Larry Ryan: Keano going at it while RTÉ's new panel comes out of the shadows

Over on ITV, they might have men going at it, in Keano and Graeme Souness.
Larry Ryan: Keano going at it while RTÉ's new panel comes out of the shadows

ARGIE BARGIE: ITV pundits Roy Keane and Graeme Souness during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group C match between Argentina and Saudi Arabia. Pic: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images

We established last week that the World Cup takes place, not in Qatar, but on the telly. And the box, so far, has proved a good host. This being a marathon and not a sprint, RTÉ has arguably judged the pace best through the early knockings.

Over on ITV, they might have men going at it, in Keano and Graeme Souness. On the Beeb, Lineker is ‘hilariously trolling’ Micah Richards and they are forever in and out of the England and Wales camps, with Kieffer Moore telling us what he can bring.

But the RTÉ lads are with us from breakfast to supper and they have set the tempo sensibly, with Kevin Doyle, Kenny Cunningham and Alan Cawley the early pacemakers.

Those first-round 0-0s, with many teams cautiously probing, gently discussing the outcome rather than debating it, are made for Cawley to strike up easy conversations in co-comms with John Kenny or Adrian Eames. When there are four matches a day, you need a break from Ronnie Whelan’s permanent agitation at crosses hitting the first man, and Ray Houghton’s certainty that the striker should have lifted it instead of placing it, or placed it instead of lifting it, depending on how things turned out.

Maybe the best measure of Ronnie’s crankiness came when he chastised Olivier Giroud for attempting an overhead. This from the man who launched himself at a throw-in with iconic results.

Darragh Maloney, too, will have to stop passing up open goals if he’s to ever prove the long-term replacement for George Hamilton. “He has told us he wants his name pronounced Fredge,” said Maloney, of United’s Brazilian, “but I don’t think I’m going to do that.” George would have considered that an early Christmas present.

But back in studio, RTÉ appears to have found a new groove. There is something genuinely likeable about all these lads, where the bantz comes naturally, out of people enjoying each other’s company, rather than scripted tee-ups for guffawing.

There are some of us who will forever lament the demise of ‘The Panel’. We won’t see again the days when tuning in at half-time was like going to a good play. If there is such a thing as a good play. We may never live through another time when there is a real prospect of somebody being accused, before kick-off, of running away and leaving his wife for a young one.

The unpredictability now is gentler, down to men like Kenny and their flights of fancy. When he’s down in the Montrose broom cupboard on commentary duty, that might involve a mid-match analysis of apple crumble. And while he’s on the couch, Kenny has one knack essential in punditry — he is unafraid to argue a position with conviction even if, you suspect, he fears deep down he might be wrong on this one.

In that regard, the modern Kenny has emerged out of the shadow of ‘The Panel’, In those days, Kenny was cowed, rattled even, preoccupied maybe with having all the facts available to ensure he was right, unlike one renowned colleague, who didn’t deal in facts at all.

But now Kenny has cut loose, and was prepared to tell us yesterday that Wayne Hennessy was unlucky to see red, that he didn’t endanger an opponent, even when he had more or less kicked the Iranian lad in the head.

And when the need arises, Kenny is unafraid to double down, such as when Senegal’s Sarr ran over Qatar’s Afif. “Not only is it not a penalty, it’s a free out.” You sense Kenny enjoys the way Kevin Doyle looks at him, aghast, at those moments. He never seemed to enjoy the way Eamo looked at him.

Even if there is never a smirk far from his lips, there is often a germ of truth too, when Kenny departs from the party line. “You can’t have it among the great goals,” he argued, of Richarlison’s rocket. “When the first touch was so poor.” 

Richie Sadlier seems to enjoy the way Doyler looks at him too and the pair make for a relaxed and agreeable duo, especially with Joanne Cantwell probing. As Uruguay laboured, Doyler, wearing his flawless quiff well, and continuing to operate at his fighting weight, was well placed to observe that Cavani still looks “like a Greek God” while Suarez is “carrying a bag of spuds”. And Richie remembered one of the great cause celebres that divided panels past. “The South Koreans have their own Andy Reid in Lee Kang-in.” 

It was one of the great ironies of this first week that it was the Saudis who first got us focused on the football. Cawley also brought that one closer to home, suggesting Hassan al‑Tambakti was having a Paul McGrath in Giants Stadium kind of morning against Messi and co.

Incidentally, Esquire Middle East published an interview with Hassan last week, featuring the question: “What message, and legacy, would you like to leave on the footballing culture of the KSA?” In a week when we were looking everywhere for gestures, his pointed answer — “That sport is always for everyone” — was as far as anyone could reasonably expect the man to go.

Football doesn’t always do deserve, but maybe Hassan deserved his McGrath morning. Though the Germans' reward for their protests was the shock by Japan and the poor Iranians suffered a hammering after their brave refusal to sing their anthem.

But then Kieffer Moore didn’t bring too much, in the end, for Wales. And the flood of Iranian joy at the final whistle in that one even got Ronnie's juices flowing.  

“This is the World Cup,” he announced at the final whistle.

Things will go up a level from here. And no doubt they will go at it like men everywhere, with Keano starring. Some day he will come home, surely, and all of this will be his. But for now, he is out there representing us on the international stage and doing it well. “It shouldn’t be here … treat people with decency, that’s the bottom line.” 

We can’t forget too we have one world class midfielder and survivor of The Panel still representing on the domestic stage. It may have been harsh on the Germans, but perhaps the most uplifting moment of week one was the sheer joy Liam Brady took in Japan’s comeback in Khalifa International Stadium. 

And when Liam admired the Japanese ingenuity against bigger and stronger opponents, maybe it was possible to detect a certain wistfulness at how he might have approached a turn on the biggest stage of all. 

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