Has the Punditry Age reached peak Brolly?

Has the Punditry Age reached peak Brolly?

Ah, the innocence of those early September days, when the worry was out there that Sunday’s ladies football final might be overshadowed by the men’s replay.

The folk expressing those fears failed to consider a force greater than all of us. They hadn’t factored Joe Brolly into their calculations.

And so the build-up to this evening’s potentially historic fixture has been dominated by the selection of RTÉ’s punditry team.

The front page headlines generated will loom large when the 22nd century’s Paul Rouse explores these crazy times we live in. When the Punditry Age is charted, when we chronicle the industrialisation of talking about sport.

Punditry may have evolved more organically in other jurisdictions — Jimmy Hill had dabbled in the role of pantomime villain, for instance ⁠⁠— but Eamon Dunphy’s performance after Ireland v Egypt at Italia ‘90 was the big bang that created our punditverse.

It determined that our analysts should be armed ⁠— if only with a pen to throw ⁠— and given license to shoot from the hip. Imitators would arrive. George Hook was born. And visitors such as Graeme Souness would be impressed with the lack of guidance they received from a marketing department.

Sure, a thorough study will take in outside influences. How Alan Hansen’s assertion that you can't win anything with kids became more readily associated with Alex Ferguson’s second winning team than any game or goal. Just as puke and blanket would be the soundbites attached to an era of Gaelic football.

Historians will examine the technology that allowed people scribble on screen and eventually touch it. They will recall ‘stop it there’ and Andy Gray’s yellow and red checkers, until they reach a Monday night in 2012, when Gary Neville forensically broke down the runs and decoys and signals at a Stoke City corner. And it would never again be enough just to moan about zonal marking.

From that evening it was considered poor form if pundits fell asleep during games, as David Ginola reportedly did on BBC duty at the 1998 World Cup. Alan Shearer found research on his road to Damascus. And even Gilesy watched a few tapes and stopped saying ‘I don't know much about them, Bill’.

Despite his failings, hopefully history won’t forget linguistic pioneers such as Ron Atkinson, even if the language of spotter’s badges and lollipops and little eyebrows has rather failed to last the test of time. It still inspired scholars like Paul ‘worldy’ Merson and Cyril ‘nuts to a monkey’ Farrell to stretch the boundaries of punditing vocabulary. As such.

But when the definitive study of punditry is carried out, a landmark event in 2014 must be considered.

‘What do you think of that, Joe Brolly?’ The moment when Kieran Donaghy, in his hour of triumph, ushered the pundit onto centre stage. Into the narrative.

Jose Mourinho would soon be muttering darkly about the ‘specialists’ he felt were forever conspiring against him. And managers everywhere were lashing out and hitting back at the heavy hitters in studio. Becoming embroiled in wars of words.

Eventually, Neville began talking down to the gaffers from a position of unprecedented strength.

“What we are saying here is noise. We are filling time until the game starts. Why are they obsessed with critics and pundits? Stop it. You’re making yourself look weak.”

This elevation of the pundit came at a time when he should have been vulnerable. When the arrival of Sky+ allowed us fast-forward their ‘for mes’ and ‘all credits’.

Instead, opinions were washed ashore on a tsunami of clickbait. With an internet to fill, what they thought somehow became as important as who scored.

With wages rising to match their new status, inevitably Mourinho would eventually join the specialists. And Roy Keane, who always swore he’d rather go to the dentist, now looks born for punditry as much as he was for centre midfield.

For those who despair that there will never be an end to talking about sport, there is further bad news.

It seems to be only dawning on the internet that the traditional after-dinner speech can now be delivered pre-breakfast and during lunch.

So there is a fresh wave of former players sharing viral clips of dressing room secrets. Who punched who and why he left a pig’s head in his locker. The familiar forces of bantz and controvassy bankrolled by bookmakers.

Where does it all go next? Perhaps events of this week, which gave us Dunphy analysing RTÉ’s punditry decisions, provides a clue to the final frontier.

It was once considered faintly ridiculous that we would watch on television a Saturday panel describing the game they were watching on television.

So is it that much of a stretch to see teams of pundits appointed to analyse the punditry? It’s already happening, informally, across the podcasts that follow live broadcasts.

We could have a pre-punditry panel assessing how the appointment of a strict referee like Joanne Cantwell will suit the pundits involved.

And surely we are due a wave of ‘Fair and Balanced’ post-punditry debriefs, with nobody involved from the competing clubs or counties.

And yet, assuming they haven’t named a dummy team for the final, the Brolly decision — following the exits of Hook and Giles and Dunphy — could be another indication that RTÉ is edging nervously away from the monster it helped build.

Almost as if they regret creating a talking class dressed in sponsored finery that dominates all sporting conversations.

Almost as if they want us to stop talking about the noise filling time until the game starts.

Almost as if they foresee a bust following punditry’s boom.

Stephen Kenny will soon get to shape Ireland’s football landscape as if Jack Charlton had never arrived to show us the promise of knocking it into the channels.

Perhaps RTÉ eyes a punditry future where Italia ‘90 never happened.


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