“Worse than Saipan” was this writer’s reaction on Facebook on March 4th 2013 to the news that Ciarán Murphy, Eoin McDevitt, Ken Early, Simon Hick and Mark Horgan were leaving Newstalk’s flagship sports show Off The Ball. The top comment on the news article on TheScore.ie (now The42.ie) which garnered over a thousand of those valuable green thumbs was “This is what it must have felt like to have been a teenage girl in 1996 when Take That broke up.” Simplification of gender roles aside, it was truly a time of deep uncertainty for sports geeks around the country. Little could we imagine that three and a bit years later, the men known as Second Captains would be rolling toward the 750th edition of the massively successful podcast with a sold-out, guest-packed live show in the Liberty Hall Theatre and a second volume of the Second Captains Sports Annual rounding up the rollercoaster year of 2016 on the shelves. Totally Dublin sat down to discuss the podcast format, the shapeshifting nature of sports journalism and bad jokes with Ciaran Murphy.
I was thinking about how ephemeral podcasts are, and maybe the annual is the best way to show your work, as it were?
God, it’s mad. The podcast is a very ephemeral thing. I certainly remember last year, it was a big thrill to get [the first annual] in my hand. So you stick this on your bookshelf and you don’t do anything else, you know what I mean? It’s there and that’s it.
Even when we worked in radio though, that’s so ephemeral. Even before we’d left, there were loads of our shows that just weren’t going to get heard again. In ways podcasts are less ephemeral than radio in that respect. You know if you get out of your car for five minutes and a song you like is playing, when you get back in… it’s gone, there’s no way of pausing it!
But it’s a really nice feeling to put your own book on your bookshelf, and it gives us a great chance to say, “this is what happened this year”. Between us and our listeners, the community that that entails, this is the stuff that we’re interested in. The listeners have a huge part to play in that as well. So much of what’s there developed from what listeners told us they liked, or disliked but were laughing at while they disliked it.
How much feedback do you get, and how much does that impact on what you put out? And even, how much negative feedback you get.
Podcasts are weird like that, because if someone seeks you out and sticks listening to you, automatically then there’s not a lot of bad feedback. But then again we did a piece on Conor McGregor’s win [in UFC 205 against Eddie Alvarez] and that got negative feedback.
And say, like Eoin’s Poems, that grew out of an event that I was going to in The Fumbally organised by Kevin McManamon, this brilliant thing called Warriors of the Light. So Eoin had said, “Do you have to write your own poem?” and I said that you didn’t have to, but Eoin then set about writing a poem about Anton O’Toole and we read it out on the podcast. Loads of people liked it, but loads of other people liked it for how terrible it was.
Some things like that, where you get feedback, it’s like Sideshow Bob stands on the rake and it’s funny, and then he stands on three rakes and it’s less funny but then he stands on ten rakes and it’s the funniest thing you’ve ever seen. So there’s an element of that with some of the stuff, you see what people like, you see why people like it and if you keep going with it, it just gets funnier.
I assume “The Fair View” is one of those things that people liked automatically?
Oh completely! That was actually completely Ken’s idea. He came in one Monday morning and just said, can you find The Marino Waltz on YouTube and play it when I tell you to play it. So he lives in Fairview and he hears all the cheers from Croke Park and we’d gotten into the habit of asking about the Dublin games, and he’d have the most passing interest. One morning he was like, “When you ask me about that I want you to play The Marino Waltz underneath me,” and then he just started talking… so that one is all on him! But yes, everyone loves “The Fair View” and why wouldn’t they, frankly.
So the Christmas show in the Liberty Hall Theatre was also the 750th show anniversary. Can you take me back to the point when you left Newstalk? How did that happen and what did you expect? Did you think, this is ripe to be done as a podcast, we can do this ourselves? Or was it a bit of a step into the unknown at that stage?
If you go all the way back to there, it’s three and a half years, what we felt when we left Newstalk was that we didn’t want to work in Newstalk anymore. That was the strongest feeling. There was a feeling that we could keep certainly going as a separate entity because we felt that there was something worthwhile that we had been doing that we could continue to do. But the main thing was thing we were all around 30, and we’d been doing it for around ten years, and leaving work at half ten every night, it’s not a life. That was the big thing.
Radio was great, and we had a great time in Newstalk absolutely, but it was time to just not be doing that anymore. So there wasn’t a set plan. But we started working nine to five the day we left Newstalk as a company. We set up the company within two days I think, and that was our job then. So from there it was a case of, RTÉ TV were interested in us within a couple of days which was really good, something to hang your hat on. And then you just get to thinking, what’s in it here? What are we good at and where can we work? And the Irish Times have been brilliant from the minute they got on board we’ve had a great relationship with them. We felt that we had something to offer as a group together. And then after that, it’s like starting any business really, isn’t it? If you’ve got something that you think is worth selling, you back yourself.
Can you pick out any particular moments on the podcast – either guests or one-off shows – that rank as things that you’re particularly proud of?
The podcast after England lost to Iceland. That’s a particular fan’s favourite. My wife was in Sri Lanka at the time. She’s a teacher so during the Euros she said, “What’s the point, I’m not going to be sitting around waiting for you to come home” so she went to Sri Lanka for three weeks. She has zero interest in sport – well, almost zero – and she rang me from Sri Lanka that evening and was like, “That was an extremely funny show.” Ken was just laughing basically, laughing at Joe Hart and England and that Steve McClaren clip from Sky Sports News saying that England had recovered brilliantly from the equaliser.
But we did actually a week of shows the week that we had our 250th podcast, and we spoke to Michael Parkinson and that was really good actually.
I quoted that thing he said in an Editor’s Note. The “It’s not war…” bit.
Yeah like, this year… God! It’s actually a nice thing, instead of thinking of sport as a triviality in the midst of all the stuff that’s going on, you can say thank god for it. That was a great show. Parkinson was a total delight to deal with; he was a class act, a good act. And we spoke to David Baddiel as well, that was really, really good. It’s often the one’s that are different are the ones you remember rather than good solid shows. Those two certainly. And it’s a real treat to be going on during the Euros when Ireland have done something big. Or the show after Ireland had beaten the All Blacks. It’s a really nice thing to be able to go and talk about it and share it with people. That never wears off. That’s a really nice thing. I think sometimes you have to remove yourself from it, but there are other times that this is really how I feel and this is how the majority of the country feels and just go with that unbelievable feel-good thing, that you know the rest of the country is going with.
So the shows I’d pick out are the ones the day after something huge has just happened and we can’t wait to get in there and start talking and if we could’ve done four shows in the day, we would’ve. They’re fun, you know? After Ireland versus Italy, that was brilliant as well.
The show with Cathal McCarron was on a couple of weeks ago, I looked at that in the feed and I almost thought, “Do I even want to listen to that? This is going to be grim.” How is it doing those shows? They’re on a bit of a different tack altogether.
That was obviously heavy, really heavy. In a situation like that, that’s really where Eoin comes into his own. I think that he has a brilliant sense for how to those interviews, like way more than, Me and Ken have certain roles but we just step back there in a situation like that, and Eoin’s all over stuff like that. In ways, he’d love to do more of those. And I think you’ll find as well, listeners they go for that as well. There’s obviously a lighthearted tint to a lot of the podcast, and we love doing that. Some of listeners respond to that certainly, but they also respond in droves to Cathal McCarron stuff, the heavier stuff that we do.
Around the Ched Evans thing, we spoke to a girl called Anna Krien who won the William Hill [Sports Book Of The Year Award] for a book called Night Games. The book’s brilliant. But it’s really, really heavy piece about where sportspeople, sports men really, about where they grew up, their influences are as a 15 or 16-year-old and as a result their thoughts on women. It’s unbelievably heavy, and it’s stuff that people our age and people younger, say like 18 to 21-year-olds, need to think about in a really deep way.
Have you got any kind of “bucket list” guests that you’d love to talk to from around the world of sport? Or people who’ve been elusive even?
We get asked this all the time and the best that we’ve come up with is that we learn Spanish and talk to Diego Maradona. I’m trying to think… I don’t know really. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar I’d love to talk to, especially this year of all years. He’s an extremely impressive guy and has spoken brilliantly on podcasts that I’ve heard in the past. The bigger the name doesn’t necessarily mean the more interesting the guest, but he’d be one. I think I’m just going to adopt that as my answer now… that’s my answer for life now! Until we get Kareem Abdul Jabbar!
And other podcasts that you listen to, what are your influences, as it were?
Well, my guilty podcast secret is The West Wing Weekly! Honestly, if it’s on and the lads are asking me [what I’m listening to] I’m like, “Oh nothing, nothing, I’m not listening to a podcast!” Because it is the dorkiest thing I’ve ever heard, but I love it, I love The West Wing, I love it to an absurd degree and I guess I should just embrace the fact that I love it. But that is the one that I listen to, you know, as it comes out. That’s the one I would listen to the most, but every couple of weeks I’d scroll down through the last ten episodes of Marc Maron’s WTF Podcast episodes and have a listen to some of those. Like, I heard his one with Billy Crystal and that was brilliant, that was absolutely brilliant. He told a story about Mohammed Ali that I’m not going to ruin for you.
I suppose our influences are just what we used to do. I’m trying to think of a sports podcast that covered the sports events of the week with analysts, as opposed to just talking about it themselves and there aren’t many of them I suppose.
The Fair Game podcast on women’s sports with Elaine Buckley and Emily Glenn is good as well, and I really like the idea behind it, and it’s getting better all the time. What else do I listen to? This American Life is on in my house a lot because my wife listens to it a lot, so I don’t feel the need to subscribe to it myself. An Irishman Abroad, I listen to that all the time as well.
But I do really like that about podcasts. It’s kind of something that you pass around. If you’ve heard one [that you like] you’re almost evangelical about it. My brother asks me every three months, “Have you heard about a good one? I’m sick of X, Y and Z.” But that’s kind of the nice thing about podcasts, you pass them around, they’re kind of your own thing.
Did you regret not going over to France for the Euro?
I went over to Lyon for the France game and it was amazing, absolutely amazing. We’ve built a studio in our offices, so [during Euro 2016] we could just go in and it would be, “Right, this what we thought about the game last night,” go upstairs, do the show, and that was it. It was brilliant from that point of view, that it was off the hoof, reacting as it’s happening. I really enjoyed that part of it, and we probably wouldn’t have been able to do it in France because you’re schlepping from one place to the next for the weeks that Ireland are involved. And then we got over to Ireland versus France, it was brilliant.
I stayed down in the south of France and on the way up there I was thinking I’m not sure I’m ready for all this “banter” – but then when I got there it was just the most enjoyable thing. Just a genuinely good time and, of course, people filming everything on their phones as well.
It’s easy to be cynical about it but… but there is an element to it, as Ken says [in his Euro 2016 Diary in the Annual], that first it happens, and some of it maybe isn’t the authentic thing that you think it is. But on the whole, everyone had an amazing time, so just sign up to it, just roll with it.
And finally, how is [Brazilian football journalist] Tim Vickery’s Skype line so clear?
I’ve literally no idea! It’s some kind of black Amazon magic that I just can’t figure out. It’s clearer than me hearing Eoin through the headphones. He inhabits my inner aural passage in a way that I’ve never heard before!
The Second Captains Sports Annual, Volume 2: The Gang’s All Here is out in all reputable bookshops now, and, of course, you can check out the Irish Times Second Captains podcasts every Monday and Thursday. (And you really should seek out the Billy Cristal/Muhammad Ali story on Marc Maron’s podcast.)
Words: Ian Lamont