Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Des Cahill, and the Most Important Job on Television

The jury is in. Des Cahill is doing a superb job as host of The Sunday Game.

There were concerns in some quarters – in this quarter, actually – that Des was too much of a party man to host the most important sports show in Ireland. The Sunday Game is the true Dáil Éireann, the meeting of the Gael where issues of great national import are discussed. You can’t – or at least, you shouldn’t – have any eejit in the chair and the concern was that Cahill’s tremendous need to be liked would cloud his journalistic judgement.

Des used to get very uncomfortable on Sportscall when people called in to question refereeing decisions – how would he handle the white heat of the Sunday Game sofas?

As it turns out Des handles the challenges like Jack O’Connor handles his footballers – both are men fully in control of their kingdoms. Now in mid-season form in his second season, Des Cahill’s particular gifts are clear, and the Sunday Game is much better as a result.

Cahill’s first gift is his ability to put people at ease. Cahill’s immediate predecessor on the Sunday night show, Pat Spillane, not only had no interest in putting people at their ease, Pateen rather revelled in making his guests suffer. If people stood up to him and gave as good as they got, it made for great TV. But nobody ever did.

A Sunday Game panellist is not a media creature. He is more familiar with Anton O’Toole than Anton Savage, and for this we should all thank the good God. But it does mean that the panellists are often uncomfortable in the studio, meaning that they clam up and say nothing. And that’s no good.

Cahill gift is to coax the panel’s real opinions out of them. He establishes a bond of trust with them that makes them visibly more relaxed, making them forgot they’re on TV in the first place, and allowing them to express the same opinions they would to the buck standing next to them at a game. It looks easy, but it’s not. It’s a gift as much as it’s a skill, and Cahill has it.

Cahill’s second gift, his remarkable empathy, is the reason that the panellists so warm to him. Cahill is a man who is actually interested in what they have to say, even to the extent of getting lost himself in the conversation.

Some presenters will look at the clipboard to see what’s next to the detriment of the conversation. A panellist could remark as an aside that a certain county has introduced the revolutionary idea of conjuring the Hornèd One on Walpurgis night to see if the Dark Lord can play on the edge of the square for seventy minutes on Sunday as they’re wild stuck.

This won’t knock a stir out of Clipboard Man, who will only make a hamfisted link to the Lory Meagher Cup item that’s next on The List. By contrast, Des will happily clear the decks to discuss the prospect of the smell of sulphur outweighing that of Deep Heat in coming years, and let Lory paddle his own canoe for a while.

This attention to detail is the pearl beyond price for this sort of show, because Des Cahill wants to discuss what everybody is discussing on Sunday night, rather than being in thrall to a running order set in stone.

An Spailpín suspects that Des is a little starstruck after all these years, which is wonderful. One problem with working in TV is that people can think they’re the star. Whereas last Sunday night Cahill was clearly awestruck in having Diarmuid Ó Súilleabháin in the studio, and thrilled to broadcast the Rock’s famous point against Limerick again.

It was the same when Cahill hosted that tribute to the Munster Championship last year. It was hard not to have one’s back up slightly at one Championship being elevated above all the rest, but Cahill was so drawn by the stars in the room that it was impossible not be drawn in just as much. Cork legend Kevin Hennessy was a particular star that night, and An Spailpín hopes he’s still doing well.

Gaelic Games are amateur sports played in a very small country where everybody knows everybody else. That makes them extremely difficult to report on, because you can’t pick on amateur players who do not pull down the sort of money Ronaldo et al do, but you can’t not analyse the games either.

The Sunday Game doesn’t always get it right. An Spailpín thought the Leitrim full-back could have done without getting patronised by Pat Spillane a few weeks ago, for instance – but Des Cahill’s enchantment with the games reflects the enchantment of the Gael, and we rest easy that the true Dáil is at last in full session. Besides; Dara Ó Cinnéide still has time on his side.