Perhaps then the time is coming for the GAA to consider the move to professionalism and to give these players the rewards they deserve. The setting up of the Gaelic Players Association has lead to an increased focus on remuneration for players, through sponsorship and expense payments. Is professionalism a move worth considering? “It would be nice to see people earning a living out of it, but what would they do when they can no longer play? There would not be jobs for all of them as managers. They would have missed out on education and building up their careers.” As with the example of the MCG in Australia, he thinks that this also is a case where the GAA could learn from other sports. “It would be good for the GAA to sit down with the IRFU [Irish Rugby Football Union] and discuss the pluses and minuses, the pros and cons.”
A less savoury development in modern sport is the need for constant testing for performance enhancing drugs. Given recent news items regarding Adrian Mutu of Chelsea, and Ireland's latest Olympic “hero” Cian O'Connor, this is an issue the GAA must continue to vigilant against. O'Muircheartaigh believes awareness is the key. “There should be no ambiguity. Headquarters should make out a clear list of all banned drugs, and circulate it to all managers.” While there was an initial uneasiness (“Nobody likes routines being broken – somebody you never saw before coming in and demanding a sample”) he believes it has “been accepted now that its necessary in the life that we live in.” and goes on to say that he has yet to hear of a GAA player failing a test.
This autumn, Micháel O'Muircheartaigh commentated on two “International Rules” games where Ireland played Australia, and this year, Ireland comprehensively won both games. International Rules is a hybrid sport, a blend of Gaelic football and Aussie rules, played between the two countries annually, alternating the travelling. Is this a game that has any future, or is it just an easy money-spinner? “It's a bit like a Christmas pantomime – it's a great show and everybody enjoys it. It's a world phenomenon that you can get 60,000 people to come and see a game that is played nowhere else and has no base – proof that all sport is entertainment.” And for the future? “I find it exciting, and being an international adds to that. We have a lot of links historically with Australia, and it more than pays for itself”.
The trophy for the International Rules series was named after the late Cormac MacAnallen, the Tyrone footballer who tragically died in March 2004 [Editor's note:MacAnallen died from a rare viral heart condition], and it was presented to the victorious Irish team by his parents. His untimely death has emphasised the need for regular health checks for athletes, and this is another area where the GAA could do more. “All club players should be regularly assessed and the clubs should pay for it.” O'Muircheartaigh dedicates his book “to the players I have met and spoken about in the course of my broadcasting career.” He describes Cormac MacAnallen as a “worthy representative of them all” and a “tremendous loss”.
While Micháel O'Muircheartaigh has generally been diplomatic in his comments, the same adjective would not always be appropriat
e for fellow Kerryman and RTE Gaelic football pundit, Pat Spillane. Spillane once said that the style of football popular in Armagh and Tyrone was overly defensive, and made for a dull, dour spectacle. His comments related in particular to the tactic of 3 or 4 players surrounding the man in possession, and preventing him from playing it. This usually resulted in a free kick one way or the other, and made the game very erratic. Spillane said the term “puke football” was the best way of describing it. Not surprisingly, this raised a few heckles in Ulster. I asked O'Muircheartaigh what he thought of Spillane's comments, and what were his opinions on the changes in playing styles over the years. “It was a throwaway remark. While we should do all we can to ensure that the basic skills remain, each generation needs to play it the way the want to. They shouldn't be bound to play it the way their grandfathers played it. When a style changes, a good manager will right away try and find a way to beat it and Mayo found it this year – the quick release of the ball. There is no point in the opposition surrounding somebody who hasn't the ball.”
Speaking of good managers, I wondered if a man who has watched all the most significant games of the last 50 years would ever have been interested in taking the helm himself? “I'd love to have done it. It's very intricate, the role of trying to make a team out of a bunch of individuals, trying to bring up their skill and motivation levels. Unfortunately the one day of the week that a manager is really needed is a Sunday, and that was my big day at work as well.” He has to content himself with taking a role in managing the “Underdogs”. These are a collection of players from around Ireland with no senior county experience. Along with Mickey-Ned O'Sullivan and Jarlath Burns, O'Muircheartaigh is trying to select and train a team that will face Kerry, the current All-Ireland champions, in Tralee on 11th December, and he is confident of their eventual success. “If I was forced to put a bet on one of them, it would be on the Underdogs to win. We will be very fit and very skilful – we've been gearing towards that since we started coming together early in the year. Kerry had a long hard year, and will not be at their best.” With the cuteness of a Kerryman, he quickly adds “but you never know…they still won't like being beaten”.
When asked what commentators he admires most at the moment, he picks Greg Allen and Peter Aliss, golf commentators for RTE and BBC respectively. “Greg Allen knows the game inside out and is a very good golfer himself. I saw Peter Aliss play in the Ryder Cup and have followed his career since then.” Peter O'Sullivan (horse racing) is another he admires greatly, for the feeling of excitement he can convey and the accurate mental picture he can draw of a race.
Micháel O'Muircheartaigh is a man with a broad appreciation of sport in general, and in the course of our chat, mentioned soccer, cricket, horse-racing, golf and rugby. Above all though, he loves Gaelic games. Constantly referring to them as “our games” it is quite clear that they have a special place in his heart. It is fitting then that his voice is the one we associate with these games. He modestly says “whatever fame I would have would be due to players, and the association that put them there”. While technically accurate, this does an injustice to his abilities as a storyteller. The players may provide the content for the stories, but if you are listening to a hurling match on the radio, there is nobody who can paint a more colourful picture of the proceedings. As with all stories, it's the way you tell them.