The Kieran Shannon Interview: Calling it as he sees it

For 20 years Michael Corcoran has been working in RTÉ, covering and commentating on the Irish provinces’ exploits in Europe, writes Kieran Shannon.

The Kieran Shannon Interview: Calling it as he sees it

For 20 years Michael Corcoran has been working in RTÉ, covering and commentating on the Irish provinces’ exploits in Europe, writes Kieran Shannon. But long before capturing O’Gara’s heroics and Claw’s sneaky smokes, he also interviewed Tiger, presented love songs as a Leaving Cert student on pirate radio, and befriended the late great Pat McAuliffe‘

O’Gara, calling for the ball. Denis Leamy tries to get it. Back towards O’Gara. The attempt at drop goal, outside the 22! Towards the posts. O’Gara with the drop at goal! It’s gone between the posts!! RONAN O’GARA, BETWEEN THE POSTS, AFTER ABOUT A HUNDRED AND FORTY-FIVE PHASES!! THE REFEREE HAS BLOWN THE FULL-TIME WHISTLE!! NORTHAMPTION HAVE BEEN ABSOLUTELY KICKED WHERE IT HURTS MOST! MUNSTER, AT THE DEATH!!’

As well as commentating on most of the great Irish rugby landmarks of the millennium, Michael Corcoran has had a few of his own recently.

Ireland’s feeble attempt in Cardiff last month at denying Wales the Grand Slam was his 100th Six Nations game in the commentary box and his 200th match covering the senior national side. And it’s 20 years now since he made the move up to Dublin.

Initially it was supposed to be just for three weeks covering for Darragh Maloney on holidays, but then they asked him how did he feel about staying and he never went home. Just like his career, Irish and Munster rugby was about to go to another stratosphere, and they needed a new, different, provincial voice to capture and represent it.

He was there for them in Vicarage Road in ’99, right at the birth of O’Gara and company winning European epics at the death. Just like today, Munster were playing a Galacticos-filled Saracens side in a pivotal European Cup game at a soccer ground, but so much was different back then: about rugby, about how you prepped for it, about how you covered it.

Minutes after excitedly describing how O’Gara had converted a Jeremy Staunton try to give Munster a remarkable 35-34 win, Corcoran had to leg it down from the back of the stand to try to get an interview with the victorious coach.

Unlike now, there was no blazer or bib to block him heading down the players’ tunnel, demanding to see accreditation, so he navigated his way to the door of the Munster dressing room to find Peter Clohessy leaning against it.

Where’s Kidney? Clohessy nodded in the direction of the field. “He’s out there with the lads doing the warmdown.”

Cheers, Claw. But no cooldown for you, what? Clohessy produced the cigarette he’d been holding behind his back, took a big drag, puffed, winked and grinned. “I’m in the middle of it!”

If Clohessy was decidedly old school, Corcoran was new school, as in he didn’t come from a rugby one, unalike most of the sport’s previous commentators. Coláiste Chríost Rí was more a football academy, with 1990 double All Ireland winners like Tony Nation and the late John Kerins among his classmates.

But, being of Cork just like himself, Corcoran found it was a far more ecumenical environment than that. He ran cross-country for the school, and later Leevale, which was why anyone who happened to come across himself and Sonia O’Sullivan having lunch outside a Melbourne café during Ireland’s tour of Australia last summer shouldn’t have been perplexed. Back in the day, they used to run the same circuits, just at contrasting speeds.

Corcoran was reared on the old Ballinlough Road, around the corner from St Finbarr’s Hospital. It was border country: on one end of the street, Blackrock; on the other, Nemo. So he played for both; hurling with the Rockies, football with the Rangers.

For soccer then he togged out for Glasheen, and a bit of rugby with Sunday’s Well — only the bit, not too well, just like all the other sports, really. But in hindsight, that helped: by his 20s, he was free to cover matches at the weekends instead of playing in any. And by being not particularly good at any sport, it meant he didn’t confine himself to just the one.

“I’d consider myself a real Corkman that way,” he says. "I remember when working in the Cork media, the Jury’s Hotel Sports Star of the month was a huge thing.

At one annual awards I was at a table and [international showjumper] Robert Splaine was sitting next to me. So you had to be able to hold a conversation about a multitude of sports. Because Cork is into every sport.

Breaking into the broadcasting game, he also had to display a versatility, working on pirate radio during his school summer holidays, and again when holding down a “proper job” in insurance after graduating in business studies from the old Cork RTC.

On Saturday nights for Cork City Local Radio, he used to present Songs of Love under the moniker of Mike Read, not too dissimilar to a BBC DJ of the time.

By 1989, the pirates and Read were no more, but Corcoran was covering sport for the fully-licenced Radio South. Not just that, but he was on the box as well.

In the days before the Sky dish, the local cable TV provider, Cork Multi-Channel, had its own channel, squeezed between Network Two and BBC One on the old black set-top box, its spirit pure pirate: low-budget, even ramshackle, but brilliantly inventive and a real breeding ground for talent. Trevor Welch, Marty Morrissey, Tony O’Donoghue and Des Curran would all have done their first pieces to camera, and Corcoran was from that stable as well.

Every Friday, they’d roll out a half-hour preview show, then on a Monday, review for an hour all the action they’d covered over the weekend. You had to be able to present, interview, commentate, analyse – everything — on everything. Welch might have specialised in soccer, but he still needed someone like Corcoran beside him on the desk to discuss and sometimes interview Pat Morley and John Caulfield and their latest exploits.

It was the converse then with the rugby; Corcoran the correspondent from Temple Hill, but Welch suitably comfortable to make conversation with a Moss Finn in the Georges Quay studio or a Jury’s Sports Star function.

Munster’s Ronan O’Gara kicks the match-winning drop goal against Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup match. Picture: Diarmuid Greene
Munster’s Ronan O’Gara kicks the match-winning drop goal against Northampton in the 2011 Heineken Cup match. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

Between them then they’d divvy up the likes of GAA and basketball; Corcoran was on the mike the evening Liam McHale and his Ballina Braves fell into Bishop Buckley’s lap during a free-for-all in the Neptune Stadium that had the big shots up in Donnybrook screaming for tape that would later surface on American cable channels, alongside clips of South American soccer referees being chased by homicidal players.

When Fred Couples opened the Lee Valley Course the year after he’d won the Masters, Corcoran was there to witness and interview him and Christy O’Connor Jnr as they re-enacted their famous Ryder Cup final day pairing.

By then the local RTÉ base was also availing of his talent and they’d go on to call upon his versatility extending to golf. Twenty-one years ago this summer, Pat O’Donovan, his producer at RTÉ Cork, got a tip off that some very special guests were getting in a round in Ballybunion ahead of the British Open in Royal Birkdale. O’Donovan couldn’t even bring himself to mention their names in case it would jinx a possible interview with them. Corcoran was to just head down there and chance his arm and turn on the charm.

The following morning, Corcoran was sitting on a wall outside the clubhouse, taking out the brick that passed for his mobile phone in those days.

Minutes later, he was ushered into a room and introduced to four smiling men extending their hand. Payne Stewart, a two-time major champion. Mark O’Meara, who had just won the Masters. Mike ‘Fluff’ Cowan, the spit of Gus from Our House and the caddy for the fourth man in the room, a beaming 22-year-old called Tiger Woods.

Hey, Mike, nice to meet you!

All four were more than happy to be interviewed, just not for too long — “It was like speed dating” — leaving Corcoran with some gold to bring back to Cork.

“On Monday just past, I did an interview with Johann van Graan down in Limerick, and in a few minutes was able to transfer it to Dublin on my laptop. But back then, I had to drive all the way back from Ballybunion to Cork.

"And for Sunday Sport to get those interviews, I had to have a technician in Cork press ‘Play’ while on the other end of the line a technician in Dublin would be pressing ‘Record’.

The guy in Dublin might even have to say, ‘Could you rewind it back there? It’s after dropping out.’

The following week O’Meara would win in Birkdale. The following year Woods and Stewart would each win a major title. Yet before that 1999 season was through Stewart would tragically die in a plane crash, making Corcoran treasure all the more that morning in Ballybunion.

He recently lost another special person from those RTÉ Cork years. For close to a decade Corcoran and Pat McAuliffe shared the same office space, their desks were side by side. And even 20 years after Corcoran would leave for Dublin, he and his old comrade were still constantly in touch. Their last chat would have been less than two weeks before McAuliffe’s sudden death.

They had this running joke, stemming from a jibe of McAuliffe’s how Corcoran, once the all-rounder, was working exclusively in just the one sport.

“If he rang me, he’d go ‘Rugby, rugby, rugby. Everything’s rugby with you nowadays!’ So when I called him, I’d go ‘Soccer, soccer, soccer…’ because that was Pat’s real passion.

“But what made Pat so good was he could cover everything. If I couldn’t get to Limerick for a Munster press gig, Pat could cover it. Camogie, GAA, basketball, athletics, Pat could do it. So if you were an editor, you wanted someone like Pat to cover a marking, and if you were a listener, he’d communicate how a contest was going in a language you could understand even if you weren’t that au fait with the sport. He was the ultimate pro and ultimate gentleman.

“I thought Eamonn Fitzmaurice was very perceptive with something he tweeted after Pat’s passing. ‘His 90-second interview request was indeed that and he was a gentleman and positive on the tough days.’

“And that was Pat. I did that sideline reporter gig myself for a couple of All Irelands and it’s a very challenging and emotional time for a manager, win or lose. But because Pat would ask for 90 seconds and never take any longer, they were always willing to talk to him.”

In that sense Corcoran followed McAuliffe’s example by being himself. Terms like Northampton being “absolutely kicked where it hurts most”, or hailing Leinster’s 2011 second-half Heineken Cup final display as “the greatest comeback since the invention of the sliced pan” may not have been the most refined or in the tradition of Sherwin, Cogley or Nugent, but they resonated with a constituency that would not have originally hailed from Rugby Country.

Corcoran’s commentary of those two agonising Northampton defeats to Irish provinces in European competition in 2011 both went viral, and have been cited by numerous online sites hailing him as one of the country’s two most popular and best commentators.

Passion can often trump polish to convey a moment. For rugby to cross over into the mainstream, sometimes it has meant stepping over certain forms of etiquette.

“Because I work on the radio, my job is to paint pictures in someone’s head as to what’s going on at a venue. So if you’re driving in your car, or you’re out for a walk with the radio on, I want to take you to where the match and action is. ‘It’s a penalty for Leinster, just outside the 22, five yards out from the touchline, far side, in front of the main stand.’

“A few years ago my daughter Sinead was away for a weekend with a group of girls and she was introduced to one of them as Michael Corcoran’s daughter. And she said to Sinead, ‘Sinead, I’m blind. Will you tell your dad that I can see every rugby game that he does on the radio because of the way he describes it?’ [He takes a deep breath, as if to stave off any tear in his eye].

“To me that’s the greatest compliment I could ever get, more than any award.

“I’ve had letters written on behalf of someone blind or the Council for the Blind thanking me for that the excitement the commentaries have brought to people sitting in their kitchen beside their guide dog adds so much to their day.”

And so, Tim O’Connor’s old maxim to Ryle Nugent to calibrate the levels of excitement, that you shouldn’t get as animated over a European Cup semi-final win for one of the provinces as you would if Ireland won a Grand Slam or a World Cup, isn’t one Corcoran abides by, as much as he respected both professionals.

“I just go with what’s in front of me, because you have to live for the moment and be in the moment. To me, you can’t save yourself for the next day, because the next day may never come.”

It was brought all the more home to him around this time last year. Corcoran is a Leeds United fan but his son Conor is a Liverpool supporter. Together they attended the first leg of the European Cup semi-final at Anfield, soaking up the big-match atmosphere beforehand in the Albert pub.

“We had a couple of beers, then headed into the ground because our seats were only six rows from the front and it was a good vantage spot to look at the teams warming up. At half-time, I took out my phone to take some pictures to find I had to 10-15 missed calls and messages. ‘Is everything alright? Are you okay?’ I texted one of them — Damien O’Meara — back. Yeah, why?”

And that’s when he heard. An Irishman in his 50s had been attacked outside the ground. And very often since then, he’s thought of how he could have been Sean Cox. The randomness of it.

Ten minutes earlier I had walked out the same door of that same pub at which he was attacked. If we had said, ‘Sure, we’ll have one more…’

And so tomorrow from the Aviva he’ll commentate his 19th European Champions semi-final like there is no tomorrow. And if there is one and a few more, he’ll commentate on his fifth World Cup, one he still expects Ireland to fare well in.

“I’m not sure you can have two big peaks in the one year. With respect to everyone in the Six Nations, they were all trying to do well in it without giving too much away. Like, we’re in the same group as Scotland. It’s our opening match. A rugby World Cup year is a bit like the hurling.

“I’ll never forget being at Limerick winning the All Ireland last year but don’t ask me who won the league last year.”

Although he was partial to a bit of Lionel Richie and Barry White and even Barry Manilow in his days as Mike Read, he was always more of a Christy Moore man. His favourite song? Ordinary Man.

Nothing special, nothing grand; had to work for everything I own. His mantra. His creed. His appeal.

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