When RTÉ began a GAA highlights programme 40 years ago, the title for it was as obvious as its choice of theme tune was inspired. Sunday was the only day a championship game could possibly be on and often there’d be only the one game on any given Sunday.
That inaugural The Sunday Game featured action from just a solitary game, the Munster hurling final from Thurles between Limerick and a Cork side pursuing a fourth consecutive All-Ireland title, with the late great Bill O’Herlihy co-presenting alongside Jim Carney.
There was also a Leinster football semi-final that day featuring Meath against an emerging Offaly team managed by a progressive young manager called Eugene McGee, but such were the time, budget and logistical constraints RTÉ were working under, they were unable to send cameras from Donnybrook to Drumcondra just across the river.
It had been challenging enough as it was getting Jim and the hurling match tape up from Thurles by helicopter. Next Sunday as the hurlers of Limerick and Cork go at each other again, the TV cameras will be there, but virtually everything else has changed.
Not only are Limerick the ones that are the reigning All-Ireland champions, but they’re hosting the match, now that Munster has a fully-fledged home-and-away format — though Thurles will also be staging a game the same day. Both games will be live.
The night edition of The Sunday Game will feature highlights from more than just those two hurling games in Munster. There’s another two hurling games in Leinster. In football one of the best-attended local derbies in the country takes place in Newry, a town that’s half Armagh, half Down. Connacht champions Galway take on Sligo. But that’s just the half of it.
Championship hurling and football isn’t just a Sunday game anymore. While the most number of games played on a given weekend in that 1979 championship was five, last weekend had 11, including four on the Saturday — and that’s not to mention a cracking Joe McDonagh Cup game where Offaly put up 3-21 on Laois and still lost by four.
To RTÉ’s credit, their resources and resourcefulness has improved magnificently over the last 40 years. All of those 11 Liam MacCarthy and Sam Maguire Cup games had cameras and a Sunday Game reporter at them. But still they were overstretched. None of the seven goals from Laois-Offaly made the Sunday night show.
They’re only going to be strained further in the coming weeks and years. The same Saturday that they finally show their first football game of the championship live, there are eight football qualifiers down for decision as well as two provincial hurling championship games.
Now John Horan is talking stridently about a two-tier football championship. Which, in many ways, is fair enough. Although he has been vague on detail to date, it sounds like it promises more teams and players more games — and winnable games at that, as London manager Ciaran Deely would note.
But who’s going to see them? And who’s going to show them? If the first Joe McDonagh game featuring a county that won the All-Ireland only 21 years ago can’t make The Sunday Game highlights, Wicklow v London in football will hardly feature. Even a Down v Tipperary could struggle.
Horan has recently made some strange pronouncements regarding the current television schedule of the championship, as if RTÉ and Sky haven’t selected the games we’d all pick or as if Croke Park had no say in negotiating the existing deal.
But even if the next television deal gets the broadcasters to be less “driven by the numbers” and show live action from a Joe McDonagh or Páidí Ó Sé Cup, when are they going to be actually shown? At the same time as Cork-Clare are playing in the Munster hurling championship?
Just as Sunday was no longer enough to fit in everything, neither is Saturday and Sunday now. The Weekend Game should look at the occasional midweek game. Which could be televised live.
It’s mathematics as much as it is pure common sense. There are only 13 weekends over May, June and July. That’s just 26 days to fit in 90 percent of the inter-county championships (And that’s without getting into the whole club conundrum). The schedule is too tight. The games schedule. The TV schedule.
Opening up a weekday evening for some games allows for a little more scope, a little more time to breathe. And with it, some more precious exposure for the sport and especially some teams.
Already we can hear the objections, and with it, the reminders of some the outcry there was when Laois and Carlow played a football qualifier on a Friday evening in 2013. A few players from both sides expressed their displeasure while the GPA also raised concerns.
But context is everything. The GPA’s issue was not with the principle of a Friday night lights game. Indeed its communication officer at the time, Sean Potts, lauded the idea of Friday night games as “a progressive idea”. The problem was the idea wasn’t adequately run past both sets of players. Too little consultation and too little notice.
But what if a group of players were given six months’ notice about a particular midweek fixture, as much of the current championship format now allows? It’d be easier to plan and sort something out at work then.
At the time Jim Gavin and Jim McGuinness also had reservations about the date of that fixture. While again they were agreeable to the idea of a weekday game, Gavin felt players would be have to be compensated for taking a half-day off work while McGuinness felt they’d have to be compensated for the full day.
Even if there was just to be one weekday inter-county championship every summer week and no more than one for any team, forking out such compensation could be too costly for the GAA.
But tellingly the GPA didn’t make an issue of it that time. And McGuinness had no problem asking his players to take days off work for camps ahead of championship games. Donegal wouldn’t have been able to afford compensating them for that time away from work.
For a long time now players have been taken the odd day off work either side of a championship game. Davy Fitzgerald would religiously take the Friday off. Last weekend Jackie Tyrrell told everyone on The Sunday Game Live that if he was still hurling in the current provincial championship, he’d be taking Mondays and Fridays off work.
Every January, footballers play midweek games in the provincial pre-season games — in front of decent crowds. Every summer U21 hurlers playing midweek games — in front of good crowds.
It makes sense to extend it, in moderation. It shouldn’t be too much to have and televise live one weekday game for every round of the national league. Say an all-Ulster game, or an all-Leinster affair (it could be more of a stretch for sides from Connacht, with so many of their players having to commute from Dublin).
And the same for the championship. No side should have to play more than one midweek game all summer but the carrot would be that it would be televised live: RTÉ, TV3, TG4, however the deal was packaged and agreed.
It could be Armagh-Down in football one week. The next, Clare-Limerick in hurling, like they did on a Thursday in 2001 after the schedule had been disrupted by foot and mouth. Offaly-Laois in the Joe McDonagh. Or Carlow-Laois in football.
In 2013 a couple of Carlow players complained then but they’d be less likely to were they to know it would be a rare chance to be televised live and they’d be given plenty of notice to take a day off their annual leave, just like multiple county players have been doing for years on the ultimatum of a manager calling a camp.
The Monday Game highlights show was taken off the air due to a lack of interest back in 2000. But a Wednesday Game Live or Friday Nights Live? A different theme tune might be required but it could be infectious and stay with us, just like Jagerlatein has.