By Brendan O’Brien
As he steps into the public eye as RTÉ’s head of sport, Declan McBennett knows he’ll be judged and pigeon-holed like his predecessor Ryle Nugent.
He’s a Gaelic football man at heart whose worldview was formed by growing up in touching distance of the Troubles. And as competition piles up for RTÉ’s sport portfolio, he’ll need a diplomat’s touch to keep a demanding viewing public happy
The first sporting memory Declan McBennett pulls from his internal file in over an hour of conversation comes straight out of left field. Liverpool v Flamengo. The 1981 Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo’s National Stadium. It’s an interesting start given the one-dimensional picture painted of him outside of RTÉ.
His kids play a bit of soccer with Woodview Celtic FC, a club just across the way in Louth from the family’s home in south Armagh, and he will go on to pepper the interview with a panoply of names and places that will speak loudly for his Catholic taste in the stuff that fills the back pages.
But RTÉ’s new head of sport makes no bones about his GAA background.
“I have grown up playing ‘Gah’ all my life,” he says as the early conversation laps gently around the shores of his back story. “There is a perception that I am a GAA man. I am. But I am head of sport, so it has to go across the disciplines. Yeah, I loves me county, as John Mullane would say.”
McBennett has been portrayed as the yin to his predecessor Ryle Nugent’s yang. The previous post-holder was cut from rugby cloth and commentated on it for years. A Blackrock boy with the accent to match.
McBennett is a son of the border regions and he hasn’t lost the twang. A Monaghan man with an unapologetic grá for Gaelic games.
The pair aren’t total opposites. Nugent had 24 years banked with the national broadcaster when he left at the end of May and McBennett has 19 years to date. Both spent time on the local radio scene in Dublin before joining RTÉ and speak about public broadcasting with the zeal of true believers.
IN HIS BONES
Sport wasn’t stitched into McBennett’s DNA from the cradle — one of four older sisters played some camogie, that’s about it — but it wasn’t long seeping into his bones thanks to a happy triangulation of his status as a child of the ’70s, geography, and a Monaghan GAA scene that was thriving at club and county levels.
“In 1979 Kerry played Monaghan in the All-Ireland semi-final and Kerry hockeyed Monaghan. We went to a neighbours’ house to watch it because they had colour TV and we had black and white. I had a cousin who was secretary of the local club and he got me involved. Monaghan were in the centenary final in 1984, they won the National League in ’85, and were beaten by Laois in the final in ’86.”
This was a Monaghan team managed by Sean McCague, a future GAA president, and coached by Paraic Duffy, who would go on to serve as the association’s director general. It was the Monaghan team of Nudie Hughes, Eugene Sherry, and Gerry McCarville. Another of their number, Eamonn McEneaney, was McBennett’s schoolteacher.
It’s no wonder he got hooked.
His own club was Oram Sarsfields, known more for the fact that Big Tom was president than anything else, but Castleblayney Faughs were only a few miles down the road and engaged in an epic duel for local supremacy with Scotstown. McBennett got to breathe in some of that rarified air through his involvement with the ’Blayney school team.
The GAA, like the Mafia, tends to claim you for life and McBennett has always been an active member. All four of his kids, aged four through ten, are involved with their local club in Dromintee. Their dad wasn’t long being dragooned by Aidan O’Rourke when they moved to the area and is now helping out with the U10s.
It was never going to be any other way. McBennett played for 20 years with Oram and he pinpoints the first of three years studying in Queen’s University, Belfast, as his favourite, largely because of the fact that he played freshers football on a team featuring Anthony Tohill, Kieran McGeeney, and Cathal O’Rourke.
That gravitation towards the North has shaped much of his life.
“We are formed by the areas that we come from and I lived three miles from the border. I’m a mile from the border where I live now so it was as natural for us to go to Newry and Belfast as it was to go to Dundalk and Dublin because of the geographical location. When I was growing up, the best motorway was the M1 that took you to Belfast. We didn’t have motorways in the south until EU funds came along, so there is a natural affinity there with border territory. Ulster championship is the manifestation of that in sporting terms.”
His own interests involve wider horizons. It was history and politics that he studied in Queens in the early 1990s. This was pre-ceasefire when students learned to keep within a circle of five pubs with names like ‘The Eg’ and ‘The Bot’ that huddled up close to the university. GAA players like McBennett knew to keep their gear in a generic rucksack because the bus stop for The Dub playing grounds was adjacent to the loyalist Taughmonagh estate.
“They were still killing each other,” he said of the time. Among the atrocities in that spell was the massacre of five people at the Sean Graham’s bookmakers on the Ormeau Rd in 1992. Queen’s was less than a mile down the road. His best friend, John McManus, was from west Belfast and wasn’t long in educating him in the realities of what he could and couldn’t say, where to go, and where to avoid.
He was a news reporter with RTÉ — via a stint with Northern Sound radio that took in the 1997 Bawnboy siege when Gerrit Isenborger quite literally shot and wounded the local sheriff and then FM104 — when he returned to Belfast in 1999 for a seven-year stint. Although post-Good Friday Agreement, there was no shortage of sectarian news lines.
Among them was the Holy Cross dispute in the Ardoyne area of the city in 2001 when loyalists picketed the school and Catholic schoolchildren and their parents required the protection of the police and the British army to get in and out. The flashpoint spawned protests, rioting, traumatised children, numerous injuries, and criminal damage.
“Holy Cross: Kids getting involved in a political dispute not of their making. I walked that road pretty much every day during the course of that dispute, which started in June. Then the summer holidays intervened before they came back in September and it just went nuts.
“I was there with Conor O’Brien, the cameraman, on the morning that the pipe bomb was thrown and took the leg off the policeman who was there. Fr Aidan Troy was the priest at the time. Fr Gary Donegan, who was still in Ardoyne until recently, huge football man. GAA man. They were the two priests at the time and we walked that road every day.”
McBennett covered everything from the St Andrew’s Agreement to the Eighth Amendment referendum during his various stints in the news side of the house. A previous stint in the RTÉ sports department took in the Beijing and London Olympics, Paralympics, and World Cups, so he is no stranger to either controversies or momentous undertakings as he opens his new brief.
HEAD FOR SPORT
Both are endemic to the new role. Sport on TV is emotive on any number of levels. People don’t just debate the games and events they consume, they critique the stations on which they are aired, ask why they are on one channel and not the other, and hold court over presenters and pundits.
He knows he won’t be exempt from that same gaze now.
“Being head of sport is a much more public persona than being the managing editor in the newsroom,” he admits. Naturally, the vast majority of his work will go unseen. He has met all 55 members of his sports team and the process of touching base with some of the administrators in the country’s sporting bodies has already begun.
All this while the World Cup and GAA championships are in full flow. This weekend, with the World Cup final, the commencement of the Super 8s, and two All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals, will actually be the department’s busiest of the year.
“It’s been brilliant, challenging, fascinating on many levels,” he says of the gig. “I said to the team when I met them on the very first day that it would be disrespectful of me to come across and start changing decisions that they had made and set in train. I reserve the right to tweak them as we go.
“In the last couple of weeks, Derek McGrath has come in, Lee Keegan is in this weekend, Cora Staunton has been on radio, Michael Quinlivan was on radio. I have three essential priorities: One is strategic, outside the organisation, two is greater cohesion internally, and three is to manage a transition with regard to how we look and sound across the various different platforms.”
That last one has included a concerted push in the numbers of female faces and voices on air. It’s a subject he discusses at length and with absolute conviction but which merits a page all of its own.
McBennett is keen to point out that RTÉ retains what he describes as “the biggest suite” of live sporting rights on Irish TV.
It has Republic of Ireland games and major international soccer tournaments secured through to 2022, they are the main broadcasters for the GAA championships through to 2021, and will present over 200 hours of programming for the Olympic Games when they come around again in Tokyo in 2020.
But he isn’t blind to the manner in which Nugent was something of a lightning rod for those viewers disgruntled when the station lost a crown jewel on the lines of the Six Nations or Cheltenham. Or how some viewed which sports RTÉ screened, and when, through the prism of Nugent’s own rugby background. McBennett has no issue with criticism — indeed, he claims to welcome it — as long as it is constructive and informed.
And he knows there are any number of touchy subjects. So, in summary...
RTÉ would dearly love to show more GAA championship games. They will tell the GAA as much this autumn. They would love to be more involved in GAA broadcasting outside the summer months, too. They would love to make up some of the ground lost in terms of rugby rights, to be all things to all men and women.
“We have the European Championships in a couple of weeks which will see gymnastics, swimming, rowing across the board,” he explains. “That is of Irish interest. Katie Taylor or Annalise Murphy are as important to me in a competitive broadcast environment as Dean Rock or Seamie Coleman.”
Sports broadcasting is in a state of constant flux. It isn’t so long since RTÉ were in competition with other broadcasters for rights. Now it’s multinational phone companies and hedge funds flashing the crazy wads about and relegating the traditional power brokers to the nose-bleed seats up in the back. Sports rights are splintering all the time because of it but McBennett is every bit as passionate as you would expect about the role free-to-air broadcasters still have to play. “There is a balance to be struck, across every organisation, between the amount of money you need to earn and the promotion of the game.
“OK? I’ve said this to the sporting organisations. My five-year-old sings the Mo Salah song. He knows who Aubameyang is, and he knows that Giroud is now playing for Chelsea and not Arsenal.
“He also needs to know beyond Joe Canning and Dean Rock and Stephen Cluxton. He also needs to know the Olympic athletes.
“Look at Sonia O’Sullivan’s daughter and Sarah Healy, they should be national stars. The only way that Katie Taylor becomes a national star is when the country can see Katie Taylor, in whatever form, doing what she does better than anybody else.”
McBennett’s job may be to shine a light on Ireland’s best and brightest but don’t expect him to share it. Commentaries aren’t his thing and he uses Twitter reluctantly.
If you see him much at all the next while, then chances are it will be on the side of a pitch in Armagh or Louth or Dublin where the Dromintee U10s are building their own dreams in their latest blitz.
Or, maybe down the road at Woodview Celtic.