jump on to the purpose of the call.

After RTÉ had launched a second channel in 1978, they were flirting with the idea of utilising it to broadcast pictures from the All Ireland finals along with Irish commentary. They just needed somebody with a command of both the language and a microphone, somebody as eager for a break as they were to learn.

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Canning accepted the job without hesitation. And with only four weeks to prepare for the biggest day in his nascent media career, he headed for the one place in the world that would leave him in good order ahead of taking his seat high in the Hogan Stand - Corca Dhuibhne.

“My first thought was: Gosh, I’m going to get a ticket to the All Ireland - that’s fantastic,” he remembers.

“So, I took myself off to the Gaeltacht for a week or so and I just immersed myself in it. I wasn’t thinking in English and translating into Irish. Rather, I was thinking in Irish and using it in a more natural and normal fashion and there wasn’t any great stress involved.”

Four decades on, he’s still sitting in his bunker, still foostering through the ream of notes he’s been preparing all week, still putting the free ticket to good use. On this particular day, he’s putting the final touches on his preparation for the Joe McDonagh final with one eye on the notes he’s prepared for the Irish hockey team’s Olympic opener against South Africa the following weekend.

He’ll also make time at some stage to pick his way through the notes he’s gathered for the clash between Tyrone and Donegal later that weekend.

The days of moonlighting as a commentator after a week in the classroom have long passed and an average week now consists of copious note-taking and profile-building, hours of watching old match tapes and scouring the internet for every tidbit that can be utilised in the heat of broadcasting to a nation.

And he could never be accused of failing to put in the hours. That’s why Ryle Nugent, the former head of RTÉ Sport, turned to Canning when in need of a hockey commentator during the 2016 Olympics. The Irish team had made it through to the Games and Nugent, with no obvious candidate for the gig, needed somebody willing and capable to immerse themselves in an unfamiliar setting.

Canning was summoned and presented with the challenge. He readily accepted. And with nine months to brush up on his knowledge of the sport, he approached the task just as he did in the summer of ‘81: by diving headfirst into it and immersing himself in all things hockey.

“I went to a lot of hockey matches. I would’ve tried to get to a hockey match once every week or once every fortnight. I went to see matches in Dublin and Cork and Limerick and various other places - anywhere at all I could see a game. I would even attend training sessions up at the Mardyke in UCC and have a look to see what’s going on.

“I sat next to a lot of referees to get them to point out the finer details of officialdom and what to look for because hockey is a terribly technical game. I’ll never master it but I’ll have a go.

“I studied it the same way you might study for the Leaving Cert. It was like a nine-month crash course into everything and anything I needed to know. I immersed myself in it because I didn’t grow up in it. That’s what you do in this business.”

That method of immersion has remained a constant throughout his 40 years in the job. This particular path which focuses heavily on sport was never a given, though. His first foray into the media landscape, after all, came in 1978 after he spotted a job listing for a newsreader with RTÉ. Indisputably light on experience, he threw caution to the wind and drew up an application.

True calling

Of the 900 that applied, five were summoned to Dublin for training after which they battled it out for two available positions with the national broadcaster.

"The five of us consisted of an experienced newsreader called Cyril Smith, a woman named Anne Doyle who came from Wexford, a couple of guys who were Dublin-based, one was Jim O'Neill who later became a DJ and the other guy was attached to the RTÉ Players and was called Jimmy Greally. And there was a guy called Ger Canning who was a nobody from Cork.

“The five of us did the training sessions for a couple of weeks in RTÉ and then, low and behold, they offered Cyril Smith the first job and they offered me the second job.”

Deep down though, he perhaps knew news reading wasn’t his true calling and, after a chat with three radio producers who were going to be based in Cork, a seed was planted. They asked if he would be willing to cover some sport in the Cork area, should he decide to forego news reading, and immediately it was music to his ears. He was leaving behind a golden opportunity in Dublin but this nevertheless felt right. And so he went with his gut.

“So much in life is utterly unpredictable and happens by chance. And that was the same in my case. If there was anything I wanted to do regarding media and sport when I was leaving college, I would have loved to have been a reporter.

“I would have loved to have been the guy who went along to a game to do a 30-second or one-minute report on a match for radio but there were no vacancies for that. It was purely by chance that I managed to get a leg in the door as it were.”

He wouldn’t have to wait long for his first national gig, as it happened.

A year after he felt compelled to apply for a newsreader position, he received a last-minute call to cover a game for a national audience live from Cork. Left with nothing but the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe to cover an entire afternoon of sports coverage, RTÉ radio producers were left scampering for something to fill the schedule.

Word reached them of a relatively inexperienced commentator from Cork who was covering the Cork senior hurling final and it was understood that he may have had some potential, even if he was still somewhat of a greenhorn. But these were desperate times.

“The National League game that Michael O’Hehir was due to do either didn’t happen or the lines where Michael was that afternoon went down and they couldn’t get a connection with him.

“So, they were stuck. The only thing they had was the race in Paris and somebody said I think there’s a game on in Cork.

“I’m the commentator and somebody up there - Tim O’Connor I think it was - said, ‘This guy has some potential maybe - let’s talk to him.’ That’s how it all started.”

Challenge

All Ireland finals soon beckoned. They were followed by World Cups and the Olympic Games. And, suddenly, four decades have passed and he’s still in the bunker putting faces to names, digging out stats and getting that same kick out of it all.

“I had no thought whatsoever of doing All Ireland finals or World Cups. It was as far removed from my thought process as becoming the president of the United States. It just wasn’t part of it. It was part of my thinking.

“I was thinking much more in terms of operating out of the Cork area, maybe if I’m lucky, or any area. I was going to present sport. I was going to discuss sport. And I think radio was the thing for me.

“Television was something removed, something different, something that happened up there in Dublin. It wasn’t part of my life at all. It wasn’t even remotely part of my thought process. None whatsoever. Pure chance.

“I’ve been very, very lucky. RTÉ is a station whereby everybody is given opportunities to see what they can do. In the Olympics I’ve done basketball, volleyball, soccer, rowing a couple of Olympics back, hockey in the last one. I’ve done a complete mix of everything .

“And I absolutely adore what I do. I love a challenge.

“With live sport you’re flying by the seat of your pants and you’re hoping to God that you land safely. And I’ve relished every minute I’ve had of it.”