Eoin McDevitt and Ken Early in studio. , YouTube screengrab

OFF THE BALL may not have been the most popular sports show on Irish radio, but it was surely the most loved.

The past week has provided ample proof of the special place it occupied in the hearts of many sports fans.

And while it still remains on Newstalk’s schedule, its essence has been cruelly removed.

Following the news that its core team were leaving Newstalk with immediate effect, internet sites were flooded with outpourings of support for presenter Eoin McDevitt and co. Indeed, there was even a tongue-in-cheek ‘Free the Off the Ball 5’ Facebook page set up in the wake of the news, epitomising the level of good will that the team had generated over the course of their tenure at the station.

The reaction among sports fans largely constituted a mix of sadness, anger and bemusement. Many questioned why Newstalk would pull the plug on what was ostensibly a winning formula. Others simply paid tribute to the show, with its combination of intelligent discussion and offbeat sensibility.

Radio shows come and go on a regular basis, especially in the current difficult environment, in which traditional media is struggling to compete with its online competitors among other issues. And rarely are words like “tragedy” and “disgrace” used persistently by commenters to mark such an occasion. The subsequent reaction to the OTB news thus gives an idea of the cult following that the show had built up over the years. One needs to only look at the comment section of TheScore.ie’s exclusive story on the news last Monday to ascertain the level of devotion towards it.

Nevertheless, it’s also true that its listenership was unexpectedly low for such a well-liked show. In many ways, it was the Velvet Underground of radio broadcasting – raved about by practically everybody who listened to it, but never quite popular enough to breach the mainstream. It attracted 39,000 listeners on average, whereas George Hook’s show, which was directly before it, has in the region of 133,000 people tuning in every day. Perhaps it had the potential to expand its audience, had the station agreed to the core team’s apparent demands to move it to a six o’clock slot, but alas, we’ll never know for sure, it seems.
So why was it so venerated by its followers? One of the reasons was undoubtedly the lack of pretence that accompanied it.

In many cases, sports journalism, in particular, has become somewhat bland in recent times, with too many of its figureheads content to spout cliches instead of coherent arguments and incisive points. It is overly self-aware and self-important, with certain critics worrying too much about what they shouldn’t be saying.

Yet there are some notable exceptions to the rule, and Off the Ball was undoubtedly one of them, as it seldom failed to gather an array of the top sporting experts to contribute to discussions that were frequently informative and insightful. There was little sense of pretence or artificiality about it. The banter between McDevitt and his cohorts, Ken Early and Ciaran Murphy, rarely seemed strained or merely done for the sake of it.

People often deride analysis as being ‘like listening to men in a pub’. However, surely listening to ‘men in the pub’ is preferable to the cringeworthy and uptight examples that pass for punditry in many instances. Therefore, listening to Off the Ball was ‘like listening to men in the pub’ in the best possible sense – like listening to the type of witty and intelligent people that most would enjoy having a pint or two with.

And in many ways, Off the Ball’s unique format – sports shows have rarely been given regular daily three-hour slots on national radio – was reminiscent to the concept of The B.S. Report, an American podcast hosted by acclaimed sports journalist Bill Simmons. Like OTB, its aim was to acquire a conversational flow in contrast with many of its overly formal and pre-rehearsed counterparts. Indeed, Simmons’ show even regularly refers to itself as “a free flowing conversation that occasionally touches on mature subjects”.
Consequently, while Off the Ball is currently in the capable hands of Ger Gilroy, it will be impossible to fully replicate the wonderfully idiosyncratic and refreshingly casual commentaries that his former colleagues provided.

Here’s hoping they’ll all return in some form or another as soon as possible.