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Sunday Game needs less waffle and more action

IN THE local pub in the place where I’m from, a lively bar goes close to quiet for the last few hours of weekends such as the one just past.

The near silence from the punters begins at half nine, when the volume on the TV is pumped up and the theme tune that has been part of all our summers for as long as we can remember plays; The Sunday Game is on and unrelated chat can wait until later.

The crowds in Croke Park and Clones and Killarney and Portlaoise tell you how big a weekend for football this was; I was lucky enough to be in Ireland for it, and glad to be able to catch Kerry and Tyrone on TV before attending a game on Saturday and then watching the two televised provincial finals on Sunday.

Just as well, because if I had missed those four games I would have a very poor picture of what had transpired on one of the sport’s biggest weekends of the year.

The scene in my old local would have been replicated in pubs, GAA clubs and sitting rooms the length and breadth of Ireland. The crowds and the viewing figures and the conversation all weekend tells you that football is still very much the country’s favourite sport.

The problem with The Sunday Game is that it has very little football in it.

Take its coverage of Dublin and Meath, which drew almost 70,000 to Croke Park. The footage went on for a little more than six minutes. I knew from watching the game that Dublin’s early dominance was built on a near wipeout of Meath at midfield, but there is no chance in six minutes to give anyone a sense of the game’s flow.

Worse again, there is no sense of who played well. Twenty-six points were scored in a lively game; the Sunday Game showed us four of them. Think about that for a moment; the attendance tells us that this game was one of Ireland’s biggest sporting events of the year, but the showpiece highlights show screened only seven of the 29 scores in the game.

The coverage was little better elsewhere. The Ulster final and the Kerry v Tyrone qualifier got a similar amount of coverage; there was more time spent talking about Tipperary versus Antrim than there was footage from the game (2min 25secs).

Kildare and Limerick got a blockbusting three-and-a-half minutes, but perhaps the greatest insult was reserved for the Laois v Leitrim match; we saw more on Leitrim’s 1994 Connacht title (four minutes) than on what looked a highly exciting game on Saturday (2min and 40secs).

Here is the central problem with The Sunday Game: It is a show about football that is afraid to bore people with too much football. Only 29 minutes of the 1 hour and 24 minutes it was on were spent showing highlights from the weekend’s games.

Perhaps RTE has done some market research to suggest that this is what people want, but no-one I watched the show with on Sunday seemed satisfied.

All of them know that Leitrim won the Nestor Cup in 1994 and that it was a great occasion; and indeed, The Sunday Game’s piece on the game was nicely constructed. The problem is that we were collectively scratching our heads to wonder why on earth it was relevant on Sunday.

It is as if the thought process went: “Wow, what will we do with this Leitrim v Laois match. It looks kind of boring. Let’s show next to none of it, and instead put together some fluff on the first thing we think of when people mention Leitrim.”

The hour of the show that is spent not showing football is filled with similar stuff, some of it nicely shot, some of it cringingly bad, almost all of it belonging on a football magazine programme such as the departed Breaking Ball, or on a panel debate show, such as Championship Matters.

Worse, there are glimpses of what it could be like if RTE redressed the balance to, say, an hour’s football and 20 minutes of analysis. Aaron Kernan may not be the most flamboyant TV pundit in the world, but he understands the modern game because he plays it, and for a glorious interlude he was allowed to display that knowledge by highlighting Anthony Thompson’s runs off the ball in the Ulster final.

This is what analysis should be; it points out something you might have missed even if you watched the game, it enhances your understanding of why Donegal are better than Down and how scores are constructed in modern football.

It is a rare exception to the steady diet of generalist pub talk. With most of RTE’s pundits that involves judging teams on the last game they played and it ends up sounding like this: “Kerry are winning this All-Ireland final well, they are at least the second best team ever to play the game and their legacy is secure. Oh wait, Dublin have scored 1-2, well, you see, Kerry are over the hill, the hunger mustn’t still be there. Kerry are walking to the top of Division One? There’s huge hunger in these Kerry boys and they’ll be flat out to regain the All-Ireland. I wouldn’t rule them out either.

“Actually, now I see them well beaten by Cork, I have to say O’Connor is losing the plot here with this short passing and let’s face it, a lot of these Kerry boys are pushing on. Yes, look, they didn’t look great in Westmeath, that must be it. Then again, on fifth thoughts, here they are bating the ears off Tyrone. Well, you see, you’d be mad, stone mad, to write them off.”

The Sunday Game labours under the impression that this is what we want to see; that rather than showing us extended highlights and letting us form conclusions, we must be told in a very simple way which teams are good and which teams are not.

They have got it into their heads that showing us more than a smattering of football will only turn us off, even though the turnstiles still click through a savage recession with people keen to spend their limited disposable income to see the game.

In the pub I was in and in pubs in every cranny of the country, there are people who have played the game, who understand it, who love it. They deserve more than a show about football made to keep people who don’t like football entertained.

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Ronan Early
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Ronan Early is Sports Editor and columnist with The Irish Post. Follow him on Twitter @RonanEarly

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