Two decades on: Après Match are ready for Russia

When it comes to tournament telly, there’s only one Après Match

Après Match return this year for what will be their seventh World Cup as part of RTÉ's coverage. Video: RTÉ

 

His lunch mates consider diving for cover when Risteard Cooper launches into his Shane Horgan impression, the hand movements so violent everyone at the table is in danger of being smacked. Then Barry Murphy, as possibly only Barry Murphy could, spots a striking resemblance between these gestures and those of Gordon Ramsay when he’s fulminating about, say, overcooked scallops.

You were going to ask the Après Match trio how their sketches are born, now you don’t have to.

Cooper and Murphy take to their feet and suddenly Horgan finds himself in an episode of Kitchen Nightmares (or Gordon Fixes Your Broken Place, as Murphy calls it) where he’s delivering his expletive-laden concerns to Ramsay about Ireland’s problems at the breakdown. Ramsay doesn’t care, he’s more concerned about the fact that this, say, Tallahassee restaurant is serving scallops with a texture similar to that of a wellington boot.

You can’t but think back to the time Après Match producer Gráinne O’Carroll recalled overhearing someone in RTÉ, who had just watched them doing a sketch featuring Bill O’Herlihy, Liam Brady and Eamon Dunphy singing Badger, Badger, Badger gently asking, “are they on acid, or something?”

Having just watched Shane Horgan in Kitchen Nightmares, you’d still wonder. But if they are, Cooper, Murphy and Gary Cooke are looking remarkably well on it. And, having made their debut as a trio during RTÉ’s coverage of the 1998 World Cup, when they take to our screens for Russia 2018 there’ll be 20 candles ablaze.

Last we met, on the eve of Euro 2012, they were asked if they were match fit. “I don’t know about match fit, I feel like Paul Scholes, ” said Gary.
“I feel like Dean Windass,” said Barry.
Risteard? “Ashley Grimes, I suppose.”

On the eve of the 2018 World Cup? “I think the three of us are now Stephen Ward, we’re still getting our game,” says Cooper. “But as a collective,” says Murphy, “we’re more like the Ilac Centre - we’re just there.”

Birthday boys

MH: Happy 20th birthday everyone.
All: Thanks very much.
MH: Does it feel like 20 years, or has it flown by?
RC: I don’t think it’s flown by . . . although when you look at clips of us from 20 years ago . . .
BM: . . . it actually looks like 40 years.
All: Yeah.
BM: We’re entering Jimmy Magee territory. No one ever said to Jimmy does it feel like your 56th World Cup? Jimmy was just always going to be there. And there is a slight concern that we’re becoming the thing that we used to take the piss out of, the establishment. When you’re there for that long.
MH: Do you worry about that?
BM: Well, you have to mark it, when you’ve done the number of tournaments we’ve done.
RC: But I think one of the reasons that we are 20 years old is that we dip in and out of it. I don’t think we’re part of the establishment because of that. Our main output is a couple of weeks every couple of years, and we’re not pals with the people we’re taking the mickey out of. And it’s not like we’re in there five days a week.
BM: One day in there feels like five days.
RC: It can do alright.

Bill O’Herlihy

MH: This will be your first World Cup without Bill O’Herlihy, the first for most of us without Bill. How important was he for you, was he supportive in those early days?
RC: Ah, very much. When we started out he would have come to the gigs, he came to the first televised one we did in the Olympia. He kind of broke the ground for us, paved the way for other people not to feel offended by what we did, including people in RTÉ.
BM: Risteard did a brilliant impression of Colm Murray, but he was going ‘why me?’ He couldn’t get his head around it, but I think Bill smoothed that over, told him it was fine, a celebration of him as much as anything else. If he said it was kosher, then other people said “ah, all right”.
RC: The first year we did it Bill was passing over from the real panel to us. “And now we have Après Match,” he said, but he had absolutely no idea what it was. I was doing Jim Beglin and Beglin was on the panel. He was looking over at me, “you gotta say, I think he’s actually doing me!” So that was really quite weird.
BM: And John Giles was like, “why are there eejits with wigs there?” We were doing it live one night and Brady, Giles and Dunphy were watching us. We could hear Brady saying to John, “do I really talk like that?” Giles was, “actually, yeah, a bit moany there”.

The three amigos

MH: With Giles having left the panel since the last World Cup, what do you make of the newer faces?
RC: I don’t think this generation of panellists quite hit home in the same way, it hasn’t really kicked on with [Richard] Sadlier and [Damien] Duff.
BM: It was also more like a soap opera when you had Bill and Eamon and John, it was Only Fools and Horses, now it’s analysis of football. I love football, but I have no interest in analysis. There were 15 minutes of it in the early days, now it’s 45. And it’ll be even longer in the World Cup because they’re showing so many matches, so they’ll just keep running ’til the next one.
RC: And because there will be so much time to fill, it’ll be Darragh having to say, “Didi, you thought it was unusual for him to control the ball with his right foot because he’s only done that twice before.” Zzzz. It’s going to be tricky.
GC: They’re not free in the same way to shoot their mouths off. The culture of that in RTÉ presumably came from Tim O’Connor (the former RTÉ head of sport) who allowed a certain expression of maleness and authority and people like Dunphy and Giles were given free reign to say whatever they wanted to say. That’s not really the case any more. The only one I see doing it is Graeme Souness who sounds like an ageing King Lear gone mad. The rest of them are very much slotted in to a very small box. And if you look at how they dress, they dress in exactly the same way, like businessmen; the businessmen who don’t wear ties. That’s because they look like sharply dressed men who are getting through some business.
RC: And most people have their own opinions anyway, so they don’t really buy into the analysis that’s on any channel. It’s harder for people to engage with these characters.
GC: I think the only real point about punditry is to try and transcend punditry in some way. And I do think Bill, Dunphy and Giles did that.
RC: Conducted by Bill, though, crucially. Darragh has probably more of a journalistic mind than Bill. And that probably sounds unfair on Bill, but Bill was an entertainer and he knew how to entertain people, to bring the best out of them. So Darragh will chat journalistically with Richie and Damien, or whoever, and a lot of people will . . . be on Netflix. I mean after game 32 of the World Cup. Bill was was almost like an agitator, stirring things up, “that’s not what you said last week”, it was about how he could tease a conversation out.
BM: He was chasing the drama in every situation.
GC: That’s true, and the human element of it. It’s a package and slickness now, all those things.
RC: They needed to change the dynamic on the panel when Bill retired. It was a formula that worked brilliantly, but when Bill went they needed to radically shake it up. I think if they had introduced a woman they might have succeeded in that.
MH: Like Joanne Cantwell replacing Michael Lyster?
RC: Exactly! That shakes it up, that brings a whole new dynamic to it. And when she interviews people she goes for the jugular, it’s like she’s got a low boredom threshold. She’s excellent.
GC: I thought she was really good when she did the soccer, it was interesting. And I’d love to see a female pundit, I’d fucking love it.
RC: But it was just so difficult to replace Bill and that’s no reflection on Darragh. It’s just the dynamic that they had needs to be replaced with a different dynamic. What’s happening at the moment is that you kind of have a bit of it. If you’re going to stick to that formula of three fellas sitting in a row they either have to have had an amazing career or are just fascinating and entertaining. Or are capable of enlightening us in some way that we haven’t been before.
GC: I think part of the problem is that there’s a very linear perspective on everything, it’s “let’s do a version of that thing we did before”. It’s like a great film, let’s make a version of Wall Street, as they did years ago. And it was shit. So everything is trying to be the same thing, just another version. Risteard’s right, you have to find ways of shaking it up, whatever they are.

Trailblazing panel

GC: Can you imagine what life would have been like if Dunphy never existed? Or Bill?
BM: Or John.
GC: They are the ground zero of all the rugby panels, the GAA panels, all of that stuff, it all owes itself to them. George Hook, all of them, they’re the spawn. Joe Brolly is a version of Eamon Dunphy.
BM: And with Bill it was like you were a young child heading off to bed and there was a crack in the kitchen door and you could hear an argument starting and you’ve just got your hand on the bottom of the bannister and you’re, “hold on, what’s going on here?” It was great.
RC: It’s probably because I’m older, but I definitely pine for those days of the simplicity of the coverage where it wasn’t bigged up, the way Sky and the BBC do it. They’ve spent a fortune on it so they’re selling it more than they’ve ever done, whereas in the old days it was just Barry Davies with a microphone. He wasn’t bigging it up, his commentary was so sincere, just honest, with a real passion in it. And really it was the commentators rather than the pundits who were the stars.
GC: There are some good commentators out there now, but oratory doesn’t exist any more. Look at someone like Peter Alliss in the golf. Obviously he offended a few people towards the end and that wasn’t allowed, but these guys were given time and space to be who they are.
RC: And a lot of it was down to their power and charisma, you felt like you were invited to the party. Bill had it, Harry Carpenter had it, there were lots of them across the sports. And with the pundits now, if you look at the BBC model they’re so terrified of saying anything negative because they know they’re going to bump in to these people. The only one who has any courage in that department is Shearer. I think it’s just because he’s big enough, he doesn’t really care as much about being disliked.
BM: But he does say the same thing every week.
RC: Yeah, he’s not an interesting person, or a particularly likeable one, but you have Danny Murphy, Gary Lineker, Martin Keown, Jermaine Jenas, they say absolutely nothing, other than, “obviously he’ll be disappointed with that”. What’s the point?

Pundits and snobbery

RC: It’s funny with the pundits, there’s a snobbery that exists, if you haven’t played the game at a high level you have no right to voice an opinion regardless of whether it’s a valid opinion or not. Somebody who has played the game can say the exact same thing as you and will be very well respected . . . that drives me bloody mad. There was one day when there was a launch of the World Cup, 10 years ago or so, Glen Killane brought us out to lunch and Eamon, John and Liam were there as well. I made some kind of point to John, like England’s midfield doesn’t look up to much. And Eamon said something like, “Risteard, I wouldn’t voice an opinion about Michael Gambon’s version of Hamlet”.
GC: Actually, he began by saying, “Risteard, Michael Gambon is a very good friend of mine, but I would never dream of . . .”
RC: He said he would never regard himself as an expert in another area when the reality is that he would. In every area. I could understand where he was coming from, but he’s not the one to be making that point.
GC: Basically, what he was saying to Risteard is you don’t have a fucking right to say anything. And by the way, I know Michael Gambon.
RC: And it doesn’t just exist in soccer, it’s very, very apparent in rugby as well, and it’s probably the same in GAA. Although I wouldn’t know that much about it. But definitely in rugby, it’s “sorry, who did you play for?”
BM: Remember Dunphy’s row with Souness? He said: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Souness came back with, “who do you manage?” Eamon says . . .
ALL: “I didn’t manage anywhere, but I managed to stay alive for 63½ years baby!”

The Martin and Tony saga

MH: Will the saga that is Martin O’Neill v Tony O’Donoghue get a mention?
BM: (Breaking in to O’Neill): Sorry, what? Did you say good luck? Did you? I think you did. That’s fine, no, no, absolutely fine.
RC: We’ve had a look at that all right. We’re kind of referring to how O’Neill is with O’Donoghue, but doesn’t seem to have the same reaction to the English media. The interview after the Denmark game was remarkable. You can look at it and say O’Donoghue was just doing his job, he was probably representing how most people felt. But maybe you could argue too that the line of questioning was pretty insensitive when things were still so raw, it was a bit too soon, they’d just been beaten 5-1 having had a real chance of qualifying for the World Cup.
GC: There was a grimacing quality to it.
RC: O’Neill actually looked like he was about to become emotional, he was really on the edge. But then instead of getting emotional he gets fiery, he gets very aggressive back, even his voice was quivering.
BM: But his response was like he’d been asked if he agreed with the opinion that one of his daughters was prettier than the other.
RC: And you do have questions to answer if your team is beaten in that way. And then round two was at the draw for the Nations League, that was even worse. “You actually said to me, ‘hard luck’. What did you mean by that? You weren’t being disingenuous about it, were you?”
GC: The same used to be said about Jack Charlton, that he was much easier on the English press than the Irish guys.
RC: I don’t know, I just wonder if his attempts to bully people in the media comes his time under Clough, watching how he handled them.
GC: But he’s also a very proud man, he’s an alpha, that’s what they’re like, that’s the territory when they’re threatened, they act in a certain way.
GC: (Inexplicably breaks in to John Delaney singing a rebel song, at which point the table dissolves).

National treasure

MH: Are any impressions no-go areas?
BM: Well, we discovered at Vicar Street one time that you can’t do Paul McGrath, the favourite player ever for all of us. Gary was doing Paul, Risteard and myself were crying on stage because it was so funny, so mischievous, so bold, but there was total silence from 1,200 people. They were like, “we’re going to kill them”.
RC: We were doing Packie Bonner and Tony Cascarino.
GC: It was about their favourite ads. I’m sure people just thought it was too weird.
BM: No, it was because you’re not allowed do Paul McGrath.
MH: He’s the national treasure so you don’t you dare do an impression of him?
RC: Exactly.
BM: The flip side is that we do some people who the audience don’t connect with at all. Gary does an amazing impression of Tom McGurk, in terms of him being that overpowering non-listening alecadoo. But the impression never connects with an audience, like when we did it in Vicar Street. They love George Hook, they get him, but nobody’s interested in McGurk.
GC: Audiences obviously aren’t invested in him in the same way that they are with Hook, or even Brent Pope. By the way, Paul McGrath was talking about the Smash ad.
RC: Maybe that’s why the audience was offended?
GC (Doing Dunphy): You are actually laughing at ordinary working men and women who are producing food.
RC (Doing John Waters): You’re a fucking bollocks for taking the piss out of the Smash ad. These people are fucking digging potatoes and you’re laughing at them! (BM, GC & RC become Martians manically laughing at Earth People peeling potatoes, like you do).

Legal eagles

BM: Some of the edge might be taken off it this year because we have to have our own insurance if anyone sues us. RTÉ, our employers, won’t protect us in any way. It’s RTÉ policy, it happened with Irish Pictorial Weekly as well. So, we have to find some way of indemnifying them.
MH: Has it always been that way?
BM: It was never written down for us before, it’s the first time our contract has said if we do anything and someone sues, you mop it up. When Glen Killane was there it was more a case of showing him everything we did beforehand. And if it wasn’t in any way offensive, RTÉ would look after you. Now we don’t even know the boss of sport.
RC: So basically we’re just hoping that someone who doesn’t live in Ireland hits the headlines and we can take the mickey out of them and they won’t be bothered suing us.
BM: If you go on radio or TV you can say anything off the top of your head, anything you want, if they sue RTÉ will pay. But if you pre-write something, craft something and put it out, even if their lawyers have seen it, it’s on your head.
MH: What kind of impact is that having on your material, are you more guarded?
BM: Yeah, it’s kind of neutered the thing a bit, the fact that we have no legal protection at all. We had been thinking about doing Brendan O’Connor’s Cutting Edge and were deciding where to go with that sketch, but then we thought in the interest of humour we could end up defending something legally.
RC: And with that particular programme, you’re describing the dynamics of it and the people they get in for it, they tick certain boxes, you’re attributing certain qualities to them.
BM: So it’s a case now of “let’s stick with the type, rather than the actual person”.
MH: Has Après Match had legal trouble in the past?
GC: No, we’ve never had any of that stuff, but we live in a completely different world now.
RC: But I think most people wouldn’t be bothered suing, Après Match is what it is.
GC: If you want to know if someone is likely to sue, look at their past history and that will give you a very strong indication.
MH: There won’t be a nightly Denis O’Brien sketch?
RC: We’re unlikely to see him, alright. Or even anyone whose initials are DOB.

Taking the mick

MH: Generally how do people react to your impressions of them?
GC: I don’t anybody really digs it too much, nobody likes having the piss taken out of them.
RC: Well, I’ve been in a bar when somebody went for me. Somebody I had taken the mickey out of. I won’t say who it was, but the point of it is that you imagine people have a sense of humour. But people don’t really like it, they might pretend they do but then they have a few jars on them in the privacy of the Late Late Show hospitality room and they make their feelings known. It was absolutely ridiculous carry on. I must say in the past I certainly delighted in someone being offended because it usually means it worked, but it depends on what you’re doing with the impression. With Bill, in a way, it was reverential.
GC: But you do someone like they’re somehow deficient in some way, they fucking don’t like it.
RC: If you pinpoint something, not so much in their character or their make-up, but what they’re selling, if you pick up on that, that’s when people get a bit uppity. Tim O’Connor used to say, “if it’s not fucking hard edged, it’s pointless”. Which obviously makes sense. You don’t go out of your way to personally upset people, but there is a certain amount of ruffling of feathers I suppose. And I remember Gary making the point that a lot of the people we’ve targeted over the years have been in fairly powerful positions, generally middle-aged men, they’ve got a fairly strong support network around them.
GC: The reality is that if you’re getting done, you’re obviously doing something right. Bill used to make that point. It’s a form of flattery too.
BM: It actually shows how old we are, 20 years ago none of us would have started a sentence with, “the reality is”.

Stamina in spades

MH: Here and in Britain now there are quite a few people doing similar work to yourselves, were you the pioneers of it all?
BM: That’s a euphemism for old.
RC: It is too. There are certainly a lot of people doing what we did, or doing what we do, in terms of impressions.
BM: But there are a lot of people fighting for the same space; and God bless them, because it is very difficult. So we’re blessed that we’ve had such a long run at it and the fact that at the beginning there was no one else doing it. And they didn’t fall into it in the way we did. There are people now deliberately choosing a career in it which would go against every notion we had about it in the beginning. It’s kind of been a half hobby for us together and we were very lucky that we started when we did because we wouldn’t have got the chance. We’ve toured, we’ve done live shows, we dip our toe back in to this every couple of years.
RC: And I’d have a fear of getting too immersed in one thing, because I’d get sick of it. It’s nothing against the lads, but the idea of going into a room from, say, 10 in the morning to five every day to come up with material, I feel I’d lose the love for what I’m doing.
MH: Did opportunities for working in England ever open up?
BM: Well, we went to ITV digital once. Glen Killane moved from RTÉ to ITV digital and talked to a few heads there, obviously showed them a few clips of stuff we had done and asked if they’d be interested in us. They said “alright, bring them over and we’ll have a look”. So we went over, had a look at what had gone out the night before, Matt Smith, Robbie Earle. does anyone remember the other one? Then we did a piss-take of what they had broadcast. We were very happy with it, Glen was laughing, but they were like, “na, na, na, na, na. We pay these boys top brass, you can’t take the piss out of them. Do David O’Leary and all that.”
RC: Do the Oirish.
BM: A huge cultural divide.
GC: They really only want comedy that is a celebration of them.
RC: They are not going to pay their presenters and pundits that amount of money and then have the piss taken out of them.

Moscow rules?

MH: What are your enthusiasm levels for this World Cup?
RC: The fact that it’s in Russia leaves you a bit cold, but I’ll still be interested in the football.
GC: I think this World Cup has a dark horse quality to it, people don’t know what to expect from it. So it’s conceivable that it could take on its own identity. Then again, it probably won’t.
BM: It’ll be interesting to see what oddness it presents. For the 2010 World Cup in South Africa we went to Newcastle and Sunderland, pretending it was South Africa, doing vox pops, I don’t think anyone noticed. Even when they were Geordie accents.
RC: Previously there’d be a three-minute sketch at the end but now because the analysis is longer we’re going to be more sprinkled throughout the coverage, we could pop up at any time. We have a lot of material prepared, but there’ll be lots of live stuff too, reacting to events.
MH: Will you be doing the third place play-off again?
RC: We will. That’s our playground, we actually get to sit in the grown-up seats.
MH: And create havoc?
RC: Hopefully.

  • Après Match Live will be doing their 20th Anniversary Tour in June and July, including a date at Vicar Street on July 14th. Dates for all the full tour can be found on ticketmaster.ie
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