The 'Toy Department' equivalent of The Late Late Show, for 40 years The Sunday Game has been home to its fair share of dodgy jumpers and moments that sparked more than one national conversation.

Engaging and infuriating, watched religiously by even those who habitually grumble about it, the show retains a touch of that 'here comes everybody' feel.

Whereas The Late Late has become a tighter affair over the years - "d'you remember when Gay was presenting, this used to go on for about four hours?" Tommy Tiernan asked one night when he was rushed along mid-anecdote - The Sunday Game has expanded in size since its earliest days. 

Not expanded enough according to many.

"Wonderful performance and win by [insert name of commenter's county here] in the Leinster championship and only a two-minute report on The Sunday Game. Disgrace!" 

This, as anyone here can tell you, is a fairly common complaint these days, especially since the GAA decided to shorten the calendar. The Sunday Game producers are regularly accused of showing callous disregard to counties who have just enjoyed their day in the sun. To satisfy everyone and ventilate all the issues that the great Gaelic Games public feel require ventilation, the show would probably have to drag on longer than the election results coverage.   

It turns out the complaints were little different back in the 70s.

In the July 1979 edition of the RTÉ Guide, published three weeks after the new show made its opening bow, it was reported that "the programme had already run into controversy, as protests have been made about the arbitrary choice each Sunday in opting for one game rather than the other."

The first ever edition of Sunday Game was broadcast on 8 July 1979. There had been snatches of evening highlights before but they had formed part of multi-sport offerings and weren't deemed satisfactory.  

The inaugural show consisted of highlights and discussion of just the one game, the Munster hurling final between Cork and Limerick in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. ("Disgrace to completely ignore Offaly's great win over Meath in the Leinster semi-final.") It wasn't possible then for RTÉ to send two outside broadcast units to two different locations on the same day and thus we see how 'The Sunday Game' got its name. 

The first programme was presented by Jim Carney. Interestingly, the first analysts were former Tipperary camogie player Liz Howard and the late Bill O'Herlihy. 

Carney presented the programme for three years and was a commentator for about three decades.  

The Galway journalist and broadcaster admitted that in the early years, the show was "a bit uncool and a bit unsexy". They stayed a little on the formal, restrained, understated side in their analysis and presentation. 


That changed in the early Michael Lyster years. There were a number of different stand-in presenters for a short while - Mick Dunne, Seán Óg Ó Cealláchain and even George Hamilton all occupied the anchor chair.  

But in 1984, ahead of the centenary season, they turned to 30-year-old Michael Lyster. The newbie - another Galway man - told this evening's documentary that his ambition was to knock about five years out of this Sunday Game craic. He ended up staying in the seat for 35 years. 

The mid-to-late 80s were the Sunday Game's anarchic years, when they did skits on "common low-class gaels" and Lyster compared Wicklow club football to a particularly bloody bout of Korean kick-boxing.

Then, when the Wicklow county board wrote to the Director General demanding he be sacked, Lyster delivered a somewhat cheerful sounding on-air apology and proceeded to hold up the (many) letters of complaint, saying he hadn't time to read them all and would have to dump them in the boot of his car. (Anyone with the vaguest knowledge of Wicklow club football skirmishes got the reference). 

The new presenter's sartorial choices typified the new hang-loose approach. In contrast to his suited-up predecessors, Lyster presented the show in a get-up which suggested that he'd just finished a casual round of golf with his mates. He wore the regimental uniform of the 1980s RTÉ kids TV presenter, the loud, multi-coloured jumper.

Things have changed now, of course. Pundits are these days kitted out in the most elegant of finery. No appearance on The Sunday Game is complete without a tweeted nod of appreciation to whichever tailor has sorted you out for the evening.  

The ostentatious lurch into high fashion probably reached its zenith in 2015 when Tomás Ó Sé turned up in an actual tuxedo, replete with dickie bow.

He sat behind the desk, analysing the action from the Leinster semi-finals, looking like the arch-villain whose straight flush lost out to James Bond's royal flush in an absurdly tense game of Texas Hold'em at the Hotel Monte Cristo in Paris. 


The theme tune from the off was James Last's 'Jagerlatein', a jaunty bit of jingle which translates as 'Hunters' Yarns'.

Last was not revered by music critics everywhere but he sold millions and millions of records worldwide, an achievement which didn't prevent him flirting with bankruptcy in his dotage. 

The German evidently knew of his special relevance to the Gaelic Games community. During his big band's rendition of the 'Rose of Tralee' at an open air concert in Tralee in 1984, Last threw on a Kerry jersey (No. 21 on the back for some reason) to the whooping delight of the crowd. (Incidentally, this was the very rendition that was infamously used as the Irish anthem for the country's first Rugby World Cup game in 1987). 

The theme tune remained the theme tune for the first 25 years of its run and there was no particular clamour for change.

But for the 2004 campaign, RTE decided to tinker with the formula, introducing, without warning, a self-consciously epic-sounding, Celtic warrior-style tune.

Predictably, the backlash was immediate and intense and hadn't calmed down even by September. 

"The outcry was quite extraordinary," then RTE Head of Sport Glen Killane said on the documentary. "I think I had death threats. I had all sorts of people writing to me for months and months on end, to say why the hell are you doing this.

"I'm 100% happy to say I got that one completely wrong."

RTE persisted with the new tune for the 2005 and 2006 campaigns. They switched to a more indie-rock sounding affair for the 2007 season before finally returning to the old jingle for the 2008 championship. James Last's 'happy music' was once more heralding the arrival of the Irish summer.   


Colm O'Rourke, Joe Brolly and Lyster (L-R) in Ballybofey in 2006

Up until the mid-1990s, the only live televised games of the championship were the All-Ireland semi-finals in football and hurling and the two All-Ireland finals. 

This was down to the GAA's longstanding anxiety that people wouldn't bother going to games if they could watch them on television. 

The GAA were far from alone among sporting organisations in thinking this way at the time. There was relatively little live English league soccer on TV - compared to now at any rate - in the 1970s and 80s for much the same reason. 

In 1995, at last, the GAA decided to countenance the transmission of live fare in the provincial championship at the height of summer. 

The man fronting the coverage has since admitted that he didn't believe it would work. 

"I just felt Ireland was a small country with a small population. People went out to see matches here and it didn't necessarily have a big population to draw on," Michael Lyster told in 2016.

The first provincial game screened was a fairly standard first-round Leinster championship encounter between Kildare and Louth in Newbridge.

The match, which was played on 28 May, was fixed for tea-time. The logic behind the tea-time throw-in was that the target audience would be attending games themselves, club or county, at the traditional time of 3.30pm and would watch the TV game when they got in. They stuck to this formula over the course of the summer. 

The figures, according to Lyster, weren't the best. For the second summer, Head of Sport Tim O'Connor decided they were going to go all-out and transmit games at the traditional time of 3.30pm. 

The figures improved dramatically and rose and rose from there. Better again, contrary to the old conventional wisdom, the effect on attendances was not negative, but positive.  

"I suppose it debunked this notion that with games being live, it would take from the attendance," observes Ger Loughnane. "As a matter of fact, the attendances went way up. Because the profile went way up. They got a feel of the excitement from television and they wanted to be there."   


When people think of The Sunday Game now, they think primarily of the rows, the off-colour moments, the occasionally kooky arguments advanced, and the newly coined phrases.

We've witnessed Pat Spillane transform the word 'puke', which hitherto for had been widely considered a noun, into an adjective live on television. 

From somewhere deep in Pat's sickened gut, he decided that lumping the previously unconnected words 'puke' and 'football' together was the only way of getting across his visceral disdain for the type of football Tyrone were playing in 2003. 

Notwithstanding the fact that Pat came up with the phrase right on the spot, without any advanced thought, it has become a staple, a cliche almost, of the GAA lexicon. 

We've had angry exhortations telling the kids to go play tennis, we've seen the Shi'ite tribe dragged into the debate surrounding Jim McGuinness' tactics, and latterly we've had the British empire being blamed for the aversion to modern tactics in hurling.

We've seen Pat Spillane subject the famous Mayo-Meath brawl to the kind of forensic blow-by-blow examination that the Warren Commission did - or tried to do - with the Kennedy assassination. We've had Dónal Óg Cusack allude to the sleeping habits of the ayatollah when ruminating on the fitness of the Cork county board.

And we've observed Kieran Donaghy ask Joe Brolly what he thought of Kerry's 2014 All-Ireland final victory. Brolly's Twitter mentions would be plagued for 12 months as every U16 team in the country began demanding to know what Joe thought of their latest success. 

"You said I was finished, Joe!" Donaghy pleaded when ambushed by Brolly at a function that winter. "Wasn't me that left you on the bench all year," was Joe's rather sharp reply.  

The Sunday Game is perhaps changing these days, its analysis evolving, becoming more stats-based and in-depth, in line with the demands of the both the game and the audience. 

However, this change is being fiercely contested. Dónal Óg Cusack, an advocate of the new approach, believes "there's a beauty in the detail that should be exposed" and which "has been often missed in the past".

But for Cyril Farrell, the reliance on stats could go too far. Statistics are fine "as an aid" but any coach that's allowing his decisions to be defined by stats won't win much. 

Whatever direction the programme takes in the future, it will not be entirely captured by the boffins and will remain part of the public conversation.

As Ciaran Whelan observed, "Deep down, people love that bit of controversy, they love something that everybody is going to talk about in the morning in the office."

'Sunday Best – 40 years of The Sunday Game' will be aired on RTÉ One on Wednesday 3 December at 9.35pm.