The Sunday Game: 40 years setting the agenda, if not fashion trends

Documentary looks back at four decades analysis, debate, rows, and dodgy sweaters

When it comes to sports documentaries of recent times, Loosehorse has proved to be something of a thoroughbred, producing ‘Jayo’, ‘Blues Sisters’, ‘Micko’ and ‘Giles’, among others. So there was always a decent enough chance that ‘Sunday Best – 40 years of The Sunday Game’ would turn out to be highly watchable. And so it proved.

Granted, it had to gallop through those four decades in which RTÉ’s flagship GAA programme has been on our screens, when each one would probably merit a show all of its own. But still, it was a splendid wander down memory lane.

It was a reminder, too, that The Sunday Game has been the nation’s sporting equivalent of The Late Late Show, incensing its viewers – many of whom have been easily incensed – as much as it has entertained them, with a mail bag to prove it.

Michael Lyster recalled, for example, the "truckload" of letters that arrived from Wicklow after he had likened a kick-boxing match in Korea to a club match in the Garden County after it had ended in (literally) bloody mayhem, the crowd contributing a few kicks and boxes itself to the dust-up. In Korea, that is, not Wicklow.


After even the Wicklow County Board wrote to RTÉ’s director general demanding that he be sacked, Lyster apologised on the next show (to Wicklow, not Korea), although you’d a notion he took the whole business as seriously as he did the complaint from a Harry in Letterkenny. He protested about Lyster and his team “wearing foreign-made sweaters”. “I can assure you,” he replied, “that from the waist down we are all 100 per cent Irish here on The Sunday Game.” Cheeky.

Of course, where Lyster’s jumpers were made was the least offensive thing about them, their hallucinogenic patterns playing havoc with the nation’s horizontal holds. But to this day the attire of people appearing on the programme is causing offence, Donal Óg Cusack struggling to appear remorseful when sharing the complaint that he was “expressing his sexuality through his clothes”. “That was a fairly random one,” he chuckled. Happily, he upped his debonair efforts in response.

Plenty of laughs, then, but lots of good chat too as the history of the programme was traced, from its inception in 1979 when Jim Carney was its first presenter. He did his best, too, to add some decorum to the proceedings. "It might be funny, I've no doubt at home you'll laugh about it," he said after we were shown a slow-mo replay of a Wexford player kicking a Wicklow opponent in the arse, "but it certainly wasn't funny for the Wicklow man".

A few presenters were tried out before Lyster took over for his 35-year run, among them Pat Spillane who looked as comfortable in the hosting seat as he might have done perched buck naked on hot coals. Mind you, that was still more comfy than two of his guests, Peter Finnerty and Davy Fitzgerald having to sit in chairs so enormous they looked like spares from Alice in Wonderland, their feet dangling over a glass floor last seen on Saturday Night Fever, Davy in danger of being swallowed by his particular piece of furniture.

That didn't work, then, so it was Lyster – and a less life-threatening set – to the rescue. And soon enough he was given a regular panel to work with, his 35 years possibly feeling like 70 at times when he had to referee Spillane, Colm O'Rourke and Joe Brolly.

We were given reminders of the most heated of days, like in 2013 when Brolly emoted over all things Tyrone after they had beaten Monaghan in the All Ireland quarter-final, reserving special fury for Seán Cavanagh and his ‘professional’ foul on Conor McManus. “He’s a brilliant footballer, but I tell you what, you can forget about Seán Cavanagh as a man – what he did there was a total and absolute obscenity.”

Six years on. “I lost my manhood that day, apparently,” Cavanagh smiled. Although to underline the agenda-setting powers of The Sunday Game, he recalled getting a call from a British client on the Monday morning, a person who had no connection whatsoever with the GAA. “’I hear you were cheating at the weekend’, he said. It has a huge impact on everyone’s lives.”

In light of his, eh, falling out with the programme back in September, Brolly’s appearance seems quirky enough, his fondness for it stretching back to his youth when, in his part of the country, he said, “it connected us, it made us feel part of Ireland”.

He would, you’d guess, have nodded at Cyril Farrell’s unease with its newer brand of punditry, on both the live and evening show, and his feeling that it’s become stat-heavy, “like American football . . . it can become too scientific”. Cusack, though, was unapologetic on that front, “there’s beauty in the detail”.

Changed times, then, although if they ever tried to dump the original theme music again, as they did in 2004, you can be sure the response would be on a par with the incandescent rage experienced by RTÉ. "It was like saying the national anthem was old fashioned so we'll change it," said Lyster. "It was like shooting Bambi," said some person called Malachy Clerkin.

"The outcry was quite extraordinary," said then series editor Glen Killane, "I even had death threats."

No one, of course, could ever approve of death threats, but a nation that contains people who can issue death threats over the changing of the much-loved soundtrack-of-the-summer theme music for a sports programme is a nation that has, you have to concede, got its priorities right.

‘Sunday Best – 40 years of The Sunday Game’ will be aired on RTÉ One next Wednesday at 9.35.