Oisín McConville: I wouldn't have become a pundit if I was looking to win a popularity contest

When I first made the transition from player to pundit, I felt although everyone was entitled to their opinion, mine was the only one that mattered. Thankfully, we live and learn
Oisín McConville: I wouldn't have become a pundit if I was looking to win a popularity contest

TALKING HEADS: Oisín McConville, Peter Canavan, Enda McGinley and Mark Sidebottom prepare for a BBC Northern Ireland Championship broadcast at Celtic Park last year. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

I must be honest here. Looking back now to when I first made the transition from player to pundit, I felt although everyone was entitled to their opinion, mine was the only one that mattered.

Thankfully, we live and learn. And so did I.

That’s 12 years ago and in the time since I’ve become acutely aware that I was wrong in my assumptions.

Covering my own county, Armagh, back then, I was told I was overcritical. I knew more about them and wanted more from them. Sometimes when you’re just out of the playing circle your views are a little bit skewed.

Nowadays, players are very guarded and for some, their entire exposure to the media is from the comfort of a top table at sponsors’ events with a press officer controlling the questions. If a journalist has a well-researched query, he knows he will be filling a rivals’ publications. Everyone ends up with the same thing.

This, in turn, irks sports editors and in the quest for some a little more substantial, leads to ‘different pieces,’ where journalists are more inclined to seek out former players or file opinion pieces. Conjecture has now joined the party. Panels, as a consequence, become even more guarded.

That’s disappointing. I’m not saying we were an open book in regards to tactics or shared State secrets when I played but it wasn’t uncommon to take a call from a journalist and meet up only days before a championship match.

I’m involved at Dundalk IT and we’ve a lot of our matches reported on locally and I’ve no issue with that. It gives the players good exposure and some profile.

That’s not always the case in college football, though.

Jack McCaffrey featured on a number of radio interviews having stepped aside from the Dublin panel and it was so engaging listening to him chatting about football and life.

A very educated man, he was more than comfortable on a variety of topics. It was refreshing and made you wish you could hear more from those still playing.

I’m not one for individual attacks but feel that a certain level of criticism shouldn’t be binned. In those early days of mine, I got my fingers burned having made reference to a refereeing performance by an official in an Armagh inter-county match. I’d suggested he had issues keeping up with the play, therefore being forced to make decisions from 50 yards away and used examples of this to back up my thoughts.

The same official took charge of an All-Ireland club match featuring Crossmaglen Rangers not long after that and the consensus afterwards that whatever I had said didn’t help our cause.

In terms of the role and responsibility of the GAA pundit, things have changed dramatically since I stepped in. Expectations of the viewer, the listener, or reader have evolved too.

I’ve always enjoyed watching a wide range of different sports and subconsciously you’re thinking about how others’ do things all the time.

From a personal point of view, when broadcasting, I had to get used to getting my point across in a punchier way, with time constraints and pre-planned segments to accommodate advertisements or interviews. I felt a pressure in trying to develop my point in the allocated time. Live broadcasts can be pretty unforgiving and it’s a matter of sink or swim — you really have to learn on the job.

Although coverage has been growing, since the outbreak of coronavirus it has reached its peak. There’s always an onus to say what you see, in a balanced and honest manner — not patronising but no need to sugarcoat either.

Being one of the privileged few who has attended matches last year, I felt the scope of the job changed and found pressure in that.

Like, for example, Cavan are a county with a golden history, no shortage of support, and plenty to say about it.

Down the years, that support saw more suffering than success. Two years ago, they brought a huge support to Clones for the Ulster final, where they were well-beaten by Donegal.

It’s fair to assume that an element of their support seldom watches or listens to a match live, as they will always attend when given the opportunity.

Last November, with the echoes ringing around the Athletic Grounds, they won a first provincial title since 1997 and being there I felt for those people and felt the need to portray not only what happened on the pitch, but how it happened. For the dyed-in-the-wool GAA fan, who was more than capable of making their own mind up on the terraces, you’re trying to bring as much insight as possible to their sitting rooms.

Nowadays, there’s the Monday Night Football generation as I call them; a generation of supporters who watch Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville dissect the incidents and issues of the weekend in great depth for an hour before a ball is kicked.

What they do well is offer a mix of punditry and personality and use visuals well. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution and the presenter must have the know-how to encourage differences of opinion and debate.

Their recent shows about the opposition to the European Super League and protests at Old Trafford brought a new level of rawness and some great television.

Sky, covering GAA, might’ve ruffled a few feathers with their paywall. They also forced the existing providers to up their game in regards to coverage.

It’s like The Sunday Game. Things discussed there form a part of more Monday morning conversations than the football or hurling from the weekend. The analysis is analysed, particularly so when the product on show might not be at the level everyone would like.

There’s always something to talk about in the GAA so, for me, there’s definitely scope for a midweek television show on wider topics, one that presents fact and opinion.

I’m not on social media and in terms of new media, some of it has helped promote the game. There should, though, always be a place for the traditional GAA journalist.

Like last year did, 2021 will bring its challenges and for me I’m always thinking of whether Donegal can match their talent with success later in the season, the personalities of the managers in Division 4, whether there will be a further fallout with Dublin over the training breach and if Tyrone will get that bounce many expect them to under new management.

There will be plenty to talk about in the coming months and don’t worry, we all don’t have to agree with one another on everything.

I would never have become a pundit had I been looking to win a popularity contest.

- You can read the Irish Examiner's 20-page special publication looking forward to the Allianz Football League and Championship with your Friday edition of the Irish Examiner in stores or from our epaper site.

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