Monday, January 26, 2009

The Domestic Miracle of Newstalk's Off the Ball

While Off the Ball, Newstalk’s evening sports show every weekday, has received much critical acclaim, its true achievement has never really been identified. It is this: for the first time, gentlemen may face the unspeakable horror of housework, knowing that at least they can listen to Off the Ball while ironing shirts or doing laundry.

Off the Ball’s success is due to its positioning – the notion of any radio worth listening to after seven o’clock in the evening is a revolutionary one – but also to the remarkable teamwork of the show’s most notable presenters, host Eoin McDevitt and soccer correspondent Ken Early. The remarkable nature of the partnership seems lost on Newstalk management, as stand-in presenters rarely match McDevitt’s calibre, and can fall distressingly below it – sometimes to the extent of the gentleman laying down his iron to give LA Woman one more spin on the trusty CD player.

McDevitt’s particular gift is one that seems simple, but its rarity on the radio suggests that it may be more difficult than it appears. McDevitt listens. He is interested in what his contributors have to say, rather than giving the impression of a man simply sitting through a lot of yak waiting for his opportunity to put his own splendid oar in, and delight an eager nation with his pensées.

The quality of the contributors on Off the Ball is exceptional – hurling analyst Daithí Regan is a particularly standout – and the sheer length of the show means that they have a lot of time to discuss an issue, rather than simply tick off boxes. McDevitt can bring a slightly embarrassing level of awe to his weekly interviews with John Giles but then, which of us could be calm in the presence of that great man?

Early is a horse of a different colour. An Spailpín Fánach hardly ever watches soccer anymore, the cheating and cowardice having become too monstrous to ignore at this stage, but Early is a man capable of making converts. Early is that rarest of creatures, a soccer savant. In a game where “well, the lad’s a bit special” is considered seeing life steady and seeing it whole, to hear Early riff on comparisons between a player and Field Marshall Von Blucher, the man who out-Napoleoned Napoleon at Waterloo, is heady stuff indeed.

Soccer savants give the impression that the game of soccer is a precise and detailed metaphor for life itself. The most notable example of such a savant we had here was Eamon Dunphy of course, before Dunphy became a caricature of himself in his mean-spirited attacks on Giovanni Trapattoni. Early is now the inheritor of that mantle – more rapier than Dunphy’s broadsword, and always worth listening to.

McDevitt is aware of Early’s talents and, in his best form, acts as agent provocateur to Early, egging on Early to greater flights of fancy. It doesn’t always work, of course, but when it does it’s sublime. Thank God for Off the Ball – imagine how rumpled shirts would be at those eleven o’clock meetings if it were no longer on the air?

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