RTE’s The Sunday Game presenter Michael Lyster speaks to Damian Dolan about professionalism within the GAA and why this is no time to panic for the sport’s future
Over the past 35 years Michael Lyster has enjoyed a unique vantage point from The Sunday Game presenter’s chair. He’s therefore well-placed to name what he sees as the biggest threat to the modern-day GAA – the advance of professionalism.
While content that volunteerism still remains at the core of the organisation – in its rural heartlands – Lyster believes the GAA has become too “scientific” to the point that it’s “spoiling” the game.
It’s not just about money – that’s to simplify the debate – the “spontaneity” has gone out of the sport, for Lyster.
The advance of sports science in the pursuit of success has come at a collective cost – Gaelic football, in particular, would seem to be at a crossroads.
“GAA players are professionals that don’t get paid. They operate to the same levels as professional sports people in terms of commitment,” Lyster told the Irish World.
“Guys who play for Manchester United get paid an awful lot of money, so when people start doing back flips in the stands and think the football is crap…..there is an onus on the club to provide entertainment, because they’re getting an awful of money.
“There isn’t that onus on GAA players – they’re not getting paid. They want to win and they don’t have to apologise to anybody. It really doesn’t matter what people think of the football.”
Not that he has any qualms with the top players, being “looked after” through their ability to make money outside of the game, through the game.
He sees no clash with the amateur ethos of the sport, because of the volunteerism still very much evident at the ground level of the sport. It remains a reassuring constant in the GAA.
“GAA is based in the community, and in most communities it’s based around the club team.
Club teams survive on the volunteer aspect,” he said.
But Lyster is reluctant to jump on the bandwagon heading for ‘doom and gloom’ central.
The overuse of sweepers, defensive tactics and the growing preference for the handpass at the expense of the kickpass, have many calling for radical and immediate changes to restore a balance to the natural order.
Lyster isn’t one of them. He has a far more pragmatic and philological stance to things and believes everything “goes in cycles”.
“You’ll get periods when the games are great, and periods when they’re not. It ebbs and flows,” he said.
Lyster cites the Meath team of the late 1980s and early 1990s as an example.
Michael Lyster Joins The Sunday Game in 1984
From the RTÉ Guide 29 June 1984
Michael Lyster will present his last episode of The Sunday Game Live this weekendhttps://t.co/c0NGA9QLgD pic.twitter.com/vS5LxMRXzq
— RTÉ (@rte) September 2, 2018
“Meath were up there. It was a very rugged team and some of their tactics were questionable, but that’s the way it was at the time,” he added.
“Back in the early 1990s everyone would have said ‘Jesus, football’s ugly’.”
The late 1990s saw the emergence of Galway with their fluent football, with things then going “backwards” for Lyster with the arrival on the scene of Tyrone and Armagh, with their brand of football.
“The cycle we’re in at the moment is not particularly good,” he admits.
A paucity of bums on seats will be the catalyst for change says Lyster – when the punters stop going and it starts to hit the GAA in the pocket.
“I wouldn’t panic; you can’t write a masterplan as to how things are going to play out. You have to go with the flow.
“What will change things is when everyone gets fed up enough of a situation, they’ll be a mood change for something different. People ain’t going to show up to look at muck.”
— The Sunday Game (@TheSundayGame) September 2, 2018
Lyster has warned against getting “overexcited” about the proposed rule changes, citing the myriad of hurdles they must pass through before even reaching Congress.
For Lyster, one of the GAA’s faults is that it’s “too democratic” with not enough executive decision-making.
“It’s a little bit like Brexit. If we talk about it long enough then may be after a hundred years it may actually happen,” he said.
“I don’t think you’re going to see these [proposed rule] changes in the championship next year, or probably ever.”
The latest proposed changes, for Lyster, are just a further example of the modern-day GAA being encumbered by “rules upon rules”. The existing rules just need to be enforced more stringently he says.
The black card being one example. The proposed introduction of a sin bin, as used in Ladies Gaelic and rugby, being another.
“If the GAA imposed properly the rules that are there already they would solve most of the problems they’re confronting, rather than having to come up with another two dozen rule books to try and figure it all out,” said Lyster.
Lyster may not be in The Sunday Game presenter’s seat next year, but he’s still very much looking forward to what next year has to offer.
2019 is likely to be all about Dublin and their bid to become the first-ever side to win five consecutive Sam Maguires.
Lyster believes they have ‘good chance” but whether they do it or not, will very much depend on them.
“If they continue to be ‘up for it’ and continue to put in the hard yards then they would certainly have to be on a very short list,” he said.
But for those who are clamouring to proclaim this Dublin team as the greater-ever, Lyster is keen to stress the subjective nature of such debates.
He points to the closeness of some of the Dubs’ final victories, especially against Mayo, and their dominance in Leinster.
“Dublin weren’t a hundred miles ahead of a Mayo team that a lot of people don’t have great regard for. So by default, they’re not necessarily streets ahead of everybody else.
It’s Michael Lyster’s very last day to present The Sunday Game (unless there’s a replay). Here he looks back at the early days and some of the memorable moments from his incredible career with Olive Esler #rtegaa pic.twitter.com/IKhPPzjfNb
— RTÉ GAA (@RTEgaa) September 2, 2018
“Another factor down through the last couple of years, is Leinster has been so weak. It’s not simply that Dublin have been so good.
“Where are the Meaths? Where are the Offalys? Where is anyone else putting up a coherent challenge. If you’ve got dominance in a province you’re half way there.
“Others have to come to meet Dublin, as opposed to waiting for Dublin to step back to them.”
Lyster has covered 77 All-Ireland finals with The Sunday Game – and more on top of that from his radio and journalism days.
With so many to choose from, does he have a favourite? He does, it’s the 1988 football final which saw Galway win the All-Ireland for the first time in 32 years.
“That meant an awful lot to Galway people and that team also had a couple of guys involved from my own parish – the star of that team being Pádraic Joyce from Killererin.
“It’s not just the county winning, it’s the county winning with some of your own neighbours involved. That was a bit special.”
It’s hard to imagine anyone else in The Sunday Game presenter’s chair next year. For Lyster, it won’t be until the GAA calendar starts to “crank up” again that it may hit home.
He made his debut on the show in 1984 and it isn’t just on the pitch that he’s seen massive changes over the ensuing four decades – much has changed in the production of the show.
When he looks back at footage of himself presenting those early shows, Lyster sees a “different person”.
“Looking at them, it always seems to be someone else who’s there. I don’t connect to it anymore,” he said.
A night time programme in its formative years, Lyster recalls video tapes having to be flown by helicopter back to the RTE studios in Dublin for editing for that night’s show.
“It’s great to be able to look back on a career that’s been 35 years and doing this programme that’s so popular and means so much to people,” he said.
“Not just the audience in Ireland, it’s Britain, Australia and America.”
The show’s appeal will go on after Lyster, but for many it will never be quite the same.