Sunday Game pundits Joe Brolly and Ciarán Whelan have faced a backlash following their half-time analysis during last Sunday’s All-Ireland senior football final, and rightly so for my money.
Despite being presented with fairly conclusive video evidence to the contrary, the pair somehow asserted that Dublin defender Jonny Cooper should not have received a second yellow card for his 35th-minute challenge on Kerry youngster David Clifford (pictured above).
Whelan said there was no foul. Brolly said it should have been a free to Dublin. Presenter Joanne Cantwell and former Kerry player Pat Spillane tried to point out Cooper’s infraction but the Dubliner and the Derryman were having none of it. Even those of us who were at the game had heard all about the bizarre exchange by the time we left Croke Park.
Here’s how it all went down. (If you’ve already seen the clip, feel free to skip this part. I wouldn’t recommend subjecting yourself to it a second time.)
BROLLY: This is a free out. Clifford manoeuvres his body around to keep him off him. Cooper tries to get around to get at the ball and instead of it being a free out, it’s a free in.
CANTWELL: He (Cooper) is holding his arm there.
BROLLY AND WHELAN: No, no, no…
BROLLY: Never in a million years.
WHELAN: It’s just two lads coming together, going for a ball. Simple as that.
SPILLANE: I think anyone knows that I’ll call something exactly as I see it, and I’m not wearing a Kerry cap. In that incident, what Clifford did for that second booking… Clifford used his body to shield the ball and what happened was Jonny Cooper grabbed him by the arm and pulled him down. It’s a yellow card. Two yellows equal red. He had to go.
BROLLY AND WHELAN: No, no, no…
SPILLANE: They’re the facts.
WHELAN: No way. That’s a terrible decision.
BROLLY: The referee must clearly have been influenced by the propaganda that has been coming from Kerry. I am so surprised because David (Gough) is so clear-minded… Clifford knows he’s on a yellow, he’s holding him off, he’s blocking him off the play.
SPILLANE: He’s not!
BROLLY: Hold on, Patrick. We confidently expected that it was a free out. In fact, I think you thought that as well, Joanne. People were shocked when all of a sudden a yellow card was administered.
JOANNE: Ciarán, the sending off is for persistent fouling, that is one foul you’re seeing there.
BROLLY: That’s not a foul. That’s a free out.
WHELAN: The way I look at it, I actually don’t think it’s even a foul. I think it’s two guys going for the ball… That’s a ‘play on’ in my opinion… But listen, we’re all going to be biased. Pat’s going to be biased to Kerry. I’m going be biased to Dublin. That’s the way we are. That’s our make-ups.
SPILLANE: Ciarán, I’m not going to be biased! I’ve never been biased to Kerry. I call something exactly as I see it.
* * *
CANTWELL: Ciarán, a straightforward question: does Cooper, or does he not, hold the arm of David Clifford in that incident?
WHELAN: I think he’s going in for the ball, Joanne…
CANTWELL: But does he hold his arm?
WHELAN: No, I don’t think he does. I don’t think he does.
There are two possibilities here: either Whelan genuinely didn’t see Cooper’s foul, which raises doubts about his ability to read a game a football, or he did see the foul but he didn’t call it straight, which raises doubts about his impartiality.
He doubled down on the controversial take in his column in Monday’s Herald, before backing down later that day on the Independent’s GAA podcast. Referee David Gough was “technically right” to send Cooper off, the ex-Dublin player eventually admitted.
I’m not sure how he suddenly reached that conclusion 24 hours after the fact. It’s not like he didn’t get enough looks at it on the Sunday.
Brolly, meanwhile, doesn’t really warrant too much discussion by this point. Like Eamon Dunphy before him, he jumped the shark a long time ago with his deliberately contrarian contributions. But look, I’m sure RTÉ are more than happy to let him rant away, knowing full well that he’ll rile enough people to keep #TheSundayGame trending on Twitter.
And therein lies the problem. The Dunphy Formula worked so well for RTÉ for so long, and Brolly has worked similar black magic on the Gaelic football side of things down through the years. From RTÉ’s perspective, why would they change a winning recipe?
Well, is it still a winning recipe? Surely we can only get baited by the same old trick – the intentionally inflammatory remark – so many times before we realise that, in actual fact, we – not Brolly – are the fools in this dynamic.
When assessing The Sunday Game, it’s important to take into account the radical changes that have taken place within the sport itself over the past decade or so. Football these days is so technical. More than ever, games hinge on tactics, which seem to be getting more and more intricate by the minute. If experts should be discussing anything at half-time, it should be kickouts and presses and formations.
That’s where their insight is actually useful. They’re at the game. They have played the game at the highest level. Tell the rest of us what we can’t see at home.
Analysts on The Sunday Game do engage with this type of material, and some of them are quite good at it, but far too often it seems as though agendas and posturing take centre stage. Last Sunday was a prime example. The panel spent a ridiculous amount of time bickering over a straightforward incident that shouldn’t have been up for debate in the first place.
If we wanted to see a bunch of grown-ups talking over each other and acting like children, we might as well switch over to the BBC and watch the House of Commons.
Sky Sports got rid of Richard Keys and Andy Gray back in 2011 and replaced them with the likes of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher. The move seemed risky at the time but it ended up completely changing the face of soccer broadcasting in England. Neville and Carragher brought an entirely new level of analysis. They went far deeper than their predecessors and delivered it all without a hint of bullshit. Fans lapped it up.
This myth that sports fans don’t get, or don’t want to get, the tactical side of the game has been completely dispelled by this stage. Soccer supporters in 2019 are hungry for deep analysis, and Gaelic football fans are no different.
The proof is in the pudding. Sky Sports’ coverage of Gaelic football has earned a reputation for being more analytical than RTÉ’s, and many viewers actually prefer watching games on Sky for that very reason. Imagine that? Our national broadcaster has controlled GAA coverage since the 60s and within a couple of years of the market opening up, it has been overtaken by a British company. If that doesn’t spur RTÉ into making changes, nothing will.
After Brolly and Whelan’s showing last weekend, I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of previously loyal viewers voted with their remotes and defected to Sky for the replay.