Sports Stadium recalled: 'It was the Carlsberg job, being paid to bring sport to the Irish people'

Larry Ryan talks to Michael Lyster, Stephen Alkin, George Hamilton, Maurice Reidy and Michael O’Carroll to recall the heyday of RTÉ’s flagship Saturday show ‘Sports Stadium’.
Sports Stadium recalled: 'It was the Carlsberg job, being paid to bring sport to the Irish people'
Brendan O'Reilly presented the first ‘Sports Stadium', on September 22, 1973. Picture: RTÉ Stills Library

Larry Ryan talks to Michael Lyster, Stephen Alkin, George Hamilton, Maurice Reidy and Michael O’Carroll to recall the heyday of RTÉ’s flagship Saturday show ‘Sports Stadium’.

NOW we have no sport, maybe it’s easier to look back at Sports Stadium and consider those to be glory days.

Happier times, when the only disease we knew was the liver fluke and brucellosis and scour infecting every second advert.

We hadn’t much of anything but we had a little of a lot.

And we arguably had too much racing. Every Saturday, we were at Naas, or Newbury, or the Curragh. Non-runner number nine, 11 ran.

And it was always raining.

But we had a lot more besides. A scattering of seeds that grew a love of sport. And a few magic beans.

Over 40? Shut your eyes and see what floods back.

Hockey from Three Rock Rovers. Shannon in the AIL. Niall Quinn’s debut goal for Arsenal against Liverpool. Pat Kirby in the handball. Cross-country. Mick Dunne’s goals and saves of the year.

Luton’s plastic pitch and Steve Foster’s headband. Kerry Dixon projecting every ounce of fluid from his body by placing one finger on the adjacent nostril. The cars parked behind the Stamford Bridge goal. A union strike when Fred Cogley had to commentate on everything.

‘Now to rallying’. Or Bowling. Dogs. Basketball. Boxing. Pitch ‘n Putt. Tug of War. YouTube confirms Sports Stadium showed the World Tug of War Championships from Oriel Park.

And footage of the Boley boys from Wexford digging very deep suggests that may well be the day the pitch’s problems began.

Happier times? More democratic anyway. Perhaps the heyday of all sports outside the big guns in the struggle for hearts and minds.

“It totally was,” says Michael Lyster, in the presenter’s chair from 1985. “We weren’t really paying any rights fees. But when we started writing big cheques to the GAA or IRFU or whoever, everything else kind of got wiped off the slate.

“You could watch 20 minutes of handball and then maybe a horse race. It catered for everybody. You can find the minority sports now on your TV, but you have to decide to watch the whole thing. And people aren’t necessarily interested enough.

“I remember presenting the hockey from Three Rock. And it would be a full outside broadcast. All the coloured wagons would show up and it was kind of a big deal. The fact the national broadcaster was there would give it a status.”

Stephen Alkin, on board as editor or producer from 1983, as well as soccer commentator, was captain when it sank in 1997.

“I have seen sport move from being owned by the people to being owned by billionaires. Everything in sport is now contingent on television and what television is prepared to pay.”

Not that any of them will say it was perfect then. Things didn’t always run smoothly. Aprés Match of the Day captures the mayhem well. Before digital, before computers. When live meant unpredictable. When the director was forever telling the presenter to fill a bit more.

“Especially Sports Stadium, because it was a bit of this, a bit of that. Half the time it was chaos, seat of your pants doesn’t describe it,” says Lyster.

He remembers well the afternoon he landed into Montrose for a soft shift. Do the first hour then hand over to Fred Cogley at the Irish Open for the next four.

“And as I hand over, the first thing I see is Fred taking out an umbrella. And next thing I hear is ‘golf has been suspended for the day’. Then a five-second delay, while I could hear the director, I think Max Mulvihill, saying ‘ah, what did Fred just say there’.

“And then the shit hit the fan. And Fred was handing back to me and we had nothing.”

He recalled a story about Terry Wogan, in his time as a continuity announcer on RTÉ Radio, on a day when it all broke down. How Terry got out an RTÉ Guide and just read, holding court in that way he had.

“And I happened to have a copy of it on the desk and said, if it was good enough for Terry… So I just started reeling things off. ‘Here’s a programme you might be interested in on Tuesday’. And I could hear footsteps running and I knew it was Brian McSharry desperately looking for a tape, any tape, to shove into a machine.”

We probably didn’t appreciate the joy in all that, back then. They didn’t on the switchboard, which often lit up.

“Did we get complaints, did we what?” laughs Maurice Reidy, regarded among RTÉ’s finest editors.

“When we started doing the rugby, turning around highlights the same day, there was great juggling of tapes and people. Greystones, Blackrock, Cork Con, crowds of 10,000 or more, and you’d have three or four motorbikes standing by to get the tapes to studio.

The first tape would be driven away after 20 minutes and set up. You were hoping there was no crash or traffic problems. And you didn’t know until you had the tape in the machine whether you had pictures or not.

"It was very hairy stuff, hard on the nerves, but it was exciting.”

One thing they all agree on — the man you need to talk to first is Michael O’Carroll. The innovator.

THE BEGINNING

The real Michael O’Carroll interview will need more space. When he has the book out. Would you believe he just finished it the day I rang? For the children, even if nobody else reads it.

He’s 84 now, living in Foxrock, but from Dunkerrin, on the border of the promised land. So a Tipp hurling nut with a soft spot for Offaly.

This man learned TV in the States, but first he served in the merchant navy as a pastry chef. He was in Cuba the day Castro took over and jumped ship. He covered 40 All-Ireland finals as TV director. “Pushing the button to change the picture”.

He produced Know Your Sport, until somebody told him it “wasn’t RTÉ enough”. He survived a heart attack at 42 but almost died in a helicopter crash shooting footage of the gallops atBallydoyle, for a piece on Derby horse, Celini.

But we’ll let Michael keep those yarns for the book.

Today, he’s just the producer of the first Sports Stadium, on September 22, 1973. And he remembers it like yesterday.

“It was presented by Brendan O’Reilly. We decided we’d have a special guest every week, and we had a lot of racing so we decided this guest would pick a couple of what he would hope to be winners.

“The first guest got five winners and his name was Michael O’Connell, you might have heard of him... Yes, the great Mick O’Connell. And I think he was there for a couple of weeks because he was so successful.

“Eventually he got tired of coming up and we got Billy Coleman to do it.”

Gradually, a show took some sort of shape. Boxing highlights from the Stadium. A few League of Ireland goals from the week before. Last Sunday’s hurling or football.

It wasn’t easy. Our relationship with the GAA was always fraught because they didn’t want to give us live matches. Just the All-Ireland finals and semi-finals and the Railway Cup.

Much like BBC created Pot Black to show snooker in half-hour chunks, O’Carroll and Mick Dunne came up with the Top Ace format for handball, to help fill Sports Stadium.

Dunne — owner of that magnificently nasal ‘ohhhh what a goaaaal’ voice — created Gaelic Stadium with Reidy, previewing games.

The ‘Sports Stadium’ team from 1985. Presenters Noel Reid (left) and George Hamilton are seated. Standing (L-R); Max Mulvihill (producer), Stephen Alkin (producer), Mike Horgan (editor), Brian McSharry (editor and commentator), Patricia Murphy (producer), Maurice Reidy (editor). Picture courtesy RTE Stills Library.
The ‘Sports Stadium’ team from 1985. Presenters Noel Reid (left) and George Hamilton are seated. Standing (L-R); Max Mulvihill (producer), Stephen Alkin (producer), Mike Horgan (editor), Brian McSharry (editor and commentator), Patricia Murphy (producer), Maurice Reidy (editor). Picture courtesy RTE Stills Library.

And Michael O’Carroll kept pitching ideas.

“You’d say, can I have 25 or 30 minutes. It was political really. You had to lobby. You’d have to ask fellas, if I bring this up at a meeting, will you support me. And once you got a good programme out of it and got a reaction, you got to do it again.

“So we’d do highlights of the Tour of Ireland or the Dunlop Rally.”

“Michael was the first to introduce same day coverage of a rally, even before the big boys like Eurosport,” says Reidy. “And he was a great innovator of coverage in cycling. We had no experience of it. He was the first to organise live helicopter coverage.”

“Nobody created events and got them to air like he did,” says Alkin. “He had that American entrepreneurial spirit. The Nissan Classic cycle races, he made those happen.”

Michael O’Carroll worked with them all. He rates George Hamilton, who often served as main presenter during the summer, “one of the best performers I’ve ever come across as a producer. You just ask George to say something and it comes out exactly as you wanted.”

But for a long time his main man was the unique Brendan O’Reilly.

THIS CHARMING MAN

You’d need another book for the late Brendan O’Reilly. Ronnie O’Sullivan couldn’t pot his history.

Top 10 in the world at the high jump. World class decathlete. Singer-songwriter. Composer of the Olympic Song ‘Let the Nations Play’ and the ‘Ballad of Michael Collins’. Documentary maker. Actor in 1971 film Flight of the Doves.

Is it urban legend that he was pipped by Sean Connery to be Bond? You couldn’t rule it out.

On one thing they are unanimous.

Michael Lyster: “I loved him. A lovely guy. A real gentleman.”

Michael O’Carroll: “The loveliest man.”

Stephen Alkin: “An amazing character. An absolute gentleman, the loveliest man you’ll ever meet.”

George Hamilton: “A lovely fella, very gregarious. A charmer.”

But was Brendan born to present Sports Stadium?

Lyster: “He was probably writing a song in his head some of the time.”

Alkin: “Athletics was his bag, and he didn’t really know much about football, racing or Gaelic. The producer or editor would be constantly in his ear, Arsenal 1 Manchester 0, so and so the scorer, and it was like a foreign language to Brendan.”

Hamilton: “There was the famed day when he was handed news from the golf and the leader in the clubhouse was Jerry Pate. He read it as Jerry pâté.”

O’Carroll: “There were some terrible tricks played on him. Scottish football ‘Hearts v Lungs’, that kind of thing. Guys who thought they were funny by writing that on a piece of paper and Brendan would read it on air. But Brendan really wanted to be a singer and do light entertainment. So he was devil-may-care.”

Perhaps one story from his athletics career encapsulates O’Reilly’s evennature. Competing in Ohio, he had knocked the bar twice when an official advised his approach was a bit sharp and would he not think of moving it out a bit.

Not every athlete would take counsel on board at times of stress, but Brendan did and got over next time. He only realised later the official was the legendary Jesse Owens.

Maybe he just didn’t do stress. And amid all the mayhem and politics around him, perhaps not wanting it too much was key to O’Reilly becoming the face of sport on RTÉ for so long.

After Brendan’s death in 2001, another of Sports Stadium’s long-serving editors, Mike Horgan, remembered his air of innocence. A man with no agendas or malice. And a quality he had never seen in a TV studio before.

“A total lack of nerves. Utterly nerveless.”

Michael Lyster on 'Sports Stadium'
Michael Lyster on 'Sports Stadium'

AND IT’S NEARLY LIVE

Alkin: “I was the only one in the sports department interested in domestic football, the only one pushing the League of Ireland and it was a hard task. Tim O’Connor loved soccer but what he wanted was the big stuff. He got RTÉ the First Division.”

Lyster: “Not only English games, but we got coverage of Scottish matches as well. I remember Rod Stewart, if we had Celtic on Sports Stadium, used to fly over to Ireland to watch the match. Because he was a tax exile in Britain at the time.”

Hamilton: “Tim was very astute at playing the small station card and getting things that RTÉ had no right to get. He spotted a loophole in the rights. Remember in England at that time, you couldn’t even announce your radio commentary match until 3pm and you were only allowed to cover the second half.”

Reidy: “The 3pm games were a huge coup for our late boss.”

They were the ratings winner, and George took up where he had left off on BBC Radio 2, traversing Britain every Saturday. What sticks in his mind is all the climbing. Those days, a commentator needed a head for heights, as much as facts, to sit on those commentary perches.

“The glamour factor when there was no health and safety! Grimsby v Arsenal in the FA Cup. January in Cleethorpes. Up this fire escape and across the roof of the stand and a blast coming in from the North Sea.

“Or Plough Lane, where the stand was on the roadside, so the ladder was actually on the footpath outside. Climbing up this huge ladder, no cage, going vertically all the way up to the top of the stand, on a South London street.”

Goodison was another deathtrap. When he had a co-comm, George always sent John Giles up the ladder first. Until one day at QPR, when Gilesy got stuck in traffic.

“It must have been the start of the health and safety era. Because they pulled up the ladder at quarter to three and John arrived at ten to. And they wouldn’t put it down again for him until half-time. So we had no Gilesy until the second half.”

Soon, everything was delayed until nearly half-time.

Alkin: “By the early 90s, Sky had started making shapes. They were spending fortunes, why was Ireland getting it for free. They saw Ireland as a potential market in the future. So we had to start deferring coverage by half an hour, go on air at 3.30.”

Almost live added another layer of complication.

Reidy: “We’d record up to about 3.20, take that tape off and set it up for transmission. We’d get three or four tapes per game. But if anything went wrong, or there was a delay… And one day the goalkeeper was injured for ages and we ran out of tape and eventually we had to go live. And then the phone rings and it was this guy from the BBC, ‘we’ve noticed you’re live. We’ll discuss the matter on Monday, it could well lead to the loss of your contract’. Turns out someone inhouse did it as a prank. But I spent the whole weekend worrying.”

Alkin: “There was one funny day. Newcastle were playing. Somehow or other, it got really screwed up. They were one-inch tape machines, pretty cumbersome. And it was a nightmare. Whoever it was had two machines to record and play back and got mixed up. So we put out the end of the match in the wrong order, missing a goal. And it was a 3-2 match.”

They all, in turn, mention one other word about those 3pm games. Hillsborough.

Reidy and Alkin were working back at base, with Hamilton on the scene, and the horror will forever live with them. As they turned news reporters, trying to make sense of devastation. “An ordinary day that turned into one of the worst days of my life,” is how Alkin puts it.

Reidy recalls another grim Saturday evening in 1981, when they were turfed out of studio before the show finished by the news crew, because word was breaking of the Stardust fire.

THE END

From 1988, the theme tune was Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’. The countdown gathered pace when Sky Television launched in February, 1989. By 1997, it hit zero, with the battle for 3pm finally lost.

Alkin: “Then we started Premier Soccer Saturday in ‘98. The day the referee (Paul) Alcock was pushed over, that was the very first programme. It was timed to start right opposite the launch of TV3. Tim O’Connor’s idea. And we were turning it all around for 7pm. It was a huge ask.”

Fine Gael TD Bernard Allen had stood up in the Dáil and talked of a “pathetic surrender to the greedy empire of Rupert Murdoch and Sky Sports”.

But by the end, Sports Stadium had not been satisfying many.

Even fans of minority sports wanted more than 20 minutes of last week’s action.

Alkin: “As the final editor of Sports Stadium, I can say that I was in charge during its demise. However, RTÉ moved to a tranche of live programming to better compete with Sky Sports and the emerging TV3.”

Long after the chaos, what they remember best is the fun.

Lyster: “In my early days, they put me together with Tracy Piggott. Tim O’Connor thought it was very funny — Lyster-Piggott.

“There was a great atmosphere. They used put on a tab in the social club on the Saturday evening. The notion was to entertain any guest we had on the programme. But when we finished at half five or whatever, any guests were long since gone home. So we drank the tab ourselves. Now people finish a programme and go home. Those days are gone.”

Reidy: “Looking back, it was a great place to work and RTÉ was a very good employer. I loved the place. I have great memories.”

Alkin: “It was a privilege and an honour. It was the Carlsberg job, paid to bring sport to the Irish people.”

The sadness now is around when they meet up.

Michael O’Carroll often calls out to his old pal Maurice Reidy. But so many of the others are gone.

Brendan O’Reilly, Noel Reid, Mick Dunne, Fred Cogley, Tim O’Connor. Brian McSharry, the voice of showjumping. Brendan Delaney, the voice of results from start to finish.

“Myself and Noel were together at Brendan’s funeral and then Noel himself passed away,” says Lyster.

“Noel was a wonderful man,” says Hamilton.

“After he retired he threw himself into life with the Dublin County choir. I would hear from him before every concert for a plug on the radio.

“I can imagine sitting beside him while the racing is on. A sound operator called John Hederman (who died in 2007) made it his business to photocopy the Irish Times Crosaire crossword and deliver it to every member of the crew. So there would be a competition to see who could finish it by the end of the show.”

When the show ended for good, on December 20, 1997, with Brendan O’Reilly back in the hotseat alongside Tracy Piggott, the final credits rolled to the strains of ‘Those were the days, my friend’.

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