The Big Interview: For Tommie Gorman, sport and politics have always mixed

Tommie Gorman, recently retired RTÉ Northern Editor, carried out perhaps the most famous interview in Irish sporting history, with Roy Keane after Saipan. But sport has always been close to O'Gorman's heart, whether as Mayo manager John O'Mahony's video analyst, following his beloved Sligo Rovers and Spurs, or when his childhood home acted as a makeshift dressing room for Markievicz Park. 
The Big Interview: For Tommie Gorman, sport and politics have always mixed

Recently-retired RTÉ Northern Editor, Tommie Gorman, relaxing near his home at Kelltstown, Co Sligo. Picture: James Connolly

Although Tommie Gorman hardly uses a word of profanity over the three hours, his outlook could be described to be similar to Adam Clayton’s: while there are people who say you shouldn’t mix sport or music with politics, he himself thinks that’s kind of bullshit.

All through his career and indeed life, sport and politics have been intertwined. In almost every gig he’s had, at almost every juncture he’s been.

We’ll pick just one at random. In 1980, just months before he’d join RTÉ, he was working for a bit of a duck-and-dive operation out of Ballina called the Western Journal. You’d to be a bit of everything and do a bit of everything in a place like that, just like its founder, John Healy, the renowned columnist who finally shouted stop, and who as a younger man tried to stop opposing teams scoring goals against his beloved Charlestown. In the Journal, Gorman was a salesman, editor, reporter, news and sport, the lot, and in a way so were some of his contacts. The paper was renowned for its extensive local notes and the supplier of those for Ballaghaderreen was a school teacher and future TD by the name of John O’Mahony.

As is the nature of that beat, the notes mostly chronicled the mundane. But then the week of the 1980 Connacht final between the two counties that have claims to the place, the local bank was robbed and Garda John Morley and Garda Henry Byrne were killed in the pursuit of the perpetrators.

Gorman had known of the two men. Byrne’s brother had taught him in Summerhill College. Morley had played centre-back for Mayo for over a decade. But O’Mahony knew them far better. He and Morley were clubmates, had won a county championship together. The night they were killed, O’Mahony walked in a daze to the club field to find the rest of the community gathered there where his brother said the prayers. But not before he’d picked up the phone and obligingly filled a young reporter from Sligo in on how John Morley had lived and died.

“I’ll always remember it,” recalls Gorman, all these years later. “Putting a 72-point headline on it: ‘Slaughter at Shannon’s Cross’. We’d better copy than the nationals the following day because of John.”

O’Mahony was convinced that if Morley had lived longer he’d have one day managed Mayo but as it turned out that honour would come the way of O’Mahony himself. And when he did, he enlisted the help of his friend from the Journal days.

Back then there was no such thing as analysing or motivational videos, but between his nature and his job Gorman offered both. In 1989, the same year Gorman went to Brussels, replacing Éamonn Lawlor as RTÉ’s European correspondent, Mayo got back to Croke Park on All-Ireland final day for the first time in 38 years. In the lead-up to their semi-final win over Tyrone, Gorman had put together a video featuring slow-motion footage of Frank Noone being stretchered off in the Connacht final replay and raising a Parsons-like defiant fist to his teammates and supporters. The accompanying music was Dire Straits. ‘And though they did hurt me so bad/In the fear and alarm/You did not desert me/My Brothers In Arms’. It mightn’t have been quite Aaron Sorkin’s Two Cathedrals but it worked.

And so he kept working with O’Mahony all through the years, behind and away from the cameras. Leitrim in ’94. Galway in ’98 – though he couldn’t be in Croke Park that day because it clashed with the German election when Gerhard Schroder succeeded Helmut Kohl as chancellor. He was there in 2001 when they won it again, and nine months later could mention to Roy Keane in That Interview that if the Donnellans and O’Mahonys could patch up their differences earlier in that campaign for the greater good, then couldn’t he and Mick McCarthy?

From Sligo to Saipan, or Ballina to Brussels and then to Belfast, he’s found sport can offer some wonderful levity and humanity in politics, just like sometimes politics and conflict can creep into sport. But all the time he’s been there, seeing and hearing and getting the story.

Long before he was constantly beamed into our living rooms or he found himself in O’Mahony’s dressing room, or caught Roy after he’d stormed out of Ireland’s, Gorman learned a living room and a dressing room could be one and the same thing.

“We were brought up on Cairns’ Road, right across from Markievicz Park. There were 12 semi-detached houses and we had the last one on the row. My father [Joe] was dead before I made the connection; when you’re a child, you always think of your father as an old fella and never with the instincts of a young guy. But of course the reason he bought the house was that it was basically a corporate box for all the games in Markievicz! We could literally see out onto the pitch in front of us.

“There were no dressing rooms in Markievicz when it was first built so this one day when I was very young, this county team togged out in our living room. I can’t remember who they were, just that they had mud on their boots and Mum [Maureen] was going nuts but Dad was saying, ‘Ah, let them fire ahead!’”

That streak of tolerance was typical of the Sligo people but not necessarily of the times. Gorman was a child of the Ban that was only scrapped 50 years ago last week.

While his father loved his GAA so much it determined where he bought a house, Tommy and his siblings were that bit more partial to soccer. A crucial few years before the 1966 World Cup would capture the imagination of youngsters all across the country, pockets of the north-west could pick up signals from the Black Mountain transmitting station outside Strabane. Gorman can still clearly remember being six and seeing Danny Blanchflower sending Burnley’s Adam Blacklaw the wrong way with a penalty to seal the 1962 FA Cup. From that moment on, Spurs were his team — the one in England anyway — and the beautiful game was his first love.

Even when they’d play on the hallowed pitch of Markievicz Park their preference was for ground football, though any time they caught sight of the caretaker, they’d immediately pick it up and start fisting it, for fear it would be confiscated.

“There was definitely a very strict demarcation zone there with the Ban. For the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising fellas marched into Markievicz Park. That’s where the state and the national cause was being celebrated. There was always that connection between sport and politics.”

It wasn’t sustainable though, not least because it was out of kilter with the human and Sligo spirit. The Showgrounds had little or no issue with Gaelic; before Markievicz opened, the Showgrounds hosted a league quarter-final against Kerry where Seán Fallon buried two goals past the legendary Dan O’Keeffe before he’d go on to star with Celtic and be Peter Taylor to Jock Stein’s Clough. But with Markievicz having an issue with soccer, it was natural kids from a garrison town would side with the garrison game.

“In national school we’d play Gaelic street leagues but the best players were invariably from the working-class estates. But once they got into their teens those lads were mostly lost to the GAA. The perception was that Gaelic was for the buffs [rural lads] and soccer was for the townies.”

Thankfully times changed, and to Gorman, it’s no coincidence that once the ban was dropped, the first two soccer players to play in the GAA championship were both Sligo men. Only a year after featuring for Rovers in a memorable FAI Cup final trilogy against Bohemians, both Gerry Mitchell and David Pugh were knocking in goals for the county footballers on their way to a Connacht final.

Gorman’s alma mater epitomised that air of sporting glasnost. Being a diocesan school, Summerhill College was naturally a Gaelic footballing powerhouse. But it also accommodated basketball; Gorman can still recite lines from a poem his brother wrote about how an American called Tom O’Brien introduced them to the sport and the Sligo All-Stars and terms like ‘de-fence’ and ‘full-court press’.

Tommie Gorman picturedin 2000
Tommie Gorman picturedin 2000

Then there was a teacher they had, Fr Michael Devine, only they all called him Ricky Devine after he came back from a summer in America. It was Ricky who introduced wrestling to the school, thus allowing a lot of kids to claim they were international athletes, but he’d an even more ingenious idea — to make Summerhill perennial All-Ireland soccer contenders.

“As a school we kind of came up with a side pact with Sligo Grammar. We’d field a team in rugby and they’d beat the tar out of us to become Connacht champions and then it’d be vice-versa in soccer. Back then soccer wasn’t that widespread in schools in Connacht.”

Paul McGee, a former Irish international who’d play top-flight football with QPR, was on one of those Summerhill teams that won a soccer schools All-Ireland. Gorman himself wasn’t but still he was there; a self-confessed decent tarmac, five-a-side player but useless on a full grass pitch, he became the team’s chief bagman and fundraiser. And so that allowed him to travel to places like Lille and Liverpool and then Glasgow after Seán Fallon, the same man who shot past Dan O’Keeffe and played for and assisted Jock Stein, made sure to look after his own.

Fallon looked out for everyone, Gorman would learn. Most Saturdays when he and Stein and Celtic were in their pomp the two of them would retreat with their wives to a restaurant where a younger diner and an aspiring football manager called Alex Ferguson would try to earwig on their conversations. Stein could sometimes be guarded but always Ferguson found Fallon was hugely generous with his insights.

Neither Ferguson nor Gorman would forget. Fallon had played eight times for Ireland but only received a couple of caps. In 2012 Gorman made a small documentary on him for Nationwide and hounded John Delaney for the remaining caps so he could gift them to his grandchildren.“He eventually came up good with the caps and we were able to film his grandkids with them. He died the following week.”

And who gave the eulogy? Manchester United were flying out to Dubai on a mid-season break but while the rest of the party went on ahead Alex Ferguson instead headed for Glasgow.

By then Gorman and Ferguson were well acquainted with one another. Being a League of Ireland nut, Gorman mentioned in one of their earliest conversations that Ferguson’s brother, Martin, had managed Waterford, prompting Alex to laugh about the time the team bus broke down one night coming back from, of all places, Sligo.

Gorman could write a book on his own travels and adventures involving Sligo. “The first time I was ever on a train was for a 1969 Cup match in Longford in the snow. They were non-league at the time but they beat us, 1-0. Fellas were burning the flag. It was a disaster. But then the following year we had this big saga with Cork Hibs in the semi-final and then we had a final and replays against Bohs. That was my first time on a train to Dublin. It was magic.”

When he studied journalism up in Rathmines, he’d report on Rovers games in Dublin for the Sligo Champion; those were his first bylines. If Rovers were at home then, he’d make sure to be as well and report on the games as a stringer for the national papers; all these years on and he still lights up at the memory of going into the college library and seeing his published words in the Press and Indo. Rovers were on the rise — they’d win the league in his second and final year in college — and so was he: ahead of his final exams, he was offered a job, with the Western Journal.

The way he looked at it, he could always repeat his exams in September, so he took the job. But then in September there was another dilemma. Rovers were playing Red Star Belgrade in the first round of the European Cup. So what do you think he did? Sit the exams or have a peep behind the Iron Curtain to see the Rovers as well? Was it even a question?

It meant selling some amount of ads for the Journal to fund the trip and also involved cutting some corners as well as costs too. Contrary to every union protocol at the time, he doubled up as a photographer and was down on pitchside when the teams came out to 30,000 fans.

“There was like a moat around the pitch but when I turned around to go back into the stand the bridge had already been drawn up! So I went down with my camera to [Rovers goalkeeper] Alan Patterson and I was talking to him all through the game. ‘Jesus, it’s still nil-nil, we’ve a chance here!’ It was just a dream, dream time.”

Like the train to Longford in ’69 and Dublin in ’70, Belgrade in ’77 was a first, but it would hardly be his last working gig in Europe. Once he landed the job as RTÉ’s European correspondent, he found himself in Valetta to cover Ireland beating Malta to qualify for our first-ever World Cup. The following spring he was going round Sardinia and Sicily, showcasing where Jackie’s Army would be taking over. By the end of June he was in Rome.

His sports beat extended to more than the national team. Throughout the 1990s he was often part of RTÉ’s coverage of European club football, especially the fortunes of Manchester United. “It was less developed in the early days, a different world. I remember when United played Barcelona in the Cup Winners Cup final in Rotterdam in ’91. If I had any mates, I’d bring them along as a ‘soundman’ or to do the ‘lighting’ — Murra-yeah! Dan Mulhall, who is now the ambassador in Washington, was working for the department of foreign affairs at the time but got caught doing a job with Gerry Collins in Luxembourg so I brought his father Tom instead. And Tom couldn’t believe his luck. There was a bar in the grounds and here he was, burning the ear of Bryan Robson, who’d just lifted the Cup an hour earlier, asking him what he made of Denis Irwin who had just joined United that season. But Robson’s own family couldn’t get into the bar until we said we wanted to interview them, so we got them in that way, and that created a bit of a bond with United.”

As those years went on, everything grew — United, European football, media interest, scrutiny, security. But Gorman always found that whenever Irwin or a fellow Corkman could see the RTÉ emblem in the mixed zone, they’d make a point to stop, even the night in Barcelona Keane was suspended and missed out on playing in the European Cup final.

“At first he teased us by walking past but then, smiling, came back and did the interview. It was something inane, quite forgettable, but I thought even that interaction showed the essence of Keane: the bit of devilment, followed by the instinctive decency.”

Exactly three years later Keane would again walk past — or at least out — only to pause and talk to Gorman. Except this interview would never be forgotten. It was the scoop of the century — “It’s just about resilience; if you stay around eventually you’ll get it, whereas if you’re off the pitch it won’t happen” — and three decades in, it echoes still. Some of it may have become parodied — ‘What About the Kids?’ was a meme before memes — but Gorman doesn’t regret that. For one, when you watch the interview back, that line is nowhere near as shrill as it seems in the public imagination. Secondly, it evoked a great answer and some perspective — they’ll be okay, it’s just a football tournament. Gorman’s main regret is that ultimately it didn’t work. Keane didn’t get back on the pitch. That’s his lasting impression from that time. Along with, again, the man’s decency amidst the complexity.

“We spent a lot of time hanging around his neighbourhood that week: it was a fancy little place, Hale. But we got talking to this woman who ran a café shop and she said that whenever Roy’s father would come over, he’d often bring him in for tea and he was always so polite to her and very respectful to his father.

“And that actually brings me to the biggest regret I personally have when it comes to Roy Keane: that I didn’t make it back for his father’s funeral. As a gesture of respect.”

Now Gorman has shuffled off the pitch; outside of a documentary he’s making on the healthcare he and others now receive since his first brush with cancer over a quarter of a century ago, he has no other plans now that he’s retired in his 65th year. None outside of sport, that is.

Tommie Gorman
Tommie Gorman

He’ll go back over to White Hart Lane when he can, just like a fellow Spurs fan did shortly after he retired back in 2015. “On Peter Robinson’s last day of doing business, he was at a north-south ministerial council meeting in Armagh. Naturally his relationship with the south had been tetchy enough down the years but that day Enda Kenny as Taoiseach presented him with nine volumes of Irish biographies but more importantly an envelope with two tickets for a Spurs-Arsenal derby match. And I could see, he was genuinely delighted to have received such a gift. Because he understood the person who gave it knew what made him tick. And there was something poetic that it was the head of the Irish government that gave it to him.”

Robinson and Gorman have often bonded over Spurs, not least when Lucas Moura stunned Ajax at the death of that 2019 Champions League semi-final, but the truth is, if you want to know what makes Tommie Gorman himself tick, it’s something much closer to home.

These days he’s gorging on the Watch LOI pass. “It’s one of the great things about the pandemic: you’re able to see your team’s away games now. I’d even prefer now to watch Bohs and Pat’s than West Ham and Southampton.

“Because it’s our league. I think it’s wonderful. To me Rovers are the absolute DNA of Sligo. We’ve a beautiful ground. It’s owned by the people. It’s in the centre of town. I can’t drive past the Showgrounds without feeling something that’s beyond pride.”

Rovers know what makes him tick. For years Gorman has served on fundraising and management committees for the club and continued to pen articles for their website as enthusiastically as that student in the Rathmine years. When the club’s grounds reopen, the 500th tile on the Showground Wall will be unveiled and dedicated to him.

A part of him even fancies playing again. “There’s a game in Sligo every Sunday on the beach on Rosses’ Point. These lads now are real townies, real Sligo Rovers guys. There’s one fella who’s got his two hips replaced but he’s still there. So I’m seriously thinking of going back to that!”

It’s still the beautiful game. Sure how can you retire from that?

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