Bill O’Herlihy’s recent appearance before the Mahon Tribunal was a peculiarly Irish curtain-raiser for the World Cup, and one which showed that he, and not Jimmy Magee is the true Memory Man of Irish Sports Broadcasting. Where other Tribunal witnesses have forgotten about just who gave what large sums of money to them and when, Bill appears to have near total powers of recall when it comes to his dealings in the world of property development. The nation would expect nothing less from him. One listen to his good-natured interrogation of Johnny Giles or his gentle teasing of Eamonn Dunphy is enough to convince you that Bill is a man you can trust.
It’s good to have the boys back on TV for a month. Such is the quality of RTE’s football analysis that it’s worth watching as entertainment in its own right, even – especially – if the game itself was a bit rubbish. Flick over to the BBC and you’ll get some very competent in-depth stuff about the dangers of playing the flat back four, but none of the philosophical peaks scaled by the RTE team. Do England have the moral courage to go and win it this time. Is the Dutch system of play somehow influenced by the ideas about space that inevitably developed in that cramped nation? Is the impending break-up of Serbia & Macedonia the cause of a malaise in the national team, who just don’t know who they’re playing for anymore? Perhaps RTE lack the rigorous technical analysis of an Alan Hanson (though Liam Brady, grown in stature to the degree that he now sits as an equal with Gilesey and Eamo, is pretty sharp in that regard), but with the boys playing free-form Conversation-as-Total-Football, egged on by the affable O’Herlihy, only a churl would complain. Especially in current times, where they seem to be the only pundits to say what is obvious to anyone with eyes to see: Sven Goran Ericsson is a clown and a chancer, conning a gullible English public, and letting down a team who deserve better. Harsh words, but our boys say them, and say them firmly. Then, when we’re almost sated with top-notch football discourse, along comes Apres Match, like a spectacular dessert after a gourmet meal. TV sports coverage that comes with its own satirical deconstruction! Ah, the sheer post-modern audacity of it!
If RTE have weaknesses, they lie in the style and polish of the production. The art people seem stuck with an over-reliance on the colour blue, and a dark, leaden shade of blue at that. It’s the same shade that gets slathered all over the coverage of Rugby and GAA. The GAA coverage is the worst offender, each serving of our national games commencing with a montage of male models in some sort of chain mail, accompanied by music seemingly lifted from a Roman epic from the golden age of Hollywood.
In these matters, the BBC are the model to copy. For years now, they have consistently been able to put together glossy production packages for major sporting occasions. They made Nessun Dorma synonymous with Italia ’90, and excelled even that achievement with their opening sequence in ’94, a brash fusion of star-spangled imagery and West Side Story’s “America??? that was a thrilling paean to all things Yankee Doodle. Since then, harried by new competition from Sky, the Beeb sometimes seem to lack a sure sense of themselves, especially since the departure of Des Lynam. Recently, perhaps sensing that they don’t have an anchor with natural authority, they’ve gone for an air of cheery blokiness; the panel in open-necked shirts and perched on stools, rather than sat behind desks. I’m not sure if it’s to my taste, but it certainly suits the personnel, most obviously Gary Lineker, who couldn’t do gravitas even if he wanted to. He’s got grey hair, so that’s not the problem. Maybe he needs to put on weight. Whatever the reason, he looks more or less the same as when he used to play for Everton in the 80’s, often against Alan Hansen, who though equally well preserved, brings a certain Scottish grit to the coverage, the Brown to Lineker’s Blair. My favourite of the BBC team is Adrian Chiles, he of Sunday night’s Match of The Day 2. He’s only second string, so you seem him on the afternoon or late-night broadcasts, rather than the prime-time shows. Like Dunphy, one gets the feeling that Chiles thinks football is deathly important, but also suspects that it may be a load of pointless nonsense (it’s both, of course). And like Dunphy, he gives the impression at any given time that he could say absolutely anything. I well remember his turn on MOTD2 when, having watched Liverpool’s first game under Rafa Benitez, he turned to his pundit, Benitez’s predecessor, Gerard Houllier and said “watching that game must have been a bit like seeing your ex-wife make love to her new husband???. Houllier was understandably nonplussed.
You will have noticed that I leave ITV until last. This is because I don’t want to stir up the garish memories until it can’t be avoided. Steve Ryder, who once gave a touch of class to BBC’s golf coverage (he excelled at the Open, that most elegant of the majors) has been creasoted by the ITV make-up department and is now as unwatchably bland as anything else broadcast under the flag of ITV sport. Their theme music for the month is a God-awful cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes??? by Kasabian. At least the original, recorded in Bowie’s Berlin period, had something to do with Germany. Also, it sounded great. This is a plodding mess, earthbound, where Bowie once soared. The “analysis??? is not worthy of the name, more a stream of PR for England and for the fabulous, brilliant coverage you can see right here, live and exclusive on ITV. The only thing that ITV can do to redeem themselves is to take Ian Wright off the BBC’s hands. Wright’s jingoism and unrelenting banality are an irritation on the otherwise quite watchable BBC coverage, but make him a natural for ITV. A free transfer would be in the interests of all parties.
So what, having taken a tour around the terrestrial TV options, have we learned? RTE have the personnel and BBC the production experience. A touch of wit and outrageousness is the essential foil to knowledge and expertise. Steve Ryder, who once walked in the light, has chosen darkness.
Okey-doke. We’ll leave it there so.
Update – I see that Fustar is doing a World Cup blog here. Highly recommended.