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'He'll miss it terribly' - Saluting the Sunday Game career of Pat Spillane before final curtain

The Kerry great is finishing up with the iconic GAA show after 30 years in the studio.

Spillane

DURING HIS TIME as a Sunday Game pundit, Tony Davis recalls a short but firm set of legal guidelines to follow while in the hotseat.

“Once you don’t libel RTÉ, or get sued, work away.”

Cork’s two-time All-Ireland winner honoured that expectation throughout the 19 years that he worked on the show. Others applied that freedom a bit more liberally. 

One of Davis’s studio colleagues was a Kerry icon, an eight-time All-Ireland winner, and a famous contrarian. Pat Spillane is one of the longest-serving pundits on the show, who also occupied the role of presenter when required. And after 30 years as part of The Sunday Game fabric, Spillane has decided to bring the curtain down on his association with the show, with Sunday’s All-Ireland final his last transmission.

Davis, who played against Spillane as well as sharing a punditry career with him, can understand his former colleague’s decision to finish up now. But he can’t fathom where Spillane will put all the energy that he poured into his punditry work.

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“Pat’s a showman and he was similar as a footballer,” Davis tells The42 ahead of Spillane’s departure.

“Every time he played, he was the main man, and he loved that. He loves the limelight.

“When the light comes on after 5-4-3-2-1, he lights up and transforms. In fact, with Pat in that state of alertness, it’s very hard to get a word in with him at times. He’s enthusiastic and he just loves it. I’m not surprised he’s giving up either though.

The game is changing every year and I’m not saying that someone has to be playing the game or managing in order to be a top pundit but you do need to have your hands involved in an inter-county team, particularly with all the pressures of social media. The keyboard warriors are a bit toxic and it does take a bit out of you.

“I heard Pat speaking about how it affected him and I can see how it would so I’d say at this stage, he’s had enough of it.

“Pat loved the programme though and I’d say it was the highlight of his week. You could see when he turned up that he had a lot of homework done around the teams. He’d know the players very well and was very much into stats. It isn’t just that you rock up and sit down. The amount of research that has to be done for something like that is enormous.

“It’s the one thing really in the GAA that people know what they’re talking about. You could be walking down the street and meet the parents of a player and they have a cut off you for talking about their son on the telly. It’s personal and it’s about an amateur sport, and you have to be totally respectful of that. These kids have to go back to work or college.

“So, the amount of work and prep that goes into it is enormous.”

Writing in his weekly column with the Sunday World – which he intends to continue after his TV exit — Spillane wrote that the long drives between his home in Templenoe in Kerry and the RTÉ studio in Donnybrook had started to take a toll on him, as he approaches his 67th birthday. 

He also made reference to the worsening state of social media, and the litany of horrible remarks which have been posted about him. But Spillane also stressed that attacks from online commenters are not the reason why he’s stepping away.

During his time on The Sunday Game, he has also experienced more physical forms of intimidation Davis was on duty with him when he witnessed one such event at Croke Park. The pair had just finished a broadcast, and some beleaguered viewers of the show were waiting to confront the Kerry man.

“I remember being outside Croke Park one time,” Davis recalls, “and I was walking out with Pat, his wife and their kids who were young at the time. I remember pulling his wife and kids to one side and it got very abusive.

“I think there was another time when he had to stay above in the crow’s nest in Croke Park because he couldn’t come down. They were saying at the time that they might leave him there,” he laughs. “Sure it was great craic. Some people take it very seriously.

“I suppose the Sunday Game was the platform of the day, and it was like Match of the Day.”

pat-spillane-watches-the-game Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

Spillane’s home parish of Templenoe is a part of the south of the county that has been devastated by rural depopulation. Once there were five national schools, Templenoe GAA club chairman Pat O’Neill explains; now, there is none, and no village to speak of either.

Up until 2019, the club was part of the Kenmare District, and O’Neill and Spillane won a senior county championship together with that side in 1974.

Their clubmate Mickey ‘Ned’ O’Sullivan went on to captain Kerry to an All-Ireland final against Dublin in 1975, but it was Spillane who would go on to lift the Sam Maguire cup when they emerged as victors. O’Sullivan didn’t finish the game as he was taken to hospital after shipping a heavy challenge, meaning Spillane would have to deputise at the cup presentation.

Today, Templenoe has a population of about 750 adults and the club has roughly 100 members. Despite its modest size, Templenoe will have five representatives in Croke Park on Sunday: Spillane in the RTÉ studio, with Tadhg Morley, Adrian Spillane, Killian Spillane and Gavin Crowley in the Kerry squad.

“The four lads are an inspiration to young fellas coming up,” says O’Neill about the Templenoe players in the Kerry camp. “They’re great with the kids too and any time I approach them for anything, they can’t do enough.

“It’s a dream for Templenoe. We’re playing in the senior championship since 2019, and there’s only eight clubs in that bracket. This is our fourth year and we’re holding our own.

“Pat was a great footballer with the club, and he was ahead of his time. He kept himself in such great shape with his training regime. I played with him, and club football at that time meant you could go out and socialise. We had a good time and maybe Pat wasn’t too pleased with us and would give us a good rollicking if we were out the night before.

“When Pat was playing for Templenoe, you’d hear him and you’d see him because he absolutely gave it his all. He was chairman of the club for a good few years and he was instrumental in doing up our field in Templenoe.

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“He used to have a bar, and when it was in its heyday, and we were playing, he’d be down at the field playing a match and after the game, everybody would pile up into Spillane’s, and next thing, Pat would pop up from behind the bar with sweat flowing off him.

“He was the best man behind a bar I ever saw. You could come in the bar, and you’d hardly be able to get in, and he’d put the head up and know exactly what you wanted.

As a pundit, Pat spoke as it was and didn’t hold back. He went a bit too far at times but it’s gone very tame at the moment. There are so many controls over what you can say and what you can’t. It’s not exactly riveting stuff, but if you listen to Pat, you’re always going to hear something different, that’s for sure. He’ll say what the real GAA person is thinking.”

Spillane’s Sunday Game highlights reel is long and varied. His ‘puke football’ remark while condemning the style of football on display in the 2003 All-Ireland football semi-final between Kerry and Tyrone drew plenty of ire from viewers. He has since apologised for the slight, but it’s arguably the moment that he is most remembered for in his punditry career.

His contribution to the coverage of the 1996 All-Ireland football final between Meath and Mayo stands out too. A huge melee erupted in the replay of that decider which resulted in the dismissal of Mayo’s Liam McHale and Colm Coyle of Meath. Spillane offered a detailed – and equally comical – analysis of the row. The top pick of his assessment is the line, “Here’s John Casey jumping in to readjust John McDermott’s head a little bit.”

Michael Lyster was the show’s anchor for Spillane’s compelling analysis of the incident, while Davis was the other pundit on duty.

“The whole thing was ridiculous anyway,” says Davis, “and people were saying no-one should have been sent off and sure how they could not send someone off? It was an All-Ireland final and it was mayhem.

“Yeah, sure that’s the way we rolled at the time. Michael was the man and he would pull you back if he thought you were going too far.

“Other than that, work away. And we had great craic on the programme, They were good people.”

Davis jokes that Spillane might “self-combust” without the Sunday Game and will likely drive his wife Rosarii demented with all the extra time on his hands. Regardless of the divisiveness associated with Spillane though, the programme will certainly feel empty in his absence down the line.

He’s a proud local man still living in Templenoe who is still very active, according to O’Neill. He goes out walking most days with his wife, and is still a popular choice among clubs to have as a special guest at functions and medal presentations. 

“Pat is a once off,” says Davis as he salutes the impressive career of his friend and former colleague.

“He’s just full of life and enthusiasm and he just loved that whole outlet. I think he’ll miss it terribly. It might be easy for others to walk away but for Pat, I think he’ll really miss it. His personality is one where, when you meet him, he’s quiet enough but when he’s involved in the Sunday Game, he’s quite out there and effervescent. I think he’ll miss that outlet.”

Both Davis and O’Neill agree that whatever Spillane’s next step in life is, it won’t involve being idle. The show will go on.

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