It was just my luck that my first appearance as a pundit on TV was more like being an analyst on BoxNation than on The Sunday Game.
To make it worse again, most of the pugilists I had to talk about were former team-mates or guys I had managed less than 12 months earlier. The dominant thought in my head that evening was: ‘Thanks God, you really nailed me here!’ To put the tin hat on it, the guy in the hot seat was acting like God.
Back then, Pat Spillane presented the night-time Sunday Game show and he could smell the fresh meat off the young, inexperienced gazelle.
And good old Pat went straight for the kill.
That afternoon, Clare and Cork players emerged from the tunnel at the same time before the Munster quarter-final and the leathering match which ensued quickly became known as Semplegate. The players were being clapped onto the field by young primary school kids and Pat was horrified.
The meeting beforehand was loose enough but I knew Pat would come after me. Before we went on air, he was dialling up the heat because he could see that I was already getting steamy under the collar.
As soon as the red light went on, Pat went straight for my throat. “That’s a disgrace Antoneee. You can’t condone that kind of stuff. Those players should be ashamed of themselves."
I tried to play it safe but I made a hames of my defence case. I did not come across well. I was out of my depth.
Fidgeting with a biro was a defence mechanism of trying to buy myself time to get out of there alive and unscathed. By the time the show finished, I felt like I’d gone 15 rounds with Mike Tyson.
I was staying in the Burlington Hotel that night. I sat down on my own at the bar and stared at my pint for about three minutes, each falling drop of condensation on the cold glass like another reminder of how my debut had gone so south.
The phone was silent, which was a subtle way of telling me I’d make a clown of myself. Eventually, my brother Martin rang. I spilled my guts out to him, my emotions a raw cocktail of frustration, anger, and pity.
I was feeling so sorry for myself that I was nearly blaming the players for their near-seemingly conspiratorial means of wrecking my live TV debut.
“Ah it was a nightmare,” I said. “Why did they have to do that to me, on my first day out?”
Martin had just come from a few pints in Powers in Clarecastle. Maybe he had a little extra courage but my brother gave it to me between the eyes.
“Look mate,” he said “unless you’re going to be the way you would be the night after losing a county final semi-final, where even if you were upset, you’d still get involved in the chat, you’re wasting your time up there on TV.”
I was still so raw that I wasn’t really in the form for listening to him. But when I was driving back to Clare following morning, the penny dropped —Martin was 100% right.
I knew I’d have to be myself, and just tell it like I had always done as a player and a manager — straight.
Those early days though, weren’t easy. My first live TV game was two weeks later, a Kilkenny-Offaly Leinster semi-final in Portlaoise. It was the hottest day of the year but the TV box we were sitting in was — no joke — hotter than a sauna. I was nearly looking in the corner to see who was lorrying water onto the hot coals.
The air conditioning machine in the corner wouldn’t cool a mouse. To make it worse, it was a double shift, because we were also covering the first drawn game between Limerick and Tipperary of that summer’s trilogy. Under the heat of the TV lamps for four solid hours, I sweated more than I ever did running up the hill in Shannon. It was a combination of Michael Lyster , Michael Duignan, and the two new boys at the time, DJ Carey and myself. We all suffered but at least there was no repeat of the controversy from a fortnight before.
You gradually adapt but it’s like taking on a new team, or a new challenge, you’re always bound to be anxious at the start. You can see that anxiety in some of the new fellas who come in each year, some of whom have only just crossed that divide from playing to punditry.
They’re all trying to find their feet, just like I was all those years ago. You try and help them along, as others guided me, but it’s like everything else in life — comfort and confidence can only come from experience.
It’s a privilege, just like writing this column each week, to be able to reach such a wide audience. Not everyone will always like what you have to say but they still want to hear it anyway.
And if there is solid meaning and depth behind those words and sentiments, they’ll appreciate you more for your honesty.
One thing that always amazes me in my travels is the amount of questions I get asked about The Sunday Game.
“Do ye really do that live?”
“What’s yer man like to work with?”
“You said in the Irish Examiner recently that you were in Montrose at 11.30am to prepare for a 9.30pm show — did you make that up?”
I didn’t because that’s the normal starting time to begin preparing for the night-time broadcast. If there were matches on the previous evening, you’d have a pile of work done — picking out clips, looking for trends, dissecting match-ups — before the live games would even start. You’d have even begun taking notes on the Saturday night.
The Sunday is an extremely long day, especially if you’re travelling from West Clare or Cork or Kerry or anywhere on the western seaboard that morning.
As soon as you arrive in Montrose, you’re talking and planning and preparing all day.
After the Saturday night stuff is done, you get your team-sheets before sitting down in front of a large screen. During the match, you’re jotting down notes on your pad. You’re watching everything like a hawk, intensely focused on every play — did he tug your man’s jersey there before the goal? Did he get a flick to that ball in mid-flight? Did the full-back get the slightest nick on that hook?
There’s nobody better than Derek McGrath to spot those little subtle plays that add greater nuance to the coverage. The way different lads talk or analyse is also invariably an expression of the way they played or coached.
Dónal Óg and Brendan Cummins will spot the movement on the puckout.
Jackie Tyrrell and I might call the earlier tackle which broke up the play.
Henry Shefflin or Ursella Jacob might note the late run from the forward.
It’s obvious that some fellas dovetail better together, or they have a better symbiotic relationship as a partnership, and the Sunday Game producer Rory O’Neill is brilliant at creating and developing that dynamic.
Rory is very smart too in how he partners fellas up to enhance contrasting views. I’ve a great relationship with Jackie but I don’t find myself on with him too often anymore because we’re probably too alike — in mindset rather than looks.
I’ve found myself working alongside Derek a lot more in recent seasons because we probably look at the game from slightly different angles .
How we express those different opinions might give the viewers a better understanding of the games they watched earlier that day.
If there are two matches on live that afternoon, or if there is one hurling and one football, you’ll just shift from one screen to the next to watch the next game. Nothing changes.
More notes again. If there is a third big hurling game on that Sunday, which you haven’t seen live, you’ll get stuck into analysing that after watching the second game.
You’ll have a short break before the production meeting begins where everything is discussed — clips, promos, breaking down the analysis into greater detail. You give your information to the graphics and techno guys who format it, or slow the footage down for greater consumption again. You’d often find yourself doubting yourself when you watch it a second time.
“I thought that was better when I watched it earlier today.” You’d be scrolling back over your notes. “Did they get the full range of that sequence of play I’d picked out?”
Sometimes you’re so engrossed in the match that you might have got your times wrong, which could have offset what the producers have on the screen. But the meeting irons out all those creases.
Like players in a dressingroom, you’re discussing tactics too. You could be on with Dónal Óg, where he is talking about puckouts. “Do you need me to come in there after you’ve made your second point?” you could ask him.
“You know the keeper’s signals you are highlighting there, what about that third ball there which flashed down the left wing?”
People often think we’re just swanning around above in Montrose, just casually chatting about hurling, but we’re not. It’s like getting ready for a big game — you want to get all the little details right.
And then sometimes, the curveball will come at you from Joanne Cantwell and Dessie Cahill, both of whom are ultimate professionals. It’s their way of reading the situation and what direction the conversation may be going.
Knowing that curveball could come at any stage keeps you sharp too. And ready. It’s like being on the pitch and reacting to what’s evolving in the match. You might be playing well on the fella you’re marking but then a sub comes on, who you know nothing about, and you have to try and tie him down. To me, that’s what makes for great TV.
When I first appeared on The Sunday Game in 2007 and 2008, I was a little surprised that there was no formal training. It was a case of: ‘We trust you, now off you go’. There isn’t any formal training now either.
For any new lads, they give them a trial spin on League Sunday and then if you make the Championship panel it’s almost a case of sink or swim.
That may be taking a chance on lads but I think that level of risk works for the The Sunday Game brand.
After four decades, it certainly seems to be. No matter what people say, they always seem to watch the night-time show. And you have to bring you’re A-game every time you go on.
After the production meeting finishes, you might get the guts of an hour off to relax, get some food, or head off for a short walk. ‘Breath of fresh air’ is often down on the agenda for 7.30pm. If they’re covering the hurling first, you might only get 40 minutes to relax before heading to make-up.
I often got some fair slagging about the amount of powder around my cheeks. I let Cyril Farrell have it on a couple of occasions when we were sitting down together in front of the mirrors, with make-ups artists trying to beautify us. “Hi Cyril, there isn’t much she can do for you. And if we’re heading out later, don’t forget to take off the make-up.”
In the early days, there wasn’t as much emphasis on the attire. But since guys like Dónal Óg, Jackie T, and Tomás Ó Sé started upping the ante and dressing like Jay Z and Justin Timberlake, we’ve all had to raise our game.
I’m lucky to have Patrick and Stephen kitting me out at Patrick Bourke Menswear in Ennis. But you’ll still get the odd sharp text.
“Where did you get that yoke of a tie?”
“You couldn’t close the waistcoat kid, you’d want to get out on the roads.”
The sweat could often be rolling off you under the waistcoat because it’s full on once the show begins. People often don’t realise it’s live, but it is, which heaps on more pressure. Often, by the time you might get to the Boar’s Head for a pint just before closing time, you feel like you’ve played a tough Championship match.
Covering live games is a different dynamic again but it’s every bit as intense. You spend a lot of time during the week picking out clips for your pre-match analysis but at least you can switch off once the match is over.
You still have to be ready for anything with some of the buckos knocking around. When Galway played Wexford in Salthill last May, a couple of Supermac’s pizzas arrived into the TV box before the match started. Derek McGrath and I were starving so we got stuck into a sizzling Pepperoni.
When I switched on my phone afterwards, my Twitter notifications was pinging like a jammed doorbell — Ó Sé had secretly recorded me devouring pizza like a hungry wolf and he put it up on Twitter.
The game was on before an Ulster football match, which the lads were watching in the box after the hurling match finished, and I spotted my chance as I was heading out the door. Ninety seconds before they went live, I poured a bottle of water down on top of Ó Sé’s neatly manicured mane.
On the road home, I was wondering if I had gone too far, and had messed up things for the production team. Then I consoled myself: “Ah Tomás is grand, he always has the hairdryer and the gel in his bag!”
Derek McGrath recorded the moment I turned on the tap and I posted it on Twitter the first chance I got. I’m sure some people were thinking that The Sunday Game is a bit of a joke shop with lads behaving like kids and doing what they like. It’s much more than that but the craic we have between us adds to the chemistry and magic of the show.
Then there are other times when crazy unscripted stuff happens live, which is completely out of your control. If anyone was ever going to get attacked by a fly live on TV, it would have to be me.
Dónal Óg and I were on one night in 2015 when I saw this thing coming at me, the biggest fly I’d ever seen.
The shine on the top of my head must have looked like a floodlit landing zone.
In my own mind, I thought: “Be the pro here now, allow Mr Bluebottle landing permission, and keep going.”
Professional and all as I tried to remain, Cusack and Dessie Cahill cracked up. Even now, that scene on Youtube has nearly had more views than a One Direction concert.
That scene was funny but it also neatly summed up the atmosphere and the attitude of the programme — there are always talking points on The Sunday Game.
It’s no wonder that Pat Spillane revealed a few hard realities last year when interviewed for the documentary Sunday Best: 40 years of The Sunday Game:
I thought about inflicting all that pain on him myself after that first night.
And I was sitting beside the bould Pat.