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RTÉ’s WC Coverage: At Best, Disappointing. At Worst, Shambolic

Conor Hayes lambastes the RTÉ panel for their apparent lack of preparation for this year’s World Cup.

Eamon Dunphy stared down the lens of the camera and apologised. It was standard fare for when a bad word is uttered on television before the watershed, no one is actually offended but the apology is necessary lest people be upset by the lack of one. The camera angle and the gradual close-up were a bit dramatic, you couldn’t help but be reminded of Richard Nixon looking into the abyss and telling the world he would resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow.

Few people cared about Dunphy letting slip a four letter word but many would have accepted an apology for much of the analysis offered on his channel during the World Cup. Nobody should say sorry for having an opinion, but Dunphy and his experienced colleagues have insulted the viewer with the complete lack of preparation and research that has gone into their punditry this time around.

We’ve been told that Helder Postiga plays in Latvia, news I’m sure, that will please football fans in Riga. That Argentina will eventually struggle due to their average centre-half ‘Lorenzo’. At one point Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri were accused of leading the French mutiny in South Africa. This must have been done over the phone as neither were picked by Raymond Domenech in 2010. I could go on, such a litany of errors which either no one cares or has enough knowledge to correct have transferred much of RTÉ’s coverage from outdated but still entertaining to outdated and embarrassing.

Watching Dunphy scramble around for a coherent point is probably sadder than most people realise. In ‘Only A Game?’ and ‘A Strange Kind of Glory’ the Drumcondra native has written two of the most critically acclaimed football books ever written. I read ‘Only A Game?’ decades after it was published but its relevancy and the searing criticism of many aspects of the game still felt fresh.

Dunphy was one to challenge the consensus not on a mission to rile people up but because sometimes it is the right thing to do. Now though, he plays a role as an agent provocateur for his own amusement. He is television’s version of the twitter troll and at times can be just as offensive.

The malaise that has set in around RTÉ’s coverage can not be solely put down to the former Millwall man. Bill O’Herlihy has spent much of the tournament looking uninterested. The once masterful anchor used to only interject when absolutely necessary to move the conversation along, in this World Cup he has been constantly offering us his opinion. It’s as if before he retires Bill wants us all to be aware that after all these years of pretending he doesn’t, he actually knows a hell of a lot about the game. It’s not working.

Liam Brady too has often come into the studio unprepared, confusing Georgios Samaras and Pete Sampras his personal highlight. John Giles has given the same analysis he’s given for twenty years and will continue to give for two more decades if he stays on the air.

The decision by Ryle Nugent to only send two commentary teams to Brazil was sensible. Travelling around the country during a World Cup is expensive and the panelists’ hefty salaries have to be paid. What’s less clear is why they have had their other commentary teams try and hoodwink us into believing they are in South America. Jim Beglin discussing Curitiba as if he’d been walking around the place in the run-up to the game was the nadir of this charade. It has left the viewer with another reason to feel like their intelligence is being insulted.

All sports punditry has an obsessional and curious relationship with narratives. For instance, if Argentina win it all this is Lionel Messi’s World Cup. He might produce three stinkers in the final knockout games while his teammates perform heroically and collect the cup but the narrative is already in place that Lionel Messi took an average squad to Argentina’s third triumph.

On RTÉ when the elder statesmen are in the chairs, there are always, no matter what the game or the competition, two concurrent narratives. One is the ‘honesty of effort’ narrative presented by Giles. This one is pretty simple, the team that does ‘the right stuff’ will always win, no matter the tactics and strategy is employed by the manager. This narrative can’t change because what exactly ‘the right stuff’ is will fit whichever team comes away with the victory.

The other one comes from Dunphy and we can call this one ‘the football apocalypse’ narrative. Again this is easy to get our heads around, football is in a steep and inexorable decline and events on the pitch illustrate this. If Brazil go out of the World Cup without winning it, it’s the worst Brazil team the panel have ever seen and shows football is dying. If Brazil win it all on July 13th, it’s the worst Brazil team the panel has ever seen and their winning of the World Cup also proves that football is on the way out. The narrative remains unchallenged.

The old boys club telling us things aren’t what they used to be grows tiresome very quickly. While other stations and media outlets also subscribe to simplistic narratives there is always a chance they can be scrutinised, often from within. They also change and evolve over time and usually there is always hope for a team or a player’s redemption. There is no such wiggle room on RTÉ. Kenny Cunningham during this World Cup tried to go against the prevailing wind on Roy Hodgson’s England, Dunphy then proceeded to bully and humiliate the former defender for having the audacity to disagree with him. It made for the type of uncomfortable viewing that RTÉ must of thought they had left behind forever when Pat Kenny gave up the Late Late.

The state broadcaster can always show us the viewing figures and prove that they are impressive as always. It’s true despite my complaints, out of misplaced loyalty and convenience, I still choose RTÉ’s coverage over cross channel rivals. But if being slightly more appealing than the golf club banter with Alan Partridge and David Brentisms on BBC and ITV is the goal then it shows just how much the channel’s standards have slipped.

In the grand scheme of things sport is not that important and the talking around sport even less so. But the other side of that coin is, if football coverage leaves you feeling this short-changed, this annoyed and this insulted then it must be truly atrocious. It feels like a long time ago now, but RTÉ used to do brilliant football coverage.

It feels like a long time ago, because it was a long time ago.

Conor Hayes, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.