Football On The Telly – Why Britain Needs A (Joe) Brolly

by | Oct 1, 2019

In their Euro ’88 review, When Saturday Comes (WSC) magazine lamented BBC commentator Barry Davies’ mid-tournament switch to cover the Wimbledon tennis. Davies would become a broadcasting fixture in SW19. But at the time, WSC considered him “relegated to covering the women’s doubles at Wimbledon by the middle of the second week.” Davies, they opined, “deserves better.”

Davies was a BBC football commentator for 16 more years. RTE Gaelic Football pundit Joe Brolly might never be an RTE Gaelic Football pundit again. Ireland’s national broadcaster ‘dropped’ the Derry man from their recent All-Ireland Football Final replay coverage, sparking rumours that they were dropping him entirely, upon which the part-taxpayer-funded organisation has dismally refused to comment to its funders, beyond insisting that he “remains under contract.” They, and Brolly, deserve better.

The seven readers of my dispatches from the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) will know of Brolly. I quote him extensively (some might say overly). But only because I believe he has provoked thought, enhanced understanding, entertained, or all three and has been RTE’s best football pundit since forever. Many view him as a ‘has-been since forever.’ Others believe that a pundit who retired from the subject of his punditry in 2001 is at ‘retirement age’ anyway. But Brolly remains a fine broadcaster, whatever he broadcasts.

A 2013, 5:46 YouTube clip (‘Tell the children to play tennis’) is Brolly at his best and, briefly, worst. His thoughts are organised, incisive and rigorously evidence-based. He brilliantly preempts the arguments against his arguments. And if you didn’t know beforehand that he was a barrister, you’d know afterwards. Yet he couldn’t resist a personal dig, exhorting viewers to “forget about” one target of his ire “as far as he’s a man,” for which the clip remains best remembered.

And he had a ‘difficult’ 2019. Joanne Cantwell became lead presenter of RTE’s GAA coverage in January and set a tone with this early exchange. Brolly: “Are you going to argue with me over every single thing that I say?” Cantwell: “If it requires an argument, yes.” Brolly: “This is going to be an extremely long year.” A controversialist All-Ireland final punditry display on September 1st shortened that long year.

Labelling Brolly controversialist, as I have, is a shorthand which does him an injustice. For he is no Chris Sutton or Alan Green, knee-jerk reactors who dictionary-define the term. The BT/BBC pundit and BBC Radio commentator offer almost nothing but negativity (“no we don’t,” they’d surely argue),often seemingly for the sake of it.

However, a view has developed of Brolly’s stronger stances as a tired schtick. The concept of “we’ve heard it all before” hasn’t ever constrained him from making us hear it all again. But even when his targets deserve repeated criticism (defensive football, control-freak coaches, abysmal Championship structures, absolutely everything about Sky Sports’ Gaelic Games involvement), viewers could be forgiven for wearying of hearing about them over and again.

Critics find it hard to believe Brolly could talk over people in court as he too often does on telly. But his loquaciousness is well-suited to a court environment. He was at his, brilliant, best on a less time-limited All-Ireland final preview by the Irish Independent newspaper’s podcast “The Throw-in” (Brolly writes a Sunday Independent column which viewers gives fair warning of his punditry focuses whenever he’s on RTE’s GAA coverage later that day). Tight-for-time studio situations leave him fighting fellow pundits for airtime, which is not a good look or sound.

And even some fans (me included) have tired of the personal attacks. His half-time suggestion that referee David Gough was “clearly influenced by the propaganda coming from Kerry” in the All-Ireland final was the hat-peg on which RTE hung his departure (and was a surprise given Brolly’s effusive personal and professional praise for Gough after an earlier big game this year). But he could have gone in 2015 after a jokey but wholly unsavoury attack on the looks of an RTE Sport colleague.

Yet the Belfast-based daily newspaper Irish News said there were 17 complaints, from a 1.1m audience, about Brolly’s All-Ireland final display, plus one call for his removal from the replay, (there were 22 moans ABOUT that removal). Miniscule, but enough for a broadcaster fearful of outspoken punditry, a fear first evidenced in Ireland by the end of Eamon Dunphy’s 40-year RTE career.

The soccer controversialist left in June 2018, insisting that RTE had “lost its nerve,” and was “living in fear” of social media “keyboard warriors.” A week earlier, RTE’s then new Head of Sport, Declan McBennett told GAA weekly paper Gaelic Life that he would not “tolerate personalised attacks on players or managers.” But only a cynic would link this to Dunphy’s decision to scarper, or to Brolly’s removal.

Dunphy was worried “about the direction RTE Sport is going down.” And British football punditry has been “down” that “direction” for years. Hence Trevor Brooking’s nearly TWENTY-year BBC punditry career. The first punditry ‘panels,’ on ITV’s 1970 World Cup coverage, were innovative. Especially while panel member Malcolm Allison was too. But blandness soon took over.

For the rest of the 70s, British football punditry ‘controversialism’ barely went beyond Brian Clough’s idiosyncrasies, before he became the self-parodical ‘Cloughie.’ In the 80s, controversialism was briefly, at a stretch, Jimmy Greaves’ “straight-talking lovable cockney” persona, before he became the anodyne “Greavsie.” And when Sky sloganised the “whole new ball” game in 1992, its controversialism really was a schtick.

Playing experience has always been a punditry gateway, in Britain AND Ireland. But media training has predominantly taught modern players how to say two-tenths-of-five-eighths of f**k all (I’ve even heard that “three points is the most important thing” after cup-ties). And when blandness is so inculcated, a controversialist schtick, rather than genuine thought-provocation, seems the way to stand out. Hence the shouty Sutton, the way too-earnest Garth Crooks and, of course, Robbie bloody Savage.

The exceptions, Sky’s Gary Neville and Graeme Souness, BBC Scotland’s Michael Stewart, Planet Angry’s Roy Keane among others, only reinforce my belief that British football punditry needs a Brolly. This belief is strongest when Savage is on-air, which may be a co-incidence (it isn’t). But there is no British Brolly.

Neville has Brolly’s eloquence and tactical nous. But Brolly can be an empty-room divider, a ‘quality’ Neville rarely possesses, even when Manchester United’s performances are so vague they are almost not there. Souness, minus ‘darker’ prejudices, might be a closer comparison. I’m always interested in what he has to say because it usually enhances understanding. Jamie Carragher is developing in that direction, although I’m unsure if even Brolly’s Dungiven brogue would be as distracting to English viewers as Carragher saying “tackling back” is to everyone outside south Merseyside.

The Beeb’s Danny Murphy has Brolly’s broadcast skill. And he made a promising punditry start on ‘Match of the Day 2’ while still playing. The brief disgust on Adrian Chiles’ face when Murphy said Fulham tactically experimented in “easier” games “like home to West Brom” will never leave me. The apparent lack of clips of this exchange is a gap in YouTube’s oeuvre. However, Murphy’s ability to offer genuine insight has receded as steadily as his hairline.

Michael Stewart combines broadcast skill with a Brolly-esque willingness to comment informedly on football and non-football matters without fear or favour (Stewart openly advocates Scottish Independence, Brolly’s language hints heavily at his Irish republican leanings and family background). Kris Boyd fulfils Sky’s faux obligation towards a Celtic/Rangers perspective on Scottish games, whoever is playing. But he can be insightful when the Blue(nose) specs are off. Frank Lampard was already an insightful freelance pundit before management called. And that dug-out experience will enhance his inevitable punditry return. Needs to lighten up, though.

ITV punditry has frequently lacked emotional AND analytical depth, except when using talent poached from other broadcasters, especially Lee Dixon. But you can’t cite controversialist punditry without reference to ubiquitous Cork grump Keane (an ITV AND Sky fixture these days), who IS Brolly when lamenting Manchester United’s decline (Derry have cascaded down Gaelic Football’s pecking order, since I saw them in the 2014 National League final).

Sky’s analysis of United’s recent ‘WTF was THAT?’ at West Ham offered us most of the best of British TV punditry; Keane, Carragher, Souness and Jose Mourinho’s humble twin brother (I was surprised Sky didn’t facilitate Neville’s inclusion, by video link or cab from the match, on which he’d co-commentated). Their discussion was fascinating, despite being a collective shoulder-shrug. But amid the funk, Keane’s disdainful despair was Brolly to a tee. The balls.ie sports website this week wrote that while some find Keane’s “eye-rolling style of punditry a bit well-worn, others find him box office” and “whatever you think of him, he’s endlessly fascinating.” Brolly…to…a…tee.

Finding a British Brolly won’t be easy. British broadcasters are starting down that road, increasingly hiring newly-retired, or still active, players whose media training hasn’t made them verbal automatons. Alex Scott is arguably the best of a varied British new-breed. But the benefits of this will be long-term (emphasis on relative youth might also explain RTE dropping Brolly…except Brolly’s main studio colleagues are Colm O’Rourke and Pat Spillane, respectively 12 and 14 years Brolly’s senior).

And GAA punditry has two innate advantages. Irish further-education offers better sporting facilities than small, often parish-based, amateur GAA clubs. Thus more top GAA players than professional footballers are further-educated. Only a snob would insist that this intrinsically means better punditry. Must help though. And GAA ex-player pundits, as amateur sportspeople, have non-sporting lives which can produce more-rounded perspectives. Who better to analyse/explain on-field action, a career footballer (Alan Shearer) or someone who is also a secondary school principal (O’Rourke)?

Brolly’s punditry perspective, “a bit of fun,” is more-rounded, even if its logical extension is Ian Wright…and even though his RTE bosses might not fully concur. But, as O’Rourke told the Irish News: “His value has not just been on the actual game, but on the wider context of the GAA and how it fits into our society.” And Dungiven councillor and GAA man Sean McGlinchey called him “a controversial figure but well-respected and a great community man (with) the work he does unseen. He is a very genuine man. People just have mixed views about how he conducts himself in the media at times.”

“Outspoken? As though speaking your mind is a negative,” Brolly tweeted earlier this month. And, unfortunately for his short-term TV punditry future, the influential people appear to think so. They are, of course, wrong, in Britain AND Ireland. Yes, those who speak their mind too often have nothing to say, in life as in punditry. But when pundits do have something to say, it should be broadcast. As O’Rourke said, lamenting Brolly’s possible loss to punditry: “The last thing you need is blandness.”