IN THE THREE decades and more that Eamon Dunphy has dominated football analysis in Ireland he has famously, with his contradictory views, turned himself inside-out with gay abandon.
Yet, he remains utterly compelling, but why?
If it were any other commentator the rug would have been pulled from under them many moons ago. But we are not talking about any other commentator. This is Eamon Dunphy: a far more complicated beast. The charges against him will have to be teased out.
There is no comfortable way around this for Dunphy. By changing position so drastically and with such alarming ease, Dunphy seems to confound commonsense.
It is one thing to alter your view over time as circumstances change but it is quite another simply to announce a diametrically opposed view and expect your audience to swallow it whole without offering any proviso or explanation.
Yet this is precisely what Dunphy does. He delights in launching supremely provocative barbs from his seemingly endless supply of outrage, contradicting himself along the way in almost glorious fashion. Though perplexing, this weakness is actually an essential part of Dunphy’s appeal.
‘He enjoys a level of looseness with accuracy that would not be allowed to any other football analyst’
His habit of ritually reinventing himself gives him an enticing air of unpredictability. Viewers and readers just do not know what he is going to say next and so they invariably wait on his every word in the hope that he will drop another bombshell.
His habit of contradicting himself only adds spice to an already colourful brew because he can tear up the rulebook at any time and perform an about-turn on dearly held opinions. This lends his views a marked ‘churn’ factor that sets him apart from ordinary commentators. He enjoys a level of looseness with accuracy that would not be allowed to any other football analyst. This leaves the meagre consolation that Dunphy has at least, as Michael Ross puts it writing in The Irish Times in May 2010, ‘been constant in his inconstancy’.
Could there, however, perhaps be a defence for Dunphy’s unique style or is it simply empty controversialism and unaccountable flip-flopping? According to Dunphy, there is rhyme and reason to the madness. He has argued repeatedly that consistency is an overrated virtue and is akin to the last refuge of the pedant.
He has sought to turn commonplace attitudes on their head, arguing that the devil is not, in fact, in the detail. Quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth-century American writer, Dunphy has claimed that ‘a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds’ and, so, nothing to which one should aspire. There is, he seems to suggest, a greatness of mind in not being lashed to the minute detail of your past utterances, a freedom that allows one to soar free of mediocrity, wiping the slate clean each time in readiness for your next tantalising flare-up. Dunphy might equally have quoted Oscar Wilde when he wrote: ‘The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves.’
In Dunphy’s defence, though he is sometimes guilty of sacrificing accuracy and moderation in his determination to be controversial, his analysis works on the grand level. At heart he is a polemicist who is obviously more at home with the drama of the sweeping statement rather than with impartial, cautiously constructed opinions, but this is very much part of his brilliance. Dunphy is partial, and in a world of inane football analysis, he is loved all the more for it.
He is more than willing to put his neck on the line shooting fast and loose with a penetrating directness and a fearlessness that other commentators cannot emulate. Revelling in what might be called the polemicist’s poetic licence, complete factual accuracy is certainly a troublesome casualty of Dunphy’s approach, but it is often compensated for by his ability to deliver thought-provoking and invigorating opinions that have set the agenda for many major football debates in Irish soccer.
At his best, he hits the mark spectacularly, uncovering the bigger issue in a way that other commentators cannot match. Dunphy himself, perhaps aware of his habit of sometimes getting the facts wrong, has extolled the virtues of this expansive style. ‘By saying what I think, I can at least encourage a viewer to have another look. So you’re challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, you don’t even have to be right all the time, though you have to be right often enough to be credible.’
The fact that his critics also fail to mention is that, behind his sensational one-liners, Dunphy invariably offers detailed football reasoning to make his case. This is evidenced, for example, in the cogent tactical arguments that he has made against the negative football styles of Irish national managers, Jack Charlton and Giovanni Trapattoni.
In Dunphy’s case the bite is often as big as the bark.
If his only talent was for marching into the RTÉ studio, pulling up a seat alongside John Giles and Liam Brady for two hours or so, and directing tasty x-rated jabs at the nearest respected sports person, he would surely have received a gift of his P45 many years ago.
But there is substance behind the neat turn of phrase. Beneath the biting put-downs and his obvious enjoyment of the conversational flourish is a highly perceptive football mind and an impressively wide-ranging intellect, the last trait helping to explain why he has enjoyed such durable success.
Dunphy: A Football Life written by, Jared Browne, and published by New Island, is now on sale in Ireland and Britain for €16.99/£14.99 and online at www.newisland.ie. It is the first biography of Eamon Dunphy.