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Lights, camera, attraction - fans love unique access, as proven by popular GAA documentaries



Small screen: John Hanratty, John Murtagh, Jamie Clarke and Paul Hearty all featured in BBCNI’s Field of Dreams documentary

Small screen: John Hanratty, John Murtagh, Jamie Clarke and Paul Hearty all featured in BBCNI’s Field of Dreams documentary

Big insight: Oisin McConville and John McEntee were happy for BBC cameras
to follow Crossmaglen

Big insight: Oisin McConville and John McEntee were happy for BBC cameras to follow Crossmaglen

Small screen: John Hanratty, John Murtagh, Jamie Clarke and Paul Hearty all featured in BBCNI’s Field of Dreams documentary

Netflix don't create pandemics but if they did, they could never have made one with better timing than the Coronavirus outbreak.

The subscription-based network has been notoriously secretive in the past about their viewing figures unless it reflects well on them.

But a week ago, they were reporting that 10-part series The Last Dance had an average of 5.6 million viewers, putting it by far the most watched ESPN documentary of all time. That's quite something in a nation that has a tendency to filter and frame everything through a sporting prism.

For all the warm praise lavished on what some are calling a Michael Jordan vanity project, the worldwide appeal that has spread to these parts has many asking if such a series would ever be possible in Gaelic Games.

Closer examination will show that there is a plethora of documentaries and programmes on GAA matters and quite a few of them of the highest calibre - from informative documentaries exploring the various elements of the association, to dressing room footage even more raw than the producers of The Last Dance could ever have got.

'A Year 'Til Sunday' is the standout example, filmed by Galway's sub-goalkeeper Pat Comer for their breakthrough All-Ireland success of 1998. 'Marooned', the documentary that captured Paidi O Se's year managing Westmeath to their sole Leinster title in 2004 is likewise blessed with the kind of fly on the wall footage that spawns a million team talks and sayings.

Silverbridge Harps in south Armagh were the subject of a four-part series, 'Gaelic Passions', on BBCNI in November 2003.

In 2017, Jarlath Burns presented two-part series 'Nios Mo Na Cluiche' for the same channel, exploring the evolution of Gaelic games in Ulster and the role they play in community life.

If you take that title and translate it into its English form, you have 'More Than A Game', which was screened in 1995 and had footage of two different teams; the Down side that won an All-Ireland title in 1994, and Crossmaglen Rangers in 1995.

Any retrospective history of Crossmaglen, and how they came to win 19 out of 20 Armagh Championships from 1996 on, would cite 'More Than A Game' as a significant occurrence.

"That documentary seemed very important in our lives at that time," says Oisín McConville as he recalls the young forward he was back then being interviewed on their hopes of breaking a long Championship drought going back nine years at that point.

"The actual involvement of cameras being around and people hanging around the place was fairly minimal. There was no real intrusion.

"It was only when you look back on it, the pictures that they captured seemed strange.

"But it was nothing to how we were around here. We were getting ridiculed but also there was a small club over the road who were after hoodwinking us."

He laughs at the last line. Crossmaglen were beaten in the Championship by their neighbours Mullaghban, who went on to pick up the Ulster title. The camera followed the Mullaghban team to their post-game celebration, where their colourful goalkeeper Benny Tierney was in full flight. His 'Come on the Wangers!' quip became the nub of an unholy war that at the time seemed everything, but McConville laughs at now.

"If you ask Benny how many times that has been said back to him…

"I am sure he said it for the craic and all but people in Cross took it to heart. From the players' point of view, once we got over them the following year, that was it done and dusted.

"We definitely used it. It was very important to us in the next pre-season. When you are going through the muck and the gutters, you always had Joe (Kernan) or Ollie (McEntee) reminding you 'remember what happened last year.'

"So we used it and we got whatever we could out of it."

In 2016, McConville was in charge of Cross as manager along with John McEntee. They took the brave decision of allowing BBCNI's Thomas Niblock to capture two full seasons in 2014 and 2015 for the celebrated 'Field of Dreams' documentary, first aired in 2016 and given a fresh outing on BBCNI a couple of weeks back.

"We thought this could help us focus. And it's exactly what it did," explains McConville.

"For a while, boys were acting around the camera and that and it helped that it was just Thomas on his own, not Thomas and a camera man. He did most of the filming himself.

"A lot of boys knew him, they had become very comfortable with him and, once that happened, boys just let themselves go. You could see what the results of letting yourself go are; you get a true sense of what's going on.

"If you were going to try to act for two years around the camera, you would get found out very quickly."

As the veteran of two documentaries in which he offered thoughtful contributions, McConville is typically forthright as to why there are not more made.

"There's definitely an appetite for it. And if you were to delve deeper, I am sure it is something that has been explored time after time after time.

"But managers, county boards, they don't want them because they are afraid of them. They are paranoid about them. They don't want anything exposed, give away secrets… I mean, secrets - that's the biggest joke ever. What secrets could possibly come out in a documentary?"

The good news is that aspiring documentary makers would always find doors open, according to RTE Group head of Sport, Declan McBennett.

"To my mind, it has always been about creating heroes for the next generation, when you see them and see the level of work they went into, the level of commitment they give," says the Monaghan native.

"Broadcasters are mad to gain that sort of access and insight, but the access simply isn't available."

Perhaps all that might change.


Belfast Telegraph