Kieran Shannon: Time for The Sunday Game to take a different approach

The show is badly in need of a fresh approach. It is crying out for an outsider to present it, with the Second Captains and Off the Ball stables being obvious port of calls
Kieran Shannon: Time for The Sunday Game to take a different approach

FRESH APPROACH NEEDED: 'Last summer – and of course part of the spring too – was the first time in our living memory where The Sunday Game night show was something we felt we could skip'. Pic: Andres Poveda

Don’t know about you but last summer – and of course part of the spring too – was the first time in our living memory where The Sunday Game night show was something we felt we could skip.

It had often before been criticised – by us and everyone else. In retrospect, before the advent of a Pat Spillane, it had sometimes even been bland. But at all times it had remained mandatory viewing. 

Last year was the first time it flirted with the previously unfathomable: irrelevance. For a long part of the championship you could miss it and still feel like you had missed nothing. In trying to accommodate so much it wasn’t saying or achieving or fulfilling enough.

Even if Des Cahill hadn’t announced his decision to step down from the host seat, the show had been in need of a serious reset and revamp. For 17 years their go-to football panel had been Brolly, Spillane and O’Rourke. 

Now, just three years and a month on from them analysing the drawn Kerry-Dublin All Ireland final, none of them remain, with their most obvious successor Oisín McConville joining O’Rourke on the inter-county sideline.

Their best football co-commentator (as well as being a fine analyst) Kevin McStay has made a similar transition and while that has been somewhat offset with Éamonn Fitzmaurice still on the roster, the show suddenly has a shortage of what we might call the Neville Factor: analysts who are suitably credible, insightful, opinionated, fearless, yet fair.

Hurling, with the likes of Cusack, Tyrrell, Cummins and Daly, has been better served overall the past couple of years than its big-ball counterparts, yet it was the hurling fraternity that we remember most, especially Davy and to a lesser extend Derek, going overboard with the ‘tic-tacs’ last summer. 

Humour has also been in increasingly less supply when in other studios, from Sky to Atlanta and the TNT NBA dream team brilliantly chaired by Ernie Johnson, it has been the lubricant to a winning show and great TV.

For sure the show was facing unavoidable, increasing challenges. Back in 2013 its opening programme had only three games to cover: Mayo-Galway in Salthill, Armagh-Cavan in Ulster and Westmeath-Carlow. That was it. There was no hurling. Now that same weekend might have up to 18 games.

In these eyes, the show has lost something with there being no man of the match conversation in the show; from 2019 on the Man of the Match is selected and recognised during the live show. There’s no three nominees from the pundits, no speculation from the rest of us as to who they might be. But that’s because there’s no time for the show’s editors. They’ve some time during the live show. They have hardly any in the night show. There’s too much else to show and talk about and fit in.

Bottom line though: if the calibre of pundit and host is better, the show will be better.

For all the female pundits Declan McBennett has brought into the rotation the past few years, he has yet to find his GAA Lisa Fallon or the equal of Sarah O’Donovan, the former county camogie player that has been a regular contributor to OTB.

Cahill had many qualities, most notably a natural affability and likeability, but his departure affords Declan McBennett the opportunity to replace him with someone with sharper editorial and journalistic chops.

Joanne Cantwell would be obviously readymade for the job – in recent years League Sunday was consistently better than The Sunday Game for her presence in the studio chair – but since live is where it’s at, that’s where Joanne will stay.

Likewise Darragh Moloney but he’s too good a commentator to take out of the rotation.

There are other internal candidates, most notably Evanne Ní Chuilinn, who could slot into the seat and be at her ease.

Our sense though is that the show needs something fresh. In its format, in its approach, in its attitude: this gig cannot go to the institutionalised. It is crying out for an outsider, with the Second Captains and Off the Ball stables being obvious port of calls.

Joe Molloy, like a Cantwell, can challenge a pundit and an audience while being affable and not antagonistic. Current and former colleagues of his like Ger Gilroy and Eoin McDevitt can also facilitate conversations and coverage that will both entertain and inform you. 

Nor should their old colleague Colm Parkinson be discounted. He may not be as polished as any of the aforementioned but he brings an attitude. A personality. He has takes. And in 2022 on a review show that matters.

Whoever is in that chair will need better football pundits sitting across from them, which is again where maybe a Parkinson wouldn’t be out of place, even if at first he might seem just that. It’s the new or next Brolly and Loughnane and O’Rourke, not just a replacement for Cahill, that McBennett and his team must identify and recruit.

The Sunday Game needs to change in other ways. Like being the Saturday Game as well, for instance: one highlight show a weekend in this day and age hardly cuts it.

Just as Bono once famously said towards the end of the bloated Rattle and Hum tour that U2 had to go away and dream it all up again, so too must the likes of McBennett and his accomplished editors like Rory O’Neill. 

It need not have to go to Berlin to find its answers but they will likely have to look beyond Montrose too. Do that though and realise personnel and personality trumps all, including even tactics, and they can deliver again a show that at times has been even better than the real thing.

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