SPORTS STADIUM ran on RTÉ television from 1972 until 1997.
For half of that period we lived in one-channel land so it was, literally, the only show in town on Saturday afternoons. In a time before cable television it was the nearest we came to a sports channel, except it broadcasted for just four to five hours per week.
And, unfortunately, for much of the first decade of its existence, it seemed like most weeks, 90% of it was devoted to horse racing. Damned infernal horse racing.
The suits in RTÉ knew their audience. They knew my father.
From the moment Liam Nolan or Brendan O’Reilly came onscreen to introduce that day’s fare — the gee-gees with a sprinkling of other stuff in between — he folded himself into the comfy armchair nearest to the fire, engrossed in live races from courses all over Britain and Ireland.
Kempton. Uttoxeter. Epsom. Cheltenham. Leopardstown. Fairyhouse. I came to hate these bizarrely-named places. I came to hate horse racing. It monopolised the television, took up the large portion of what was supposed to be a sports show, and, almost on cue, broke my father’s heart every seven days.
In this regard, his proximity to the flames was convenient because that’s where most of his betting slips ended up. At the conclusion of a race, he might wait until the steward’s enquiry then he’d give it one more careful read, a scholar running his eye over the exam for the last time, before flinging it into the fire in disgust.
If mam happened to be in the room, she reacted in different ways according to her mood. Sometimes, she smiled wryly and listened to his recurring tales of woe about a nag falling at the last, fading in the home stretch or being unfairly boxed in on the rail.
Other days, she derided the whole business as “a mug’s game”, saying something about “fools being easily parted from their money”. If he happened to have a winner, he’d rise and place the docket neatly in the frame of the mirror that hung over the mantelpiece. Above all the other trophies.
I wandered in and out of his orbit every Saturday afternoon, not because of the always entertaining soap opera of his wagering, but in search of the one thing that made Sports Stadium appointment television. At a certain point each week, the incessant diet of horse racing was leavened by a brief interlude called “soccer stadium”. Wherever I was in the house or on the street, my father came calling, roaring at the top of his voice. He knew how much I looked forward to those 20 minutes.
I sprinted to the couch in time to devour every second of one of the few outlets where televised soccer was available to us in the late seventies and early 1980s. The best episodes of Soccer Stadium were those devoted to offering up the highlights package from the European soccer matches that had taken place in midweek.
That we already knew the scores having listened to the action play out live on radio three days earlier did nothing to lessen the experience of being transported to foreign lands where everything about the game looked different from the sport we knew and loved.
These games invariably took place in cavernous stadia with racetracks necklacing the pitches, often with legions of armed guards and Alsatian dogs hovering menacingly in view.
The height of exotica. Sometimes, in winter, daunting banks of snow the likes of which we’d never seen were piled up in front of the advertising hoarding behind the goals. Another wondrous sight.
Occasionally, the pitches were coasted with frost and the ball used was orange. What a novelty. The shirts were a little odd too compared to what we were used to, and most of the goalkeepers wore tracksuit bottoms as they flapped at long-distance shots flying by. In Europe, the goals always seemed more spectacular or maybe that’s the way I remember it.
Liverpool nearly always figured, usually on their trips behind the dreaded Iron Curtain.
Again and again, my father tried to explain to me that there was no actual curtain though and this was merely a phrase popularised by Winston Churchill.
Hardly an explanation to appeal to me. It was years before I understood that strange metaphor. I just preferred to see the Iron Curtain as a place where Liverpool went to eke out a score draw or scoreless draw to stamp their inevitable ticket to the next round.
In this regard, their consistent success helped an entire generation eventually come to understand the meaning of the away goals rule and the definition of the word “aggregate”.
As Liverpool and, later and much more fleetingly, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa swept all before them, we discovered the various Dinamos of faraway, alien cities like Kiev, Tbilisi and Minsk, and soaked up a knowledge of central and eastern European geography that stood to us through the rest of our schooling.
In any primary school classroom, the soccer fans were the cosmopolitan sophisticates who knew the difference between Bucharest and Budapest, not to mention being able to explain that Ajax was a famous Amsterdam nursery as well as a trusted brand of domestic cleaner that mothers kept under the sink.
Our imaginations fired up by what we had just seen on Soccer Stadium, we ran from our houses to meet in the square, recounting what we had just seen, mangling the pronunciation of the names of goalscorers and their clubs, and then doing our best to try to re-enact the highlights.
Of course, it was always difficult to try to replicate an overhead kick or an acrobatic volley when you were playing on a hard, unforgiving concrete surface that tore skin on contact. Still, we gave it our best shot and for an hour every Saturday afternoon, we recast ourselves as peculiarly Cork-accented Olegs and Dimitris and Vasselys.
We also worshipped heroes closer to home. For a time Sports Stadium tried to live up to its actual billing by offering us other curios that didn’t involve jockeys and whips and betting.
The most memorable of these was “Top Ace”, a competition featuring the best handball players in Ireland, and, at one point, from America too.
That we were mesmerised by this spectacle may have been because it was novel and entertaining or it could just have been that it wasn’t horse racing. At a certain juncture in my childhood, croquet might have provided a welcome relief to the blasted sport of kings.
What was amazing about our relationship with handball is that it was purely televisual. We had never seen it live. Indeed, the first time I even saw a handball alley was much later when I started to play Gaelic football with Coláiste an Spioraid Naoimh and spend interminable Wednesday afternoons making long trips to depressing, vaguely sinister boarding schools in rural backwaters.
Complete ignorance of the game and its culture didn’t prevent us from sitting down to watch “Top Ace”. Much to the chagrin of my father.
“Why don’t we play handball?” I asked.
“That’s only a game for country boys,” he replied on the way out to the kitchen.
He was a man inordinately proud of his urban heritage, like only somebody whose entire family had lived within the Cork city limits for several generations could be.
“Call me when it’s over and the racing is back on.”
Despite his disapproval, we came to know the finest exponents of the art, men like Dick Lyng and Pat Kirby, who wore short shorts and singlets (sometimes in their county colours), flinging themselves around a court with a glass wall at the back for the cameras. We learned the rules and the difference between 60 by 30 and 40 by 20 from Mick Dunne and we thought the whole thing strangely fascinating.
The occasional presence of an American (or “feckin’ Yank!” as my father described them when he deigned to watch with me) lent an ersatz glamour that drew us in further.
Nobody in our extended family on either my mother’s or father’s side had ever been to America. This made Terry Muck and the sprinkling of other Midwestern competitors objects of curious fascination to us. Some of them wore headbands, sweatbands and goggles, strange accoutrements that made them look even more alien than they sounded in post-match interviews.
That we were so smitten by such weird fare was down to the fact we existed in a world where sport on television was the exception not the rule. And that explains why, years before the Catholic Church introduced Saturday night mass, that particular evening already contained the most religious experience of our week.
Match of the Day came on around 11.20pm, ridiculously late for a young child but, especially before we bought our first VHS video recorder, it was appointment television. It could not be missed. Under any circumstances.
And this meant there were delicate negotiations with my parents and special arrangements made so I would be in situ to hear the theme music that was the soundtrack to so many of our dreams.
“Da da da daa dadata data…..” went the number composed by Barry Stoller in 1970, a year before I was born. I never knew his name but Stoller was our Beethoven. Our Mozart. Our Lidzt. He moved us every time we heard those notes.
This song was simply the sound of joy and breathless anticipation, signalling the start of maybe 50 glorious minutes of soccer highlights.
When I lashed a ball against the wall in the driveway, “Da da da daaa dadata data…” was playing in my head and sometimes I sang it out loud if nobody else was around. I had nothing to be ashamed of. Every other kid was just as affected by that tune.
The build-up to Match of the Day began many hours before that emotional music played and Jimmy Hill’s distinctive chin and beard hovered into view. There were many obstacles to be overcome before we reached that point because Saturday night was bath night in our house.
Afterwards, we sat, reluctantly, on a kitchen chair placed in front of the fire as my mother blow-dried our hair (“or else you’ll catch your death of cold!’ she warned).
Then the clock started ticking. At nine o’clock, the RTÉ news came on, the headlines almost invariably about bloody events in Ulster, and that meant it was time for me to head upstairs to bed. Every anxious step of the way, I was assured that I would be woken the moment The Late Late Show ended.
“Once Gay says goodnight, we’ll come up and get you,” said my mother. I knew from a young age Gay Byrne was as important to her as Jimmy Hill was to me. His involvement, however tangential in the covenant between us, assuaged my fears.
If she was always the guarantor, it was my father who inevitably did the heavy lifting. Because that’s what was involved. He’d wake us with a whisper and a hand on the shoulder. Then he’d carry Tommy and I down from our sleeping beds and place us bleary-eyed, stretching in front of the dying embers of the coal fire. Tommy took the couch.
My spot was on the rug on the floor leaning against my father’s legs. He produced a few dry sticks or a couple of lumps of coal and these were judiciously placed to rekindle the blaze, just enough to ignite flames to keep us warm past midnight.
Some evenings, my father might be freshly returned from a game of Don in Flannery’s Bar at the top of Clashduv Estate, the distinctive hoppy aroma of Murphy’s Stout on his breath and a little mischief in his eyes. Those nights, he ignored the many stern warnings issued by my mother earlier in the evening and headed into the kitchen at a certain point in the show to see what was cooking. Returning triumphantly, he balanced unwieldy sandwiches made from carving delicious slivers from the Sunday roast basting in the oven.
No meat ever tasted as good as those contraband cuts consumed on those late night vigils together. No televised football ever seemed as magical.
We saw goals that were imprinted on our memories forever.
I over-celebrated any scored against Liverpool because it tormented my brother but even he was left open-mouthed by Justin Fashanu’s effort for Norwich City.
The most spectacular production I ever saw on Match of the Day.
The ball was fed to the burly number 9 at pace on an uneven pitch, he controlled it nonchalantly with his right as he turned on the edge of the box, then let fly with his left on the volley.
I was behind the couch within seconds trying to volley a cushion in a similar fashion against the wall. Every child on the street spent weeks afterwards trying and failing to recreate the whole movement, right down to the arc of the ball on its way past the outstretched hand of Ray Clemence.
Then there was the night Keith Weller wore white tights for Leicester City against Norwich City. It was an FA Cup match in winter and we were informed by the bemused commentary team that he had chosen to do so to insulate his legs against the cold. This sounded logical enough even to an eight-year-old and he scored in that match too so it obviously didn’t impede him any.
The strangest part of the night was Match of the Day ending with a brief sequence of Weller’s footwork set to ballet music. My father thought that especially hilarious.
Jimmy Hill was as much an icon to us as any of the players. I remember seeing the actor Brian Murphy on an episode of the sitcom George and Mildred drawing a Hill goatee and moustache on a mirror so he could see what he looked like with that kind of facial hair. I searched high and low, through drawers and all around my sisters’ bedroom, until I found a marker so I could do the same in our bathroom.
Hill may have sounded like a strict headmaster, but he opened the door to our dreams every Saturday night, Once a month, we salivated as he introduced the Goal of the Month contenders. “Goal A scored by Ian Rush for Liverpool versus….”
Every single time Tommy and I argued our choices and then resolved to put our selections on a postcard and mail it off to the BBC in Shepherd’s Bush, wherever that was. Every month that earnest midnight resolution didn’t survive into Sunday morning. And when the results were announced we were always filled with regret about our failure to enter this competition.
In spring, the Easter Saturday night edition of the programme was rendered especially spiritual because it also marked the end of our Lenten fast. In our family, we always gave up sweets for the 40 days and, according to ecclesiastical law (or my mother’s perhaps rather loose post-Vatican II interpretation of it at least), the penance ended at midnight on Holy Saturday.
As the old wooden clock on the mantelpiece ticked towards 12, my father assured us it was running a few minutes slow, thereby allowing us to pare further time off our penance. After 40 days, every second counted.
This meant the three of us watched the last part of that particular Match of the Day while stuffing our faces with squares from the giant Cadbury’s bars – the eggs having been deemed too sacrosanct for a premature feast. Just the type of nutrition a young boy needs when heading back to bed in the wee small hours of the morning.
Sometimes on Saturday nights we were shooed up to bed the moment the credits rolled. But on cold nights, in the years before central heating arrived to warm our hearts, he’d send us to get our, by then, tepid hot water bottles so he could refill them with freshly boiled water. As we waited for the kettle to sing in the kitchen, we’d dawdle by the telly so that we could see the playing of the national anthem, a bizarre coda to the night’s entertainment.
There was no “Sinne Fianna Fail ata fe gheall ag Eirinn…”, just an orchestra playing Peadar Kearney’s tune over a reel of classic images; waves cascading towards the shore, streams trickling over rocks, cobwebs glistening on tree branches, and a butterfly fluttering its wings on a leaf. All manner of flora and fauna culminating in a glorious sunset over a mountain that seemed to rise out of the sea.
“Why do they show that?” I asked.
“To remind us how beautiful Ireland is,” replied my father