Technical Communication lecturer Barry Brophy was featured in the Sunday Independent last weekend with an article on sports communication based on interviews with three of Ireland’s well-known sports pundits: Eamon Dunphy, Brian Kerr and Dermot Gilleece.

April 7th, 2021

Talking Sport

I hate to hear someone described as ‘boring’. It’s such a damning and unsympathetic judgement, and surely it’s relative? Do different people not find different people boring? Or ‘interesting’? What makes somebody interesting? Relative again? In regard to the sports analysts you find interesting; what makes them interesting? It’s not an easy question to answer.

Even for the analysts themselves.

Dermot Gilleece: ‘I wouldn’t be conscious of that; I’m not a trained broadcaster. What I do in the course of my writing must be reflected in how I speak, maybe, that’s the only way I can explain it.’ 

Brian Kerr: ‘I don’t know where it came from. I mean, I was managing teams and having to stand up making speeches in dressing rooms since I was fifteen, and I always had a way. I’ve never been very nervous so I suppose over the years you develop. And I watched other fellas, and maybe correct what I thought they weren’t doing well.

Like, I worked in the labs in UCD and I might be down at one end preparing solutions for an afternoon practical, and somebody could be giving a lecture up the far end, and I’d say, “Jaysus, how’d he get a job as a lecturer? He’s brutal. I’d be asleep by now.” He didn’t change his voice or it was too low key, or people that would do it differently and maybe throw a bit of a laugh into it.’

But apart from practicing, listening and learning, are there any common traits that make the interesting ones interesting? The communication of sport – punditry, analysis, podcasting, commentary, co-commentary – is a particularly interesting case because sport is not an easy thing to put into words. 

If you talk about politics, for example, the decisions of politicians and voters, and the analysis of these decisions are couched in the same language. But the thoughts that make a footballer attack the back post at a corner, or the thoughts a golfer tries not to think when he or she is standing over a four-foot putt, are very different from the thoughts Brian Kerr, Eamon Dunphy and Dermot Gilleece express to analyse them afterwards. The language of the ‘intelligent footballer’ and the intelligent analyst are very different, so how to do the best ones make the translation? Here are a few things I’ve noticed.

A Conversation not a Speech

Eamon Dunphy: ‘The whole exercise is to enlighten or amuse or entertain the person who switches on, and if you’re doing your job well people have a good experience of eavesdropping on a good conversation.

‘I believe the pleasure listeners get is when they’re in an organic exchange between two people that is not hostile because hostility is no use at all. You usually get angry or hostile with a stupid guest, so I think, let’s keep stupid guests off the program (laughs). Have people of real conviction, and whether they’re your convictions or not, that doesn’t matter. The secret is getting great guests.’

In the latter comment, Eamon was talking about interviewing rather than analysis, but he applies the same conversational principles to both. And for someone so outspoken in his own right, he is a surprisingly good interviewer, a point I – respectfully – put to him.

‘Being an analyst for a soccer match, people are looking for your opinions. But (in the podcast) it’s not about you, it’s about the listener being able to engage with the person you are interviewing. It’s often said to me, and I take it as a great compliment, that, “you ask the questions I wanted to ask myself.” The way I do it is by trying to create an organic conversation.’

‘Despite my reputation, I’m not someone who batters interviewees. I listen to what they’ve got to say and we go on a journey together. And you’re not pulling strokes, there’s no gotcha moment. If you take Vincent Browne on his Tonight show, he’d get a back bench Fine Gael or Fianna Fail or Labour TD, and kick the shit out of them for an hour. And people say, ‘Ah, it’s great entertainment,’ but the question is, do you learn anything? Paxman was great entertainment and great fun, and I loved to see him skewering people, but he was interviewing grade-A villains. And I wish he was there now because he did get to the point..’

The conversational element of sports analysis is key. It’s not just about what you say but the tone of how you say it. It is interesting to reflect how conversational TV and radio sport in have become over the last thirty years. When I watched Match of the Day as child in the early eighties, it comprised of Jimmy Hill speaking to camera to introduce or review the games, John Motson or Barry Davis commentating on the action, and Bob Wilson – also to camera – rounding up the news. Everyone did their bit separately and professionally, and the central focus was on the mud-bound, hard-tackling, mercifully VAR-less football.

Nowadays Match of the Day, like every other sports programme, is a conversation between three or four people. Live matches don’t just have commentators but co-commentators, and pitch-side player-interviews are also often conducted in small clusters. Viewers even get to participate in this collaborative communication with tweets and texts, and these viewers prefer to sitting in on conversations where the vocal rhythms are more natural than a learnt off address to camera. The relationships between the analysts also then becomes a factor.

Brian Kerr: ‘The atmosphere can be created by the relationships between the people who are there, that’s very important. The presenter can often set the tone in advance of the programme: Tommy Martin with us (in Virgin), Bill O’Herlihy, Lord rest him, Darragh Moloney, Jackie Hurley, Peter Collins.

‘I’d never try to undermine Souness’s opinions in any way, but I’d disagree with him, and now and again I’d throw one in that he probably goes, ‘oh f**k,’ ye know. Maybe the feature of the good television is conflict, but it shouldn’t be conflict for the sake of conflict, it shouldn’t be disagreement for the sake of entertainment. It should be disagreement if you have a different opinion about the game, that’s my view.’

‘Souness has often said – some of the nights we’d finish – he’d say to the director, “How many people are watching this? This is a really good show.” He’d say, “With Statto there” – he might call me Statto -  “and me and yer man, it’s a good show.” And of course everyone’s delighted then, but I think people behind the scenes can create that atmosphere as well: the director, the floor manager, even camera people can create an atmosphere around the place that makes it work.’

The point, though, is that you can’t plonk any three pundits together and assume they’ll have a rapport, or, more critically, if they do that they’ll have the confidence and natural style to be able to express this on air. Dermot Gilleece is a great understated example of this in-the-moment-naturalness which I think is a second key feature of great sports-talkers.

Presence

On a recent interview on Eamon Dunphy’s podcast, The Stand, Dermot Gilleece was asked about Rory McIlroy’s controversial rubbishing of the then upcoming 2016 Olympic Games, where Dunphy put it to Gilleece that this showed how boldly honest McIlroy could be.

‘Ah he handled that very badly, Eamon, that was terrible,’ said Gilleece.

‘But it was candid, he didn’t duck and dive.’

‘Ah but there’s candour, now… I was at that particular press conference and I thought it was terrible.’

‘But what’s interesting about McIlroy, it seems to me, Dermot,’ persisted Dunphy, ‘is not that he believed that, but that he said it. In other words, he was forthright.

‘He was sorry afterwards, and I can tell you that for a fact. He was. Because he felt he antagonised the media, and he had dug major holes for himself. And I know because I spoke to his caddy, JP, and his manager coming back on the boat that evening from Scotland.’

What I love about this exchange is slight but profound and much better appreciated when you hear the piece. There is a conversational presence about Gilleece (both participants in the conversation, in fact) where he is calmly thinking on his feet and reacting in his own time and with his own emotions and opinions: ‘Ah he handled that very badly…’ ‘I thought it was terrible…’ ‘He was sorry afterwards and I can tell you that for a fact…’ ‘I know because I spoke to his caddy…’ There is a personalised, in-the-moment breathing-space in the communication, helped of course by the fact that Gilleece’s contributions are informed, insightful and anecdotal. I mentioned this to Dermot Gilleece when we spoke.

Dermot Gilleece: I think how a story is presented verbally is very important. If you clearly enjoy telling the story, people will remember that. They’ll remember your attitude. Like what you’ve just said about my attitude to Rory at that Olympic press conference: I was frankly appalled at how badly he was handled that, and if that comes across I think that carries far more caché. You put little nuance in…‘ah come on’…conversational stuff. I suppose a good teacher will be conversational.

‘The mistake RTE make, more than any other station that I know, is they assume broadcasting is about speaking, and that’s it. A broadcaster has to give of themselves, therefore they must have something to give. They must have a personality, they must have a depth of knowledge of their subject. How many of them can you single out and say, “They have it.” Most of them don’t.’

The most crucial element in conversation – as well as its siblings: radio, TV, podcasts, presentations – is liveness. You don’t know what’s going to happen next and neither do any of the participants. It may sound like a paradox but even recorded podcasts and programmes have this feeling of up-for-grab-ness, that what one person says will affect and change what comes next. What you don’t want in a sports broadcast – and you too often get – is analysts sitting in a line, facing the same way, each firing unbroken, impersonal answers to questions put by the host. It’s not interactive, it’s not conversational, it’s not live.

This sense of being present, calm and live, is epitomised by another great golf broadcaster, the late Peter Alliss, and I wasn’t surprised that Dermot was a huge admirer.

Dermot Gilleece: ‘He was superb, just a born communicator. I’ll give you a for-instance. He was covering the Scottish Open at Lough Lomand, and on the 17th, a par three, the camera happened to turn to a guy who was facing a lake and he has a raincoat on him. And suddenly the raincoat, having been hugged to his body, is flapping, and his back remains to the camera. And there’s silence. And out of the blue Alliss says, ‘He’s not, is he?’ And then there’s silence. ‘No he can’t be, not here,’ and then he stopped again. Then the camera moved away and that was it. And I thought it was the most superb piece of television. Intimate. He’s giving of himself but he has something to give you. I’d spend a day listening to Alliss.’

Live-action commentary prompts this sense of presence and spontaneity more than post-game analysis, and Brian Kerr really seems to hit the sweet spot – in terms of humour, energy, articulacy – when he is commentating on a live match.

Brian Kerr: ‘I was a frustrated player that couldn’t play at a level I would have love’n to play at. So the next best thing for me was then to be a manager, who could have an influence on the result of the game by how you worked. So now if you’re not in management, I think the next nearest thing is not punditry, it’s being a commentator at the match.’

‘You’re in the game. You have to be highly concentrated to absorb what’s happening on the pitch and absorb what’s happening off the pitch. Like the effect of the crowd on the referee, for instance, on the psychology of the players, and to try and give people a feel for that. Some people are listening because they want it to be entertaining, some because they want to hear the result of the match, some want to know what shape the team is in and how the individual players are playing; you have a lot of different aspects. So you have give a flavour of your joy to be there, a detail of something you saw that you thought was important.’

Which leads directly to another point of particular relevance to Brian Kerr: preparation.

Prep

Brian Kerr: ‘I know it sounds a bit corny but I really put in the work before I do anything. Whatever the gig is, no matter how small or how big the match, I’d always put in the time in terms of being prepared and knowing who’s going to play and trying to know as much about their background as I can. I’ve probably got a little bit easier about it, now, but I’d still be edgy going to England on the plane every Saturday. I’m always afraid I’ll miss something. Like a goal is scored and I miss the pass before the cross in the build-up.

‘I kind of admire others for being so nonchalant about it. We’d be sitting in the studio ten minutes before going on air, and Souness would go, ‘Have you got a biro, Brian?’ And he knows I’ll always have a spare pen for him. Or he’ll say to me, ‘Who’d your man play for before?’ and he knows I’ll usually have the answer. I don’t have any problem with that because I think his insight is so authoritative because of his experience as a player, whereas I wouldn’t have that. I can’t compare my career as a player in the Amateur League to that. So what I have to do is back it up by my bit of up-to-date knowledge, my past knowledge and maybe an attention to detail in terms of things that are happening. I’m prepared to scrap to make things better, to make the programme better. You’re part of a team and you’re part of making it comfortable for everyone.’

It’s easy to overlook the effort that goes into something like live commentary. It seems handy, doesn’t it: sitting in the best seats in the house, at the biggest games, scripting nothing in advance, learning no lines, and just reacting to whatever happens in front of you. But therein lies the difficulty. Apart from having to be so on-your-toes observant – the pass before the cross before the goal that Brian kerr referred to – you have to interpret what each moment of action means, in real time, for every person on the pitch and quite a few off it. There is immense preparation, knowledge and insight required to do this, and most commentators I have met are necessarily conscientious and modest as a result, as evidenced by this comment from Kerr.

‘I work with all the young fellas that used to play for me. Duffer, Keith Andrews, Niall, Stephen Kelly, Mattie Holland, Mark Kinsella, Richard Saddlier, Richard Dunne, Shay Given…(laughs) all lads that played when I was manager are pundits now or working in the game. Kenny Cunningham…Kenny is very strong with his opinions and would talk and talk and talk, but I like him and I admire him and I think he’s very good, I really do. But then again, I think I’m brutal and I think everyone else is very good.’

Another person famed for diligent preparation leading to an encyclopaedic knowledge of his sport, is Dermot Gilleece

Dermot Gilleece: ‘People keep saying that to me, Barry, and remark on my ability to remember things. I find that interesting. It’s not something I try to work on, it just happened. I always put it down to my interest; if you’re interested in something, there’s a good chance that you’ll do it well and that retention is partly based on your interest. I’m afraid to make something of it because I’m at an age where several things go and memory is one of them. But I remember details of people I’ve met, twenty, thirty, forty years ago, so that in turn is going to make a story for me.’

People with really good episodic memories often have an in-built clock that helps them to catalogue facts and events anecdotally, so I asked Dermot if he had a strong sense of time.

‘I would have a very keen sense of time, yes. I would be aware even now, talking to you, that Jack Nicklaus is going to be 80 next week. Not many people would bother their arse retaining that sort of detail. But I know that probably in the next couple of weeks I’m going to make reference to that in my work, so I’d refresh my memory on things like that.’

This anecdotalising of information is a powerful aid to memory but it is an even more powerful aid to communication. Which brings me to the next, and best, communication tool of all.

Story

Below is an excerpt from the Newstalk Sunday Paper review, 2018, where Dermot Gilleece was talking about the poor scoring of the Irish players at the tournament.

Dermot Gilleece: ‘A lot of the silly shots that were played out there over the last few days were because fellas decided not to think clearly. Rory decided on the tee that he was going to take driver out and overpower the golf course. Now Jack Nicklaus came over to play the Open championship for the first time in 1962 in Troon, and Joe Carr told me that he consulted with Joe and talked with him about how you should actually play a links, what was the difference between it and the target courses that Nicklaus was used to in the States.’

Dermot instinctively reaches for stories to illustrate the points that he makes, a technique greatly aided by his exceptional anecdotal recall. Here are two more examples from the same podcast.

‘I don’t know what the answer is, but then again it’s not all putting because as I’ve indicated he (McIlroy) hit twelve wedges in his round. Christy O’Connor used to say that with a wedge in his hand, he’d was disappointed if he didn’t leave the ball around six feet of the pin; Rory was putting from 20 and 25 feet an awful lot of the time yesterday.’

‘…lack of intensity for a twenty-nine your old. Lee Trevino once said that when God hands out gifts, he never give you everything, he always holds something back.’

The other thing to point out is that Dermot doesn’t just use the stories of famous people, he use’s his own. An example of this would be the way he reflected on Rory McIlroy’s Olympics comments through the conversation he had with Rory’s caddy and coach on the boat home from Scotland. Another is the fact that he spoke of Jack Nicklaus consulting Joe Carr because he heard this directly from Joe Carr, himself. And Gilleece does another thing that good storytellers do that Eamon Dunphy also does in the following story from a conversation with John Giles on his podcast, The Stand.

Eamon Dunphy: ‘I was getting a free transfer from Charlton; I’d ‘a gone to anywhere, I’d ‘a gone to Skegness. And he (Charlie Hurley) rang me up, he said “I’ve a good team here, they can all play but they’re villains. They’re drinking, they’re taking pills…uppers and downers. Come here, Dunph…” he used to call me Dunph…“I need you, I need you, just for one season.” And they hadn’t been promoted (Reading) from the fourth division for fifty years! So I went there and I was the good boy, so you can imagine how bad those villains were. Anyway, I was able to oblige and we got promotion and it all went downhill from there.’

You might be wondering what is so earth shattering about this contribution and the answer is not the story itself, but the fact that he told it all. Dunphy was asking Giles about the difficulty of bringing a team into the premier league and then having to break up that team to improve it with new signings, so Giles was delivering the insights, not Dunphy. But sharing stories is how we converse so it helps to make that conversation flow. Secondly, it was a story from Dunphy’s own experience – like Dermot Gilleece’s earlier – not one that he had heard second hand. People are generally reluctant to tell personal stories in a public forum because they seem too personal and too much of a digression, but good communicators realise that your own stories, if relevant to the topic at all, are always the most compelling.

The other thing that Dunphy does in this story – as does Dermot Gilleece – is use direct quotations to dramatize the events. He doesn’t just say, ‘Charlie Hurley asked me to play for Reading…’, he says, ‘”Come here, Dunph, I need you, I need you.”’

And if you’re still not convinced, listen to someone you consider dull on TV or radio – if you can stand to for a few minutes – and notice how infrequently they do this. Bad communicators speak in the abstract, not the concrete, and don’t tell stories, in particular their own.

Brian Kerr: ‘(When giving talks), I usually I’d try to stick in a few bits of matches that people would remember. I used to use some youth stuff when we won things and people might remember the goal in a final…a lad, Keith Foy…had a heart operation recently…he stuck a ball over the wall against Italy in the final of European under-16’s…that sort of stuff. More recently I used stuff from the Faroes. Like you can see the sea at the back of the goal in the match, and I’d say, look, when the ball goes over that goal, the next stop is America. Or pointing out that it doesn’t look like a huge crowd; well you have to understand that the crowd was ten per cent of the total population, and that gives them an impression.’

I set about doing these interviews with a view to writing a book but what changed my mind, as well as being one of the most interesting findings, was that generally people who are good verbal communicators don’t know why they are good verbal communicators. A written piece is external, something you plan, craft and correct, and something you will necessarily be more objective about. But good talkers, well, they just talk. They bring the naturalness of conversation into their broadcasts which allows the listener to feel part of it. And as well as the attributes I have mentioned there are several others, among them passion, no shortage of opinions and, as you may have noticed from some of the quotes, a sense of humour.