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TV Wrap of 2020 - The best, worst and WTF moments of the year sport became a television show

We look back at some of the best and the bizarre moments from a year of TV sport like no other.

THERE WAS ONCE an ancient age in which we could be moved by the totally irrelevant, and what’s more, it was only this year. 

Clare County Councillor Gerry Flynn got a couple of spins through the February news cycle in petitioning the Minister for Communications to reinstate Joe Brolly to The Sunday Game, telling the Irish Times, “I am a sports fanatic and I am suffering from withdrawal symptoms since he was removed from the RTÉ panel.” 

joe-brolly Joe Brolly: Withdrawal symptoms. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

We hope someone checked on Cllr Flynn and his withdrawal symptoms six weeks later. He might well have been clawing at the walls: not only was there no Joe Brolly, there was no Sunday Game and, indeed, there were no games at all. The spring’s only GAA activity was Paul Mescal’s, and that also sent gales of furious denouncement blowing through RTÉ.

March brought The Great Shutdown, with sports fans subsisting on nostalgia and The Last Dance, as Michael Jordan once again found a way of drawing all the eyes of the world on him.  

With nothing else to watch, the series shattered viewing records for ESPN, leaving Joe Exotic as just another guy who made a mistake in co-existing with Michael Jordan. 

There were a few off-the-mark efforts at sport during the first lockdown, with a virtual running of the Grand National on television raising money for charity while Gary Anderson had to drop out of a remote darts tournament from home due to his dodgy WiFi. 

The first tentative steps of sport’s biosecure return came in Germany, and so we all became fervent Bundesliga supporters for two weeks. BT Sport found themselves holding the golden ticket in May: the revierderby between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, played in an empty ground and marvellously rechristened the reverb-derby by James Richardson. 

The Premier League’s restart was more fraught than Germany’s – Null! And! Void! incanted the self-interested – and UK Health Minister Matt Hancock parped that footballers should “play their part” by taking a pay cut. 

He got much more than he bargained for. Players agreed to pay cuts and deferrals, took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, and raised several millions for the health services and charities Hancock’s government had winnowed and starved. 

Marcus Rashford, meanwhile, distinguished himself and his sport by earnestly shaming the Tory government into a couple of u-turns over the provision of school meals to hungry children.

The broadcasters were happy to foreground the players’ political stance, with valuable time given over to discussions of race and prejudice. Among the most affecting was Micah Richards answering back to those telling him his TV career was purely down to tokenism. 

Some sports broadcasts dealt less well with social problems. Major League Soccer partnered with David Guetta for a truly demented techno remix of Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech in tribute to George Floyd, as Robert Pires appeared on screen, dancing remotely. 

Paul Dempsey, meanwhile, blurred BT Sport with Brass Eye in building up the right voice on Black History month as the distant Steve Bunce as David Haye sat beside him. 

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Liverpool finally won their league title, with Jurgen Klopp breaking down in tears on a Zoom link-up with Sky Sports, and he later captured the roiling historical moment by promising a proper celebration after “this bullshit virus.”  

Empty stands also brought the introduction of fake crowd noise to broadcasts, and so Premier League games were soundtracked to a bed of recorded sounds from the Fifa video game while Irish rugby games were scored to an archive of past sittings of the Seanad. 

Travel restrictions grounded the travelling sports media across the year, which left George Hamilton sitting in RTÉ and broadcasting on Pyrrhic FM as Ireland turned on some long-yearned for style yet still lost their Euro 2020 play-off in Slovakia. 

The year then jackknifed from moral victory to farce in that quintessentially Irish football way, as Stephen Kenny was forced to defend a largely harmless motivational video shown to his players ahead of a friendly with England. 

The incident flecked a little more foam from the ever-fulminating Brexiteer press, as they raged at a video they had not seen. 

Kelvin McKenzie appeared in an online video of his own, his gripes about Kenny’s video segueing into a complaint about Ireland’s neutrality during the second world war as a scrolling graphic on the screen carried testimonies of people who had saved on their car insurance. As Churchill acts go, it was less Winston than the jaunty commercial dog. 

The same group were dealt a blow a week earlier, when Amazon Prime declared a United Ireland in telling a Northern Ireland-based viewer he couldn’t watch the England/Georgia rugby game for which they had the UK rights. They (genuinely) followed it up by apologising for the troubles. 

Pat Gilroy also went about dissolving boundaries on the Sunday Game, suggesting the best way of making Dublin yield would be for a few of those other places to amalgamate, as an eerie Championship finally found a familiar tune. 

The year’s ersatz events could still occasionally move us as before – think the tears of Sam Bennett and Mickey Graham – but this was ultimately the year sport officially became a TV show. 

Be it the Champions League final or your local minor championship final, they were all broadcast to you from the same silence and through the same four corners of your screens. But then again this was the form of all aspects of our lives in 2020: these days, all the world’s a slightly-delayed stream, and all the men and women merely players; be they your family, your personal trainer, or some aproned YouTuber telling you how to bake sourdough. 

Sport in 2020 wasn’t a revolution that was televised; no, instead it was a kind of conservative movement, a stripping of sport’s spectacle and a return to the bare pleasure of simply having sport to watch, discuss, worry over, and hang a life around. 

Joanne Cantwell caught the mood in her closing remarks on The Sunday Game, in thanking just about everyone necessary to simply stage a game. 

“Thank you to management teams and players, who had to take risks no sportsperson should ever have to take. We are eternally grateful.” 

Let 2021 be the year we can again take sport for granted. 

 

About the author:

Gavin Cooney

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