Impartial commentary is like non-alcoholic beer — no hangover but no buzz either – The Irish Times

It was 25 years ago, this week, when Ger Loughnane went baldheaded for Eamon Cregan, live on The Sunday Game. Clare had just beaten Tipperary to win their second All-Ireland in three years, and in the RTÉ studio that evening Cregan had balanced his analysis with a short snag list from an otherwise rapturous final. At the Clare victory banquet, though, there was no appetite for nuance; they wanted Cregan’s head on a plate.

Loughnane read the room, and as the chieftain of the Clare tribe, he embarked on a line of guerrilla diplomacy. “We’re after listening to 10 minutes of a whinge there from Eamon Cregan,” he said to Ger Canning in the team hotel, his opening gambit greeted with such a storm of applause that Loughnane didn’t speak again for 17 growling seconds.

Then he carried on, firing indiscriminately. “When we won the Munster final in ‘95 [beating Cregan’s native Limerick]during his commentary he nearly cried.” Back in the studio Cregan was granted a right of reply. “I’m a great believer in humble in victory,” he said, “and gracious in defeat.”

A day later Loughnane didn’t resign from anything he had said; instead, he doubled down. “He wasn’t a neutral person,” Loughnane said. “There should have been a neutral person.”

So much has changed. Imagine lodging such a complaint now? How often do you watch a sports event, of any species, and expect to see a studio panel entirely disconnected from the participants? At some point over the years, that expectation was disarmed.

In the wild saloon bar of sports punditry, absolute impartiality — or its appearance — assumed the properties of non-alcoholic beer: there was no hangover but there was no buzz either. It lacked the roguish magnetism to fix eyeballs to a TV screen, it had little or no afterlife on social media. It still had an empirical value, clearly, but in the never-ending ratings war, it didn’t really move the needle.

The Sunday Game is not wedded to the practice of populating their panels with analysts from the participating counties, but they understand its power too and they would be foolish to ignore it. When Seán Cavanagh and Pat Spillane butted heads before the 2021 All-Ireland semi-final — over Tyrone’s behaviour during Covid — the clip reached 600,000 people on social media, which was nearly as big as the TV audience that watched the match. It flew.

In TV sport, allegiance was integrated into the studio spectacle as an accepted back drop. The bias was mostly benign, and inferred, but it was sometimes naked too, and titillating. So, when Roy Keane or Gary Neville or Rio Ferdinand or Paul Scholes passed judgment on Manchester United, it came with a range of spices, from black pepper to jalapeño pepper. It wasn’t a barrier to insightful analysis, but in the event of extreme outcomes, it deliberately drew emotion into the conversation. Impartiality didn’t have that range of feelings.

Once television sport went down that road, though, where did the boundaries lie? During Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s long palliative phase as Manchester United manager, for example, Roy Keane was kinder to his old team-mate than results would have dictated for somebody else in that job. The audience was expected to insert that filter themselves.

When missed incidents of foul play in the Munster hurling final were highlighted on The Sunday Game this summer, Clare people were up in arms again because, in their eyes, incidents involving Limerick players had been ignored; Brendan Cummins from Tipperary had handled that part of the coverage, but Shane Dowling from Limerick was standing next to him, and there was no Clare-flavoured presence in the studio. That’s where all of this has led: on contentious issues the audience almost expects advocates, or a balance to the bias.

Golf coverage on TV crosses those busy intersections too: active coaches doubling up as commentators, former players migrating to the microphone, without relinquishing the locker room chumminess. Too often they shimmy around uncomfortable subjects, but once in a while it makes for compelling TV. Rory McIlroy’s putting coach, Brad Faxon, was part of the coverage at East Lake when McIlroy produced one of his greatest performances on the greens to win the FedEx Cup.

Over the years, when McIlroy had suffered final round earthquakes, the fault line was usually in his putting. If that had happened at East Lake how would Faxon have responded on air? Could he have been unflinching in his analysis? Watching from the couch, though, Faxon was integral to the story. That situation will arise again.

To finish the other story: Cregan was a hugely respected columnist with The Irish Times for many years, and hours before he went into the RTÉ studio he contributed his column on the 1997 final for Monday’s paper. In the opening paragraph of a warm piece he wrote that in terms of “skill, physique and mental strength” Clare “are as close as you’re likely to get to the ideal.”

Loughnane didn’t read the column until the early hours of Tuesday morning. “By his own admission,” wrote Seán Moran, “Loughnane would have tempered or abandoned his comments had he had the opportunity to read Cregan’s column.”

Cregan’s credentials were unimpeachable; Loughnane was out of order. On TV, though, you couldn’t take your eyes off him.

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