Early in Wednesday night’s Premier Sports broadcast, Eamon Dunphy settled on a key fact to underline the crisis facing a proud club. He’d repeat it several times throughout the evening: “Everton have never been relegated.”
It is not true, of course. Everton have been relegated twice, the last time in 1951. But it is nearly true. And Eamo has always served as an antidote to the fake news movement, insofar as he uses a customised version of the facts to tell the truth rather than to distort it.
“If you expressed a forthright opinion and were mistaken, people would give you a break as long as they believed you were sincere,” Dunphy wrote, of his punditry philosophy, in his book The Rocky Road.
He has always given himself a break, in that regard. He never pundited with the handbrake on, his performances never impaired by a lack of facts or figures to sustain his argument. Instead, he cracked on, using whatever came to mind — even if it was not true, in the strictest sense.
Alas, by the end of his almighty reign at the heart of RTÉ’s football panel, an army of fact-checkers had gathered on social media to call out every venture into what one might superficially describe as wrongness.
And one or two more even sat beside him in studio. In his fine book, Recovering, Richie Sadlier describes how he gradually found his feet on the panel.
“I stood my ground and pulled Eamon up on a couple of inaccuracies, something I wouldn’t have done before.”
It probably didn’t help Dunphy’s performance, in latter years, having that service close at hand.
It arguably worked on one level, the obvious tension between Dunphy and Sadlier or Kenny Cunningham adding a certain edge to proceedings.
But it was also a bit of a distraction, when you have bigger fish to fry. When you are targeting hubris and vanity and bankruptcy and various cancers in the game, is it the end of the world if you have to invent the odd dodgy Argentinian defender called Lorenzo along the way?
In that regard, Ivan Yates was an inspired choice to scrub in for the panel’s transplant to Premier Sports. If Bill O’Herlihy had to work hard to play the role of the stooge who knew nothing, this seemed to come naturally enough to Ivan.
He was not going to be doing any fact-checking. And the modest subscriber base ensured Twitter wasn’t spinning with corrections either.
So the harsh lighting was the only thing grilling the lads. This was a comfortable, safe environment for a comeback tour. And for three nights, Dunphy, in particular, rolled out the hits.
“That’s the England goalkeeper and he ain’t very good.”
Everton bought a load of rubbish in the summer, expensive rubbish.
“The one thing Ozil hasn’t got is a heart.”
“Arsenal are a bunch of rogues.”
We never relied on Gilesy for facts and figures either, but for many years we relied on him to pull the game’s conventional wisdom off at half-time and substitute it for actual wisdom.
It was up to him to refute the notion that there is a bad time to concede, or there is such a thing as scoring too early. All of football’s mind tricks could be avoided if you heeded Gilesy’s advice and played the game on its merits.
He was even ready to dismantle conventional wisdom about punditry itself since he never believed in predictions. He signed off this week’s proceedings by refusing to tell Yates who he thought should be the new Everton manager, simply because there is no way of accurately forecasting how these things pan out.
Gilesy always preferred to focus on the important things we did know. While other pundits would excuse a player who ‘just needed to work on his final ball’, Gilesy would note that the final ball was quite crucial, all told.
Once, when Abou Diaby was dazzling with his quick feet and ability to wriggle out of tight midfield corners, Gilesy expressed his concerns about players who look better the less time or space they have.
He preferred midfielders who relished space and simplified matters and this week Manchester City’s Rodri was his representative on the pitch, making himself available to receive the ball, getting hold of it, dictating the game.
And as the managerial merry-go-round spun ever faster, Giles simplified that, too: “90% of the job is getting in the players you want and getting rid of the players you don’t want.”
Sadlier’s book has given us a different perspective on The Panel. The way he describes being treated, by Dunphy in particular, points to a surprising insecurity.
So there was a certain irony in Liam Brady urging Freddie Ljungberg to tackle Arsenal’s sacred cows, to “show some balls” and take on the big names.
And there was poignancy in Brady’s sadness for the old Arsenal board of directors who have been shifted out of positions of influence. “They’re getting on in years, like ourselves.”
Before the reunion, Brady had looked forward to “a row”. But the only time one threatened to break out was when Yates suggested Arsenal’s current mess is Arsene Wenger’s legacy. Giles wasn’t having that. One ‘dinosaur’ who was eventually edged out backing another. It might be like blaming Gilesy for the fact that nobody talks about the RTÉ panel any more.
On this comeback tour, Dunphy appeared to relish his freedom from correction. But it was fitting too, that on one of the nights, Gilesy left punditry behind to be granted the freedom of Leeds, to be honoured alongside his old team-mates, for all he has given the game.
Whatever time and space that freedom grants him, he’ll make the most of it.