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The dynamic duo fronting European football coverage and inspiring the next generation

Niamh Kinsella and Ann-Marie Keegan are front and centre of Virgin Media Sport’s Europa League offerings.

SPORTS FANS FLICKING through the TV channels tonight will most likely settle on Virgin Media Two.

There’s a big night of Europa League football ahead, with Manchester United and AC Milan’s last-16 second-leg tie the main event at 8pm. Beforehand, the channel brings action from the Arsenal-Olympiacos encounter to Irish sitting rooms.

WhatsApp Image 2021-03-18 at 09.14.47 Niamh Kinsella (left) and Ann-Marie Keegan (right) in Virgin Media studios on a Europa League night. Source: Ann-Marie Keegan.

Fronting the coverage will be Niamh Kinsella and Ann-Marie Keegan, the dynamic duo directing proceedings from 5.30pm to 11pm, as they have done every Thursday night for the past few weeks. 

Kinsella anchors the main programme, while Keegan also appears on camera with goal updates and activity from elsewhere, before she takes the reins and presents the highlights programme.

Both “football-mad” growing up, it feels like they’re living their childhood dream in a way, their different paths converging at the same destination.

Born and raised in Dublin, Keegan remembers playing football from the age of six. She recalls her parents bringing her to a park near her house to play, and being welcomed as the only girl among a gang of boys. Football was always a constant and to this day, she still plays.

“I’ve always just loved football I think that’s probably driven me into the career I’m in,” she tells The42. 

That grá sent her towards sports media, from an undergraduate degree in Communication Studies in DCU to a Masters in Broadcast Journalism in Stoke. She landed every Manchester United fan’s dream job and spent a work experience stint at MUTV, calling Old Trafford the office every day. More internships followed on home soil at Sky Sports and Setanta Sport, which became eir sport, getting a break at the latter in presenting women’s sport coverage and pursuing League of Ireland reporting.

Kinsella, likewise, grew up in the capital and caught the bug. It was one that couldn’t be avoided: both of her parents and her aunt played, her father was even manager of her mother’s team. “I don’t ask questions,” she laughs when asked how that went. She played too, and was always immersed in it, the family TV never without a match on.

At just 19, she first went into current affairs and journalism, taking up a position at local radio station East Coast FM. From there, she garnered valuable experience on the airwaves moving to FM104 and later, UTV. Then it was onward to TV3 News, which is now, of course, Virgin Media, and the veer into sport came when the station secured the full Champions League rights.

Screenshot 2021-03-18 at 17.13.36 Niamh Kinsella with Brian Kerr and Niall Quinn. Source: SPORTSFILE.

Now, they’re both thoroughly enjoying fronting the European football coverage together.

“We’ve a great team here,” Keegan smiles. “Of all the places I’ve worked — I know, it’s strange thing to say – but there’s no egos here.

“I think that’s something that you really find in this industry, people are desperate to prove themselves all the time. Of course, that’s a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing in a lot of circumstances. With this team, people behind camera, people in front of camera, there’s absolutely no egos and there’s no people stepping over each other to get to where they feel they need to get to. It’s a brilliant team.

“It’s great too to have the likes of Niamh and Tommy [Martin] to learn from. They are always around for a chat or a text to offer advice if you need it, and I try and pick up little bits from watching them in action.”

Kinsella feels the exact same way, echoing Keegan’s high praise for the team.

“It’s a real level playing field,” she nods. “I know the whole gender thing is so in vogue at the moment. I don’t feel that we’re treated in any way different to the rest of the lads here. Everyone just talks to you the same, everyone just gets along.

“You don’t feel that gender thing as much as it’s spoken about in the media because we’re all just treated the same.”

Yes, they’re two females in a male-dominated world, but that’s something they take little notice of and would rather not make a deal of.

In a world of meaningless talk of tokenism, quotas and optics, the bottom line is they have their jobs because they’re good at what they do. They just happen to be women.

“It’s important for us to feel like we’re not there as a token gesture,” Keegan stresses.

“But on the other hand, as we said we both grew up football-mad, watching football on the telly all the time. Certainly for me growing up, I don’t know about Niamh, but I just remember watching football and it was constantly male presenters and male pundits.

WhatsApp Image 2021-03-18 at 09.14.45 Keegan with Kerr and Quinn. Source: Ann-Marie Keegan.

“When you turn on the TV these days, that’s not what you see. I guess it’s a nice thing to know that there’s little girls watching at home, seeing there’s not just somebody sitting there talking about football, or presenting football or whatever, but there’s female guests as well.”

“It is nice,” Kinsella adds. “I suppose maybe we’re the pioneers in that. I remember my mum saying when she started playing football back in the seventies, that they were the pioneers for women’s football. They got it up and running. Now, there’s girls teams all over the country.

“Women on television, to be at the beginning of that really, we’re not too far into it. In a few years time, hopefully it just becomes standard, a couple of female presenters on football coverage.”

With several women working in the industry opening up about social media abuse and sexist remarks of late, it’s encouraging to hear that neither Kinsella or Keegan have had any major negative experiences online.

“I definitely haven’t had anything directed at me because I’m female,” the latter assures, with Kinsella agreeing and both adding that they’ve witnessed the usual ‘Your grammar’s incorrect’ brigade.

No heed would be paid to that though, with all of their focus and energy placed on the task at hand.

While the world has changed drastically over the last 12 months, the pair’s roles haven’t altered a huge amount. It’s mainly technical changes to the studio broadcast, a department they wouldn’t really be involved with. Both joke that having to do their own hair and makeup is the one big concern, but it’s nothing they’re too worried about.

“The matches have changed themselves, with no crowds,” Kinsella points out. “We’ve all adjusted to it now. In the beginning it was a bit strange but it was good to have sport back.

“I remember I didn’t care if there were crowds or no crowds, it was just good to have a bit of sport back after the break of a couple of months. You would love to have crowds there for a big night in Europe. At the moment, it’s not happening but the fact that the matches are happening is the bottom line.”

Attending behind-closed-doors games, as Keegan so often does as a reporter, is a massive difference.

“It’s awful, to be honest. The experience is so different, to go to the games and interview the players afterwards. We used to be in the tunnel, in amongst all of the players and able to grab a player after the match.

WhatsApp Image 2021-03-18 at 09.14.46 Keegan reporting pitch-side. Source: Ann-Marie Keegan.

 

“Now you’re up the back of the stand and it’s freezing, they’re bringing players to you. They’re two metres away from you with a different mic, you have a mask on. You’re just not getting the same reaction from players. You used to grab them straight after the match and you were getting more of an emotional reaction straight after the final whistle, or straight after they come out of the dressing room.

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“Now, they’re going into the changing room, they’re kind of decompressing and then they’re walking up to the stand to you. It’s just different. There’s no crowd there so they don’t have the same buzz straight after the final whistle and that kind of thing.

“The only good thing I will say about it is, when you’re at the match as a reporter and there’s no crowd there, you can hear everything the management says so you’re getting a good insight into things tactically, but no, we need crowds back. We’re lucky to have live matches but…”

“We’re the lucky ones but I think it’s when you’re there when you realise how much has changed,” Kinsella chimes in, before Keegan adds: “It’s just an eerie feeling. You’re not enjoying it.”

Both offer valuable nuggets of advice to aspiring sports broadcasters, or to their younger selves: the more strings to your bow, the better, as the landscape is constantly changing. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into one facet: report, present, edit, shoot, write, voice-over. Try everything.

“I’d say maybe just to speak up a bit more,” Keegan, a self-admitted quiet and shy person by nature, adds. “My biggest break came from me pitching an idea to my boss and it really didn’t come easy to me.”

Kinsella also highlights the ever-evolving industry, always conscious to teach herself to change with the times — the rise of social media front and centre through her own career. “You never, ever stop learning. Ever,” she smiles.

“I didn’t go the traditional route of into college and onwards. I learned journalism presenting, whether it be news or sport. I did it as a trainee really. I went in at a lower level and worked my way through.

“Don’t think that if you don’t get that CAO or that college course you want, ‘That’s it, I’m not going to get into this.’ Sometimes, work experience can mean a lot more than points on a CAO form. There’s different avenues if you’re willing to work hard enough for it.”

Both evidently have, and that hard work continues this evening on Virgin Media Two.

manchester-united-v-ac-milan-uefa-europa-league-round-of-sixteen-first-leg-old-trafford United-AC Milan is the big one this evening. Source: PA

The preview starts here, with both agreeing that United-AC Milan is certainly “the big one,” with all eyes also in this corner of the continent also on Arsenal, Tottenham and Rangers.

“It’s hanging in the balance, it’s nicely poised going into it,” Kinsella says. “That’s definitely the one I’m most looking forward to, it’s our big late game on Thursday.

“Arsenal, they should have it pretty much done I think but you never know with Arsenal. There could be a bit of a shock?”

Keegan laughs. “You never know with Arsenal, do you? And Spurs, I think, are a fairly sure thing. It’s good United are there. The more Premier League interest in it for Irish audiences, the better.

“It’d be great if we got maybe a North London Derby in the Europa League, especially after Sunday’s game, it was a good match. It would be nice to see United get through. I think United fans are really looking for a trophy now. It’s been three years and they want to see a bit of progress under Solskjaer.

“Thursday should definitely be good. It wasn’t a great first leg, was it? We kind of built it up for a Champions League tie in the Europa League but the match didn’t really live up to expectations. I think it might be a bit different this time around. United need to go for it.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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Emma Duffy

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