Tyrone, the GPA and working with Joe Brolly: The life and times of Colm O'Rourke
“Colm O’Rourke taught me geography for four years, always throwing me out of class for talking. ‘You’re a waste of space, Tiernan, get out.’
“This was back when Colm was winning All-Irelands for Meath in the mid-80s. You’d see him on television on Sunday – men trying to drag him down, Dublin Guards boxing him off the ball.
“He’d come into school on Monday, covered in medals and bandages. He was Navan’s answer to Tarzan.” – Irish comedian Tommy Tiernan
COLM O’Rourke would make a brilliant poker player. The Sunday Game and its resident pundits were coming under serious fire following the fall-out to Diarmuid Connolly’s latest on-field sin against Carlow.
A few weeks back Paul Galvin, a newcomer to newspaper journalism, launched a scathing attack on RTE’s flagship GAA programme.
You read aloud the sharper edges of Galvin’s prose.
“The efforts of the last two weekends prove what I have long believed. The show is a liability to the GAA and now a liability to RTE too. If the powers-that-be in Croke Park and Montrose have any vision they will get together, take it off the air at the end of the season, rebrand it and relaunch it with new talent in a new direction. The current offering is reductive, agenda-led and has been mired in a culture of bias for 10 years...”
Sitting in the principal’s chair in St Patrick’s Classical School in Navan, O’Rourke’s facial expression doesn’t change one iota.
“It’s all individual taste,” O’Rourke muses.
“People can vote with their TV sets. Roughly one million people watch the All-Ireland final on RTE. Say, 20 per cent of the people in the country have Sky.
“That means the viewing figures, pro rata, should be roughly 200,000, and yet it got less than one per cent.
“Like, people are deciding fairly strongly which channel they want to watch the match on.
“The forensic analysis on Sky obviously doesn’t cut it with the people. Why are 200,000 people not watching on Sky and 800,000 on RTE? I think that’s the best indicator of all.”
Without the merest trace of caution, he adds: “A TV programme doesn’t work without strong opinion and outrageous comment at times.
“People don’t want blandness and Sky has brought blandness – or that’s what the people are saying. I actually think Peter Canavan is very good on it.”
The Sunday Game is many things to different people but it can never be accused of being “bland”, particularly when O’Rourke is flanked by Joe Brolly and Pat Spillane in the RTE studios most Sunday afternoons in the summer.
While there may be plenty of friction between Brolly and Spillane, both men display a healthy deference to O’Rourke and his views on the game.
Brolly describes the Meath man as the “Godfather of Gaelic football punditry”.
“I still enjoy it,” O’Rourke says, who joined The Sunday Game in 1991.
“You’re going in to have a chat about something you’re watching. It’s the same as having a chat with fellas in a pub, nearly. Joe is going to go for Spillane at some stage in proceedings if he gets a chance.”
O’Rourke says he gets on well with all of his RTE colleagues.
Brolly and O’Rourke have become firm friends over the years – but it doesn’t stop the former Meath forward from delivering an unbiased critique of the Derryman’s contribution to GAA media discourse.
“I don’t know how long Joe is on The Sunday Game. Ten, 15 years?
“But I thought he was a breath of fresh air to the whole thing because he was opinionated, loud and very articulate.
“He was getting on people’s nerves and he was winding people up and forcing a response.
“The people who hate him for his opinions all want their photograph taken with him. They all want to chat to him.
“He is RTE’s biggest asset – he’s a liability at times as well, but he does give the show a certain status in GAA society.
“People will speak about it and he will cause people to think about it and say: ‘I don’t agree with him’ or ‘He has a point’.”
O’Rourke adds: “Behind all the flowery language he might use, I think he forces debate across society, which is good, which I couldn’t do or Pat Spillane couldn’t do.
“That’s his value and the GAA should see him as valuable as well. They may not like the fact that he makes comments but he does reflect a lot of the ordinary people’s views.”
At times, he acknowledges, Brolly goes overboard in his analysis but still offers a strong defence of the colourful Derry native.
“In Joe’s view, nothing he says, to him, is being personally vindictive. He doesn’t see that.
“He can be quite insulting but he couldn’t understand why anybody would be insulted by him.
“And if he gave a player a lash and met him after a game, he wouldn’t see any reason why they couldn’t have a very good conversation. That’s one problem he has because there are fellas still doing it [playing football] for the fun of it.”
In O’Rourke, you sense a fatherly affection towards Brolly.
With a quip coming down the tracks, he says: “I like him as a person. You know, I said to Joe that I liked him far better when he had two kidneys.
“But what I do like about him is he is willing to do a lot for people and he doesn’t want anything out of it for himself. He’s willing to give of himself.”
Given his wealth of experience in the print and broadcast media worlds (he prefers print) Meath’s two-time All-Ireland winner is wily enough to know that the emotive subject of Tyrone is also coming down the tracks.
Since Tyrone’s inexorable rise under Mickey Harte, O’Rourke has lobbed more than a few incendiaries northwards over the years.
Prior to Tyrone’s maiden All-Ireland success in 2003, he belittled the talents of Brian Dooher – for which he later apologised – he has called out the Red Hands for ‘sledging’, diving and feigning injury and talked of a “stench” enveloping the camp following Tiernan McCann’s desperate collapse to the ground towards the end of their All-Ireland quarter-final win over Monaghan in 2015.
Where did it all go wrong for Colm O’Rourke and Tyrone, you ask?
What’s the case for the defence?
O’Rourke bursts into laughter at the question before replying: “There probably isn’t one!”
Despite apologising for his hat-eating comments relating to Dooher’s prospects of winning an All-Ireland, they still gnaw at his conscience 14 years on.
“I think the Dooher one I was just wrong, absolutely wrong, and I was the first one to put my hand up and to say it was a stupid comment.
“It was insulting to Brian Dooher. As soon as I said it, I thought: ‘You shouldn’t have said that.’
“It wasn’t a nice thing to say. I did regret saying it.
“I apologised to him at a dinner in Tyrone – I don’t know whether he was there – but it was out of order and it was insulting for a player who had done so much for his county and continued to do so much.
“So that one I was completely guilty on…
“The one about Tiernan McCann I thought that was fair game. I don’t know whether it was a decision by Tyrone themselves or individual players that they needed to improve their image.
“You might say: why should they improve their image? But since that fall-out the Tyrone style and manliness had certainly improved to the point where you could really make no criticism in that regard.
“But there was diving, there was feigning of injury and I would make the same comments again if it came up.”
Asked if feigning injury was the sole preserve of Tyrone, O’Rourke shoots back: “Well, they were the most high profile of it. I would have no problem calling out others on the same basis.
“I often have people coming to me at games in Croke Park, saying: ‘Oh, why are you always criticising us?’ It goes with the territory. But I wouldn’t have got it with as much fury as from Tyrone.”
O’Rourke steadfastly rejects the proposition that Tyrone are an easy target because of their on-going media boycott of RTE.
“No, I wouldn’t think that. I don’t think that’s part of it. I feel people from the north in general have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder, historically, and that criticisms of other counties are not taken to the same extent.
“With northern counties, their guard goes up immediately if there is any negative comment about them. It has lessened over time.
“When counties win that kind of goes. When Tyrone won their first All-Ireland I think there was a different mood among their supporters…
“Down, I felt, were always a bit different. I think they felt they were part of the furniture.
“When Armagh won the All-Ireland, the Armagh supporters became more relaxed. But before that they would have been quite defensive too.”
O’Rourke is vexed by many things within the GAA.
He doesn’t like the GAA’s TV deal with Sky Sports. And he doesn’t envisage the partnership enduring either.
Through his newspaper columns in The Sunday Independent, he has been a vociferous critic of the Gaelic Players Association and how they’ve become entangled in various player-county board disputes in recent years.
Pete McGrath, he says, was treated “appallingly” in Fermanagh this year.
The former Down manager was forced out of his managerial position in the Erne County last month after the players insisted they wanted a change.
“I think it’s a dangerous road if players are going to decide who is going to manage the team and calling people to account,” O’Rourke says.
“I like Pete McGrath as a person. I’ve no axe to grind with Fermanagh players but I thought the way he was treated was appalling because on every panel you’re going to have a number of disenchanted players – the fellas that don’t get on, the fellas who are taken off, the fellas who are dropped, and they are the main agitators in most counties.
“In Mayo, it appeared it was the peripheral figures did most of the talking [that got rid of Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly] and it’s the same in nearly every county.
“And the GPA seems to foster this among players; that they should voice their opinions on management. It has certainly gone completely overboard.
“Most managers now in counties are being dismissed, or half-dismissed, based on the players saying: ‘We don’t like him. We want a change.’
“And the county board should be telling the players in general to ‘Feck off’.”
He adds: “I was part of the original players association back in the eighties. I tried to organise.
“So the idea of players being looked after, funded and being treated properly is something I agitated for over 30 years ago.
“I came from that position. But to come to a point where they become an all-powerful organisation within the GAA or outside the GAA, I think, has gone over the top.
“And the amounts of money that have been thrown at it is silly money.
“And people say to me: ‘Ah, you’re always anti-GPA’. I’m not anti-players being looked after well, but I’m not happy with the role that they’ve played in disputes in different counties.
“I’m not happy with the level of funds they are getting for a small number of people.
“It’s like scarce resources: what’s the best way to spend scarce resources? I don’t think giving €6m to the GPA is wise spending of scarce resources within the GAA.”
In a GAA world saddled by anodyne player interviews and choreographed press briefings, Colm O’Rourke is a breath of fresh air.
Approaching his 60th birthday, he speaks with a gloriously care-free attitude and yet he cares deeply about the Association that gave him everything.
Either side of this hour-long interview in his office in St Patrick’s School on the edges of Navan’s town centre he peppers you with affectionate yarns about the kids in school and the generational disdain they have for their principal.
He misses his playing days but he certainly doesn’t glory in them.
In fact, he’s as disdainful of the ‘glory days’ as some of the kids he teaches.
“I would never watch any of those games unless they came on the TV. There was a series on TG4 and it showed a lot of those games. Some of those Leinster finals with Dublin were poor games, hard-hitting.
“The lads in the school here would laugh at it; they’d think it was complete bogman football. I don’t pass any remarks. Fellas getting the ball and lashing it down the field…
“Now, the ’87 final [against Cork] was a good game of football, the final against Down in ’91 was a good game of football but most of those games against Dublin in ’91 were very poor games – dramatic and hard-hitting, a different type of thing altogether.”
Throughout the interview you realise Joe Brolly is right about Colm O’Rourke.
He doesn’t take himself too seriously.
He laughs at Tommy Tiernan’s hilarious classroom skit. Nothing that a few free tickets left at the doors of Vicar Street wouldn’t forgive, he smiles.
And despite everything – the Sky deal, the GPA - he’s optimistic about the future.
“The Cul Camps were running in Meath over the summer and they were jammed, and I see huge efforts being made in clubs that I’m involved in.
“I think people value what the GAA is about at the bottom, this whole community effort which has no relationship at all with what’s going on at county level.
“Parents see the value of an organisation which looks after their kids; it gives them entertainment and minds them, gives them a healthy environment, making good friends and shared values…”
He’s still managing his adopted Simonstown and never tires of the feeling of grass under his feet.
He still gets a kick out of his media work and celebrated his daughter’s wedding day recently.
He’s living a full life.
“Everything has been good,” he reflects. “Good times and bad times, bad decision and good decisions. I’m very happy in life. I feel fortunate. My family have been healthy. I’ve become increasingly thankful that my family are well and that they are healthy. Everything else is a bonus, really.”