Why I still miss Joe Brolly

I’ve just stumbled on a football article which declares that RTÉ’s Head of Sport (note the capitals) Declan McBennett  is “adamant” that the right decision was made to remove Joe Brolly from The Sunday Game before last year’s All-Ireland football final replay. He doesn’t really give a reason: “The decision was made and I was happy to stand over the decision and I believe it was the right decision. The optics didn’t concern me. Because I’m not about the optics. To my mind, it was about getting the best people on the replay. We brought in Stephen Rochford”.

Stephen who?

Joe Brolly says he decided to speak out about some unwelcome changes that were happening on The Sunday Game.

“Very quickly, things became much more controlled and scripted. It was very, don’t say that, don’t say this. For the All-Ireland final we virtually got a script.”

McBennett doesn’t really deal with this point of Brolly’s: that the pundits were being asked to talk along pre-decided lines. He says instead that a pundit needs to have three things – credibility, informed opinion and the ability to articulate that opinion.

I recognise McBennett. Years ago when I presented radio documentaries on the B(ritish)BC, you got two types of producer: the one who allowed you maximum leeway, playing to your strengths, and one who continually channelled you until it was a question of guessing what they wanted and trying to do it. To its credit, the B(ritish)BC in the great majority of cases provided producers who gave me the room to give of my best. In contrast, the limiting, cautious producers sometimes irritated me to the point where I’d just feel I had to opt out of the whole programme.

But back to Joe Brolly. Anyone with half a brain can see that Brolly’s personality is knitted into his opnions.  His opinions are strong and they often provoke a strong reaction – sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing.  But people like that are what make TV sports programmes work. To try to harness that sparkle is like putting  Arkle between the shafts of a cart carrying a load of dung.

Was Brolly credible as a pundit? Of course – he knew the game from grass-roots to top brass. He had won an All-Ireland medal with Derry. He coached young people in his local club.

Was he informed? Of course he was. He was able to draw comparisons between players, between teams, between what County A had achieved over the past ten years as opposed to County B.  He knew the game and he knew the role it played in Irish life.

Was he articulate?  Pardon my French, but for fuck’s sake. He is a barrister. You don’t get to be a successful barrister if you’re not articulate. And the one thing virtually everyone would agree on is that Brolly on TV was never lost for words.

So what is McBennett’s problem? Well, producers and management in organisations such as RTÉ don’t like presenters or pundits who can think for themselves. When a presenter or pundit becomes successful, they like to intimate to anyone who will listen that actually, they the producer/manager put the presenter/pundit where s/he is – we made him/her, we can unmake him/her.

So well done Mr McBennett. You’ve successfully axed one of the most effective GAA pundits we’ve had in years, and the reasons you give are laughable, since they actually are a good description of what it was that made Brolly such a sparkling, infuriating, exciting pundit.

Maybe McBennett could write a book  – How I Drained the Life out of the Sunday Game. With the subtitle A Sporting Tragedy.

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