Three decades making the big calls for Canning

HE trained to be a newsreader, but he never announced a headline.

Ger Canning was a schoolteacher when RTÉ producer Pat O’Donovan invited him to commentate on the 1978 Cork County Hurling final.

Some baptism. The Glen v Blackrock. 33,000 spectators.

“I wanted to do on-the-spot sports reports at games,” says the affable Cork native. “But Pat asked me to do a commentary and his boss, Máire Ní Mhurchú, okayed it, for which I’m eternally grateful.

“The following year we repeated the exercise for the ‘79 football final. Micheál O hEithir was supposed to do a national league game that Sunday but it rained off, so when RTÉ realised the Cork county final was on they cut in and out to us, and I was invited to Dublin on the back of that.”

His timing was good. Though radio was Canning’s first love, The Sunday Game was being prepared, and he was brought to production meetings to see what the producers were looking for. He went on honeymoon in March 1980, however, and came back to the NHL final replay.

“My wife married a teacher but ended up with a broadcaster,” he recalls. “That was Cork-Limerick in the league final, a fantastic game which ended something like 4-15 to 4-10 for Cork.

“I got the call at the 11th hour and they just said ‘try to keep the scorers right’. I trained away that summer and got the Connacht and Ulster finals. It was an absolute ball.”

By 1981, the station planned to put out the All-Ireland finals on the second channel through Irish, and Canning obliged; the following year his soccer-playing past got him on a flight to the World Cup in Spain.

“I’d played soccer for UCC and College Corinthians and had played minor and junior for the Barrs – Jimmy Barry-Murphy was on that minor team.

“I had a broad interest in sport – my father died when I was seven so it was myself and my mother at home, and any sport on television I’d watch – golf, tennis, anything.”

Canning celebrated 30 years broadcasting last October in Australia. As he points out, there’s more to the job than meets the eye.

“For a big GAA game it starts the Sunday night of the week before – you’re planning to try to get to training sessions, getting every available tape and freeze-framing it... recently I went to watch Offaly play a challenge, but they gave debuts to five newcomers for the championship, and I ended up going on the internet to look them up on Facebook to see what they looked like!

“It’s got to that stage. I need to know if a guy has cut his hair in the last week or whatever, but sometimes you just can’t cover everything. Remember the Romania team which dyed their hair at the World Cup in 1998?”

The day of a game can be fraught enough as well.

“Last weekend in Ulster, for instance, one manager said to me, ‘I hope to start with the same team’, and then your alarm bell goes off – other sources confirmed there’d be changes.

“Then, with the other team, there were four changes, including two players not named in the programme but who took the jerseys of players who were in the programme.! That really is red alert time for me, because you’ll be in serious trouble if you don’t know who those players are.

“In hurling it’s easier to identify players because of the different coloured helmets, but look at Kilkenny – in the seventies their jerseys had black numbers in the middle of a white square, while nowadays the numbers are black but they merge with the black stripes on the jersey.”

When it comes to commentary, how much is enough? Do you need to tell viewers someone’s kicked a point when they can see that for themselves?

“It’s a subtle thing. Soccer is a slower game so you don’t need as many words to describe what’s going on, but you have to try to give people a sense of excitement and tension also, and your intonation’s important in that regard.

“You’re giving a reading of the game, a sense of where it’s going, and you need a certain amount of words to do that. If not, you’re cheating the viewers, but there’s a subtle difference between under and overdoing the descriptions.

“The difference between radio and TV commentary is like the difference between a car and motorcycle mechanic; they both fix engines but they’re not quite the same.”

The rules have changed as well. Canning points to a different regime years ago in RTÉ.

“You’re conscious of the legal implications of saying something about a person just as in print journalism. If you see someone hit another player in the face you say it, simple as that.

“It’s not like the old days – Seán Óg O Ceallacháin has written about the directive from Croke Park forbidding reporters from naming people who’d been sent off because they had to go to work the next day. That’s gone: you don’t insult someone’s intelligence.”

Mention of the old days brings up commentator role models and idols. No surprise in Canning’s first choice.

“Michéal O hEithir was remarkable – Michéal O Muircheartaigh is as well – and there are plenty of other good ones here in Ireland, but I’m not going to name them all because if I do I’ll be in trouble for leaving someone out.

“Bill McLaren was fantastic, he had a great earthy way of describing players. Peter Jones of the BBC was brilliant – he was their lead commentator on everything from the FA Cup final to royal occasions, and he died 20 years ago doing the Boat Race. I always thought he’d had a brilliant career, had been at the most amazing occasions – and then to die at the Boat Race.”

And players? “I go back to the Kerry heyday – Pat Spillane, Paídí O Sé, Mikey Sheehy. I’d like to have seen more of Maurice Fitzgerald, but another star turn was Peter Canavan. You knew Tyrone had a chance just because he was on the field.

“In hurling, back in the mid-80s you had Joe Cooney, Nicky English – and Tony O’Sullivan, who I’d rate incredibly highly. The Cork team of recent years has been terrific, and their unity is what’s made them. Kilkenny have brought that on and you have to say Henry Shefflin has been a leader, never hides on the big occasion. You’d pay to go see him anytime.”

Canning doesn’t hide either. He admits to mistakes but points also to the importance of self-confidence.

“People have views on commentators – they may like their voice, or how much they say or whatever. But if I make a mistake I feel worse than anyone, even before someone else recognises it.

“You can’t leave it – you’ve got to correct it, you’re either right or wrong – and I’d be my own harshest critic. I’d list phrases I’d overuse and so on.

“On radio you can indulge yourself a little more, you can talk about past players or cows in the field next door, but you can’t do that on television. It demands you stick to the pictures, and you can’t be folksy, television is restricting in that way.

“It’s a team game, too, there could be 30 or 40 people working on the show, so there’s an awful lot involved. You can’t just go on a solo run, you take people through the match, do a little analysis here and there, sum up now and again and get in and out on time.

“At times you can feel like a horse with blinkers but you must discipline yourself. If five out of seven people feel you’re doing an okay job that’s fine, because at least two people won’t like what you’re doing anyway.

“To me you survive on TV by believing you can do most aspects of the job well. You’ll never get it completely right. I’ve never done the perfect commentary; I dream of doing it one day, but I haven’t done it so far. You must be comfortable with your limitations – you can’t slacken in your preparations but you won’t please everybody all the time, and your own self-confidence is vital in that regard. Anything that reduces that confidence you need to look at carefully.

“You must believe in yourself yet you must also be critical – it’s a fine line.”

Still, there are compensations. An invitation to nominate some highlights brings up some gems.

“The Waterford-Cork Munster final of 2004 was as exciting a game as I’ve ever seen in my life. Hurling is hard to beat.

“I enjoyed Clare coming through in 1995 – my mother was from Doonbeg in west Clare – and the Down-Meath football final of 1991 was terrific. In fact, all the football that year was excellent.

“In football the Tyrone-Kerry finals recently have been outstanding – played in the right spirit, with a great atmosphere.

“I always get that ‘summer’s over’ feeling by the time you get to September. It’s like going back to school after the holidays, the winter is coming and it’ll be months before we have this feeling of a big championship day again.”

True. But right now they’re all ahead of us.


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