One of the few joys of watching the RTÉ coverage of Ireland’s Euro humbling against Croatia the other night was being able to soak up the wisdom of Eamon Dunphy, John ‘Johnny’ Giles and Liam Brady from the remoteness of an Irish pub in Paris. Perhaps, given the ‘critical’ distance I had achieved, I would be better placed to appreciate the perspectives of three men who previously to me seemed to represent the kind of self-neutralising defeatism and doomed bar-stool utopianism that also prevailed in Irish political life and public discourse.
Putting a brave face on it, I hoped to glean some insight into the critical framework brought to bear on the game by these seemingly ever-present pundits. Instead, even from a thousand kilometres away, what they had to say seemed like bollocks, but then I haven’t played football at the highest level – something at least two of the Dunphy-Giles-Brady triumvirate have achieved.
For the uninitiated, this is what happens: before a big game they sound off, structurelessly and at length, about something they don’t really seem to care for anymore: football. Often this punditry takes place before a Champions League game, when Dunphy and Giles can ‘hilariously’ – at the drop of oleaginous presenter Bill O’Herlihy’s pen – trigger an irrational hatred, best symbolised by their epic two-man efforts to convince the world that Cristiano Ronaldo is not a good player. But at other times, more memorably, it takes place around a Republic of Ireland qualifier or, less frequently, tournament game. When Ireland win, Dunphy and Giles grumble ineffectually, pointing out the shortcomings of the manager’s tactics – which are either ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ to Dunphy and Giles, who disdain all that ‘false nine’ shite. But when the national side lose, they come into their own – Dunphy pursing his lips, preening like a tit, and gleefully pushing a big red button marked ‘your own nihilism’.
Sadly, this is where Dunphy, Giles, Brady – or whoever else has wandered in – are at their best. (Graeme Souness was a brief visitor to the RTE studios on a number of occasions, and brought a rare intelligence to a place where everyone had long been telling themselves what they already know, namely: ‘not good enough, Bill’.) Dunphy’s onscreen meltdowns and childish sideswipes at his ‘fellow professionals’ are the stuff of legend, but I’d argue they’re a logical result of RTÉ’s longstanding decision to cover proximately scheduled games in epic blocs: the coverage of Euro 2012 on RTÉ2 runs from around half four in the afternoon to after ten at night, with only ad breaks to space out the banter. The result of this kind of scheduling is that exhaustion sets in under the studio lights, and occasional bright-spots of controversy are sparked and fanned by the bored pundits in order to keep themselves and their audience interested.
This often makes watching RTÉ football punditry a lot like watching a live feed from the Irish Parliament, another near-Warholian engagement for prolonged periods with the drab and uninteresting. As with politicians’ performances in the Dáil, Dunphy, Giles et al are largely unprepared and have a misplaced faith in their abilities to improvise. If you watch live footage from the Dáil for too long, you want to leave the country; if you watch too much of RTÉ’s coverage, you end up reaching for the remote control and, in a sort of metaphor for emigration, flicking to find Jake Humphrey and Alan Shearer struggle with applied notions of presence and absence.
Nevertheless, there is something vaguely sinister about the persistent presence of a group of men who have dominated the popular discourse about football in Ireland for a quarter of a century. In this, they stand as figureheads of an ageing Irish society that has failed to fully acknowledge its recent economic and cultural catastrophe and instead reverted to the same vacuous bonhomie that greased the wheels during the last twenty years or so as if nothing earth-shattering ever happened.
Additionally, Dunphy and Giles’s ‘world-class player’-based faux-utopian yearnings echo the efforts of establishment figures, most notably Fintan O’Toole, to ‘renew the [Irish] Republic’ in late 2010. In a particularly apocalyptic context – the cost of Ireland’s borrowing on the markets was soaring and a deal with the IMF was only weeks away – O’Toole’s attempts at renewal took the form of a series of articles in the Irish Times, a very middle-class march to the centre of Dublin city, and his book Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic, which became a bestseller in Ireland. Everything seemed to be building towards a new political party that would better embody the interests and political imaginary of the Irish middle class, but when a general election was called in early 2011 such a party failed to emerge and an unwieldy coalition of the neoliberal Fine Gael and the Irish Labour Party came to power. The new government adopted a breezy ‘business as usual’ attitude that belied Ireland’s status as a zombie nation. Public service reforms were continually mooted as Fine Gael took its cue from Cameron’s Conservatives in an attempt to pare back the corporatist ‘Partnership’ approach that had helped inflate Irish public services wages and robbed highly-complicit unions of their traditional role. RTÉ, as a publicly funded body, took symbolic steps to reduce the pay of its extremely well-imbursed stars. Nevertheless, in spite of notable journalistic missteps that would no doubt have undermined British broadcasters, the station remains relatively untouched.
The continued presence of Dunphy, Giles and Brady – all day, every day – says to Ireland: same as it ever was. Reassuring.
Posted by Karl Whitney