Thursday, May 18, 2006

RTÉ's Soccer Analysis

Four Wise MenMartin Kelner's remarks in this morning's Guardian concerning the ITV coverage of the Champions League Final and the omens for that station's coverage of the looming World Cup are yet another reason for Irish people to utter silent prayers of thanks for RTÉ's soccer analysis team. ITV have been awful for as far back as An Spailpín can remember, hitting particular lows with Jimmy Greaves making a fool of himself in 1990 and the misfortunate Paul Gascoine doing the same in 2002. The BBC used to be excellent, but Gary Lineker and the once-excellent Alan Hansen are now in the comfort zone, phoning it in from the golf course or else running a contest to see if either of them can outdo Lawro in a smirkathon. As for Wrighty, An Spailpín has no idea what sort of a zone he's in, but I'm pretty dang sure that not even Ryanair would fly there.

RTÉ are operating at a different level, as different from the BBC or ITV coverage as the shadows in Plato's cave are from the outside world itself. RTÉ can take little credit for this, for if this were a result of deliberate planning on RTÉ's part, it would be replicated on the other sports programmes, which it quite clearly is not. The convergence of Bill O'Herlihy, John Giles, Eamon Dunphy and Liam Brady is one of those unique stellar events, like an alignment of planetary bodies, that will only happen once in millennia, and we are continually privileged to bear witness. It's a privilege for which we should be grateful, as it cannot last forever - let's hope that it won't be only when it's over that we finally realise what a unique thing we had.

Bill O'Herlihy has to take an enormous amount of the credit for maintaining the dynamic that exists in the first place. Many years ago, the penny dropped with O'Herlihy that nobody cares what the chairman thinks - the people are tuning in to hear the stars. As such, O'Herlihy deliberately takes a back seat to give Giles, Brady and Dunphy more room on their canvas. If anything, O'Herlihy deliberately plays the gom, like a guy who just turned around to you a bar after watching the first half on the telly in the corner and asks (as O'Herlihy has often asked): "My God lads, every paper I take up has pictures of David Beckham in it, telling me what a star he is. If that's the case, how come Real Madrid are three-nil down at half-time tonight in this crucial Champions League encounter?"

O'Herlihy can act the gom, of course, because he's so very far from being one. The man's intelligence and sense of what works and doesn't work in televisual terms is razor sharp, as evidenced by a memorable night last November when he sensed that Eamon Dunphy was coming to the boil. O'Herlihy let him off, and treated the nation to some vintage Dunphy: "Niall Quinn is a creep, the man is an idiot ... Robben is a bird brain ... Duff has never been world class ... I don't have to listen to you calling Roy Keane a thug, he's the greatest Irish player ever. These fellas weren't even in the same class."

The "these fellas" Eamon mentioned above were in fact Eamon's fellow panellists on the night, Mr Giles and Mr Brady. It wouldn't do to be sensitive under those RTÉ lights. Dunphy is a mercurial character, a volatile combination of sharp intelligence, passionate emotion, and a sharp disregard and disdain for cant, hypocrisy and bluff. The most important thing that Dunphy adds to the RTÉ panel mix, that unique combination that only exists on RTÉ's soccer analysis, is that passion. Dunphy is quite often wrong, in fact - he was wrong about Michel Platini and he was wrong about Giles and Brady above - but he is always right to be so passionate about what he believes in. Dunphy was right to throw that pen across the studio in frustration during the Ireland-Egypt game in 1990, because while other people yak on about "the beautiful game" Dunphy, God help him, means it. The notion of it is very real to him, and he will not have it sullied on his watch. It's this passion and intensity that legitimises all the soccer debate on RTÉ - Dunphy's passion tells the viewing public that it's right and correct to get this bothered about something that others may see as "just a game," that debating soccer intelligently is a worthy pursuit among intelligent people.

That passion can lead to people suffering collateral damage, as Dunphy strikes out at those whom he perceives as a threat, his crack at Brady and Giles not being "in the same class" as Roy Keane being an example. Liam Brady was not in Roy Keane's class - and Roy Keane operated at a very high level for a very long time - only because Brady was a class above. Liam Brady is the greatest Irish soccer player ever bar none, and the reason for that is because Brady played in Italy in the 1980s when Serie A was the greatest league in the world, and was acclaimed as a hero and sportsman by the greatest fans there are. Keane did not face the same sort of weekly examinations that Brady faced in Italy, week in, week out, and that must exalt Brady to a higher echelon of class.

Brady, as a soccer player, had one trait even greater than his famously sweet left peg, and it's a trait that he displays as an analyst, especially in his ability to stand up the hectoring of Dunphy when Eamon gets in a snit. Liam Brady had to take a penalty to win Juventus their second league in succession in 1981 or thereabouts. A pressure situation at the best of times, but consider the added pressure that Brady was under, knowing that the club had signed Michel Platini from Paris St Germain and that Brady's days in the club were numbered. This was his last kick with the club - where mortal man would have bitter and skied it to the stands, Brady slotted it home to win the league for Juventus, the club that had betrayed him. That takes guts.

Liam Brady was top scorer in Serie A that year - he scored eight goals, including that final game penalty. Italy separated the sheep from the goats in those days.

Despite their occasional spats over Roy Keane - Brady still makes a point of condemning Keane for leaving Saipan in 2002, when it would be so much easier to swim with the tide - Brady and Dunphy are as one in their vision of soccer as it should be. But the supreme architect of this vision of soccer as a Platonic ideal is John Giles. Giles has been Mr Soccer in RTÉ for damn near thirty years. Giles has educated the nation about soccer, because, and it's important to remember this, soccer is not that big a deal in Ireland. The misfortunate masses who throng the suburban pubs of Dublin in the winter watching Aston Villa and Everton think they love soccer, but they don't - they love not being at home getting an earful from the mot. They are also in favour of cheap lager. But they've been sold the Premiership package, just as they've been sold their horrid rings and their gauche pimped-up River Island shirts. Beyond the Pale, soccer is insufficiently manly, unlike football, hurling or rugby, to be taken seriously. As such, it has taken Johnny Giles fully thirty years to get the appeal of this game across.

Johnny Giles is thinking about something other than the mindless consumption of product, or the harebrained pursuit of a ball for an hour and a half. Giles sees soccer in its pristine state, a game that has probably never existed anywhere, man being frail and mortal. Giles has soccer axioms in which he believes, and he repeats these as mantras. Play the game the right way. Let the ball do the work. Be honest. Don't abdicate responsibility. Keep doing the right things, even if things are not going well. Things will go well if you keep doing the right things, if you remain honest to the game and its principles.

A few weeks ago, Giles made a comment about Arsenal's Gilberto Silva that gave an insight into what Giles really thinks about soccer. Silva, said Giles, "lacks the moral courage" to correctly man-mark someone. Giles believed that Silva's attention would wander, instead of doing what he was told and what his team-mates were relying on him to do.

Moral courage. How many other sporting pundits would express themselves in terms of moral absolutes, of right and wrong? Only Giles. And that is what separates Giles from the herd. When Giles became a full-time pundit for the first time in the 1980s he wrote an autobiography in which he detailed, coldly and clinically, violent acts he committed as a player for Don Revie's Leeds in the 1970s. Again, for Giles it was a question of moral courage - he did not think he had the right to criticise other players if he did not give a full and frank admission of what he did himself. It was known that Revie's Leeds were violent, but Giles was thought of generally as an artist among artisans. It would have been easy - and potentially more lucrative - to let that impression continue, but the easy option has never been Giles' way.

John Giles is a giant among pygmies. He is a man that wears his expertise lightly, jollying along on George Hook's excruciating drivetime show on Newstalk, or displaying infinite patience with those strange, strange young men that present Off the Ball on the same channel. But when given his head, and in the company of peers like Dunphy and Brady, under the skilled ring-mastery of Bill O'Herlihy, Giles elevates soccer debate to the sublime. Ná laga Dia é ná a lucht.

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