Eamon Dunphy was never imprisoned by facts

Japan’s meeting with Russia at the 2002 World Cup produced one of Eamon Dunphy’s most famous RTÉ moments.

Eamon Dunphy was never imprisoned by facts

Clearly worse for wear, Dunphy surveyed a clip of the Russians’ winning goals in their opener against Tunisia, assuring a baffled Peter Collins that “these aren’t the incidents that win and lose games, these are false.”

He didn’t reappear at half-time and in the ensuing days there was a brief suspension, an apology, and an acceptance he had been ‘tired and emotional’ during this broadcast.

And yet, even at this time of fundamental wrongness, in this insistence that two moments which won the game against Tunisia weren’t the kind of moments which win you games, Eamo hit upon a certain kind of truth.

Russia lost 1-0 to Japan and soon bowed out of the World Cup after another defeat by Belgium. The same week, Eamo vowed it would be his own last World Cup as a pundit.

It was his 40 years as an RTÉ football pundit in essence: a man never imprisoned by facts and never afraid to change his mind.

In the years before and since, much of Alex Ferguson’s great success came throughout a time when, Eamo regularly insisted, there was “something fundamentally wrong at Manchester United”.

He wrote off Ronaldo as a cod. He once dismissed Gareth Bale, James Rodriguez and Isco as “three nothing players”.

Just like Steven Gerrard. Sergio Ramos was a headbanger and Thomas Muller a kid who won a competition at Tesco to play in the Champions League.

Not many of the things he predicted came to pass and at times you had to dig deep to find trace elements of the truth in his statements.

But then he invariably had John Giles sitting beside him, if you were looking to set a higher bar for the truth.

Eamo set out his broadcasting philosophy in his autobiography Rocky Road.

In a chapter called The Epiphany, Dunphy explains the realisation he had in the aftermath of the 1984 European Championships when a nation laughed at his insistence that Michel Platini was a good player, but not a great player.

“The Platini business taught me a couple of important lessons.

“If you expressed a forthright opinion and were mistaken, people would give you a break as long as they believed you were sincere.

“The cute hoors would snigger and mock to the point of caricature, but viewers and readers were smart enough to work you out for themselves. They didn’t necessarily want a sage, rather someone telling it as they saw it, with whom they could engage.”

Dunphy was engaging because he didn’t take himself too seriously in a job he took deadly seriously. Or was it the other way round?

Once, Darragh Maloney, learning on the job, said: “I’m not comfortable with you calling Mancini a clown.”

“Come on, it’s only television,” Eamo protested.

But on another day, during RTÉ’s figary with the internet, when the panel stayed on a bit longer for the kids on the superhighway, things quickly became listless.

In an unguarded moment, Billo shrugged: “At this stage I couldn’t care less.”

From Eamo, one of those inexactitudes: “It’s not on the fucking TV.”

If the best strikers come alive in the box, Eamo comes alive on the box.

Much of the slew of commentary greeting his departure from RTÉ this week cited his entertainment value, while those highlighting his flaws as a pundit tended to miss one point; there would be no commentary on the departure of a football pundit if it wasn’t for Dunphy.

Gilesy would still be a great football man, and Billo would have died a fondly regarded broadcaster, but without Eamo’s special sauce, they wouldn’t be part of The Panel, an institution now finally dismantled.

During this summer’s World Cup we heard that BBC pundits were provided with something like 15,000 pages of facts.

But can we remember anything they told us, beyond a slightly forced insistence that it was coming home?

We are not short of facts. But there are not many who have turned punditry into performance.

David Bowie was another non-believer in consistency. “I change my mind a lot. I usually don’t agree with what I say very much,” he said once.

And there were shades of Ziggy Stardust in the stages how Eamo toured with most successfully.

A world five years, maybe less, from destruction. Where kids have given up on rock and roll, or at least on playing football in the streets.

Where soccer is dead… or in ‘terminal decline’, where Europe is bereft of defenders.

Where moral cowardice is eating away at the fabric. Where there is a cancer in the game. A bankrupt game.

Eamo never shirked pessimism, but then his uplifting reverence for the game played well and for the great players gave us a new Litany of Saints, even if not many of them were footballers.

Henry Shefflin. Pray for us. Aidan O’Brien. Pray for us.

His dabbles in the bantz were pretty well-judged — a rare commodity — such as the night he used his magic marker to chart the trajectory of Frank Rijkaard’s spit into Rudi Voller’s perm.

And he persecuted every Irish football manager in colourful terms, questioning their suitability to drive the train to Cork.

Sometimes, that stuff probably got too hurtful. But given our unambitious football culture that still endures, there was nearly always a grain of truth.

And even the fiercest criticism came with a certain kind of humility, from a self-confessed journeyman.

Dunphy mined one of the greatest football books out of a three-month period when he was at his lowest as a footballer.

When he had to face up to his expendability and uselessness to society, to worry that he couldn’t “make chairs or fix the loo”.

And if some of his books are brilliant, and his writing ensured he wouldn’t have to fix any loos, he made most money out of the two books the critics didn’t particularly care for. So he is well placed to know success and wealth don’t always tell the whole story.

Aren’t necessarily the whole truth.

In the end, he believes ‘the mob’ caught up with him, as they threatened to during Italia ‘90. Only this time it was “keyboard warriors” on Twitter rather than Jackie’s Army at the airport.

For a finish, his broadcasts were subjected to a live ‘fact check’ on Twitter.

He was a game show host again, with an army of contestants hearing him assure us the Spain manager was on 50 grand or Monaco would get another £2 million every time Anthony Martial scored for United, and invariably deciding that ‘these are false’.

Once he would have given the mob short shrift, like in his radio days, when he was batting for Keano.

“The overwhelming view of the listeners is that they are split down the middle. When you weed out the nutters it’s around 80-20 behind Roy.”

But it probably had to end like this, in recrimination against an employer who had “lost its nerve”.

If Eamo never worried about being wrong, he devoted a lot of time to calling out fakery.

“The political parties, the Catholic Church, the Gaels not just in sport but in the arts and every cultural nook and cranny, including Irish journalism, all celebrating in one form or another a narrow version of Irish identity that was, in essence, bogus.”

He set about exposing that fakery and artifice in unconventional ways.

He has supported just about every political party at some stage.

And despite being the kind of soccer ‘shoneen man’ that ‘true Gaels’ once reviled as England-loving corner boys, he has always professed to love hurling.

But could he really have finished out his days at RTÉ, as an institution inside one of the country’s last enduring institutions?

As a pillar of Official Ireland.

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