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Interview: BBC sports commentator Conor McNamara

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Earlier this year Limerick bid farewell to Terry Wogan, a Crescent College educated young boy who left the city and went on to become the BBC’s most popular broadcaster. Wogan never forgot his home town right up to the moment he passed away.

Another Crescent educated boy has followed the footsteps of Wogan, albeit in this instance in the sporting world.

Conor McNamara is the well-known commentator working for BBC Radio 5 Live, Match of the Day and BBC Television’s Rugby Union coverage. Now living in Manchester, McNamara is a proud Limerick-man who, like Wogan, has never lost his fondness for home.

Conor was educated in Mungret National School and then attended Crescent College Comprehensive.

“I’m very proud of both schools”, he tells me. “The teachers were conscientious and there was always plenty of extra-curricular activities. I was never a focused scholar, I used to daydream a lot during regular classes, but things like the school radio station, magazines, sport, and music really caught my attention”.

Conor’s memories of childhood are dominated by his days playing sport. He played hurling and Gaelic Football for Mungret, soccer for Mungret/Regional (as it was then known) and rugby for Old Crescent.

“Between training and matches, there was always something going on sports-related. As much as the action itself, I remember being squeezed into the back of cars with a huge number of other kids. The kind of thing that Health and Safety would not approve of today”, he remembers.

Conor’s first broadcasting “job” was with Radio Limerick, now known as Limerick’s Live 95fm, when he was 16 years of age.

“I used to present Saturday and Sunday afternoons mostly playing music, but between the songs I would update the latest scores in various sports. This was the pre-internet era, so I remember I used to read the scores off teletext on a TV monitor in the studio. The challenge was always to get the scores read out quickly before the page automatically changed”, he says.

This early learning gave Conor experience in the basics of broadcasting. This is something he always insists you can only learn by “doing”.

As choices had to made regarding university Conor determined a career in broadcasting was where his destiny lay.

irish-open“Back then there were no specialist Broadcasting Degrees available in Ireland so I went to England and studied TV & Radio in Manchester. It was at this time that Radio Ireland (Now Today FM) started up and I remember sending in a cassette with a recording of me doing a match report from a Premier League match.

I hadn’t actually been to the game, just recorded at home on a tape player. I didn’t say how old I was on the cover letter I sent in with the tape, and I guess I sounded a bit older than 18”, he tells me.

This was a major turning point for McNamara’s career. He secured a regular spot Radio Ireland going to Premier League matches across England every Saturday and Sunday.

“This was an experience money can’t buy”, he says. “I would travel to Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury, Elland Road and watch top class games every week and broadcast the reports live on air with the likes of Johnny Giles.  I was no longer a “wannabe sports reporter”, I was actually doing the real thing”.

In 1997 Radio Ireland (Today FM) got the rights to do commentary of the FA Cup Final, but as a new station they didn’t have a commentator. Conor had impressed the station’s management enough with his earlier reports to be offered the job.

conor-mcnamara-2192007-752x501Having never done a live football commentary in his life, McNamara suddenly found himself on a train to Wembley to commentate on the FA Cup Final. It was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time.

“The following summer I went to The World Cup in France for Radio Ireland and sent back daily reports from the tournament. TV3 started up that same summer and were looking for a commentator. I was the guy who commentated for the national independent radio station, so they offered the job to me. Truth was I had only done a handful of live games on radio, but suddenly I was signed up to commentate on Republic of Ireland games on National TV. I was still only 21”.

After 3 years with TV working on Ireland games and also commentating on the Champions League, one of Conor’s pundits – Mark Lawrenson – told him that BBC were looking for new young commentators. Lawrenson put in a good word and at age 24 Conor was once again moving back to England. This time to join the BBC.”

One of Conor’s biggest challenges throughout his career has been maintaining the high standards required to remain at an organisation like The BBC.

“When people ask about working in the media they always want to know about how you got into it, but the really hard part is working your way up – and staying there – within the corporation”, he notes.

“The BBC is relied upon all over the world as a trustworthy source. If a big story breaks people flock to the BBC coverage to hear what is actually true. They know that we don’t deal in hyperbole. The big challenge is to keep those standards up.

McNamara feels that from the outside people would see his job as being at the games inside the stadium but he stresses the most important part as being the research you do at home beforehand and the logistics of planning your journeys and being in the right place at the right time.

Conor outlines an average week as being:

  • Monday: Commentate on a Premier League game in Liverpool
  • Tuesday: Fly to Madrid
  • Wednesday: Commentate on a Real Madrid Champions League game
  • Thursday: Fly back from Madrid
  • Friday: Prep and research day
  • Saturday: Commentate on Chelsea in the Premier League.

With such a hectic schedule it is hardly any wonder that Conor finds it increasingly difficult these days to pay visits to his home town.

“Before I had kids I used to come back frequently, but that has become more difficult now with little ones to mind. I still keep in contact with many of my old school friends. I still like to come home for the odd Munster match when I can”, he says.

Over recent years Conor acknowledges the huge changes taking place across Limerick.

“There have been huge changes in infrastructure”, he notes. “Driving into Limerick nowadays feels like you are driving into a proper sized city.

“We used to laugh as kids that there were so few restaurants and coffee shops in Limerick, because everyone would eat at home. “Sure why would you pay for coffee out and about when you could just make it at home?” but the city has clearly come on leaps and bounds in that regard”.conor2

As a keen sportsman McNamara believes Munster’s exploits on the rugby stage have been a great boost for how people abroad see Limerick.

“Whenever I say to someone that I’m from Limerick they invariably say “Oh, where Munster play?”

“I think Limerick is seen as a sort of ‘mini-New Zealand’ – where everyone is rugby obsessed – I think it’s a really good thing”.

Conor describes his proudest moments being the opportunity he has had to work at the really big events such as World Cups and Olympics. His career has taken him to World Cups in places like South Africa and Brazil. He was in Rio this year for The Olympics and every two years he works at The Ryder Cup.

“I have worked at sporting events in over 70 countries on all four continents”, he says. “I’m very aware that it would cost a hell of a lot of money to go to these events as a fan. I don’t take it for granted”.

I ask him whether having lived away from Limerick for so long makes him lose his ‘Limerickness’.

“If people abroad notice that you are Irish they almost by default assume that you are front Dublin. I find being from Limerick is a nice point of difference”, he says.

“I’ve always been very proud to be from Limerick. When I joined the BBC Terry Wogan was one of the top broadcasters in the operation. Being from the same place – and same school even – as him was great for my confidence. The idea that a guy who went to Crescent could go on to become one of the biggest stars at The BBC was hugely influential to me.

When I work at rugby games for the BBC, I’m often alongside former England, Wales or Scotland internationals. I always get a nod of respect when they find out that I’m from Limerick”.

Conor describes social media as an excellent tool when used properly.

“It allows you to connect with your audience in whole new way. But you have to be careful. In many ways social media is like invading your own privacy. I never mention my family or personal life on social media, it is just an extension of my working life. I think it’s important to keep those two separate.

Most Limerick people I know who now live abroad will still follow Limerick institutions on social media to keep in touch with what is happening at home. I follow the likes of the local papers, Munster Rugby, Limerick FC and the likes of Crescent School on Twitter, just to keep a sense of what’s going on at home”.

Programme Name: The Six Nations - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. n/a) - Picture Shows: Pundit, Keith Wood - (C) BBC - Photographer: Colin Bell
BBC Pundit, Keith Wood. Photo: Colin Bell

Conor describes Keith Wood as being a huge influence.

“I’ve been fortunate to work with Keith Wood for both BBC and TV3. He is a very impressive operator. You can see why he was such a good captain. A pep-talk from him and you’d be more than happy to run through walls for him.

Keith was influential in getting me to commentate on the 2015 Rugby World Cup for TV3 and I always enjoying seeing him on 6 Nations trips with the BBC. He’s not just a sporting legend, but a top class broadcaster and businessman too”.

In many senses it is no surprise that Conor found himself attracted to the world of broadcasting. His father is the well-known Limerick DJ Michael McNamara. He describes his dad as a mentor from the beginning and continues to be today.

“He has an excellent ear for what works and what doesn’t on-air”, Conor tells me.

michaelmcnamara
Conor’s dad Michael – a huge influence

“As I have worked my way up the ranks I have noticed at various stages that broadcasting colleagues of mine make a point of seeking him out and asking him advice”.

Conor sees broadcasting as a funny profession that requires a tough skin to survive the level of criticism you receive from some people who have no idea what it is like to sit in front of a live microphone.

“There is also, within media, a tendency for people to praise average work”, he adds. “Ideally what you want is someone you trust who can tell it to you straight. Your positives and your negatives.

My dad has worked in live radio all his life and from TV3 and RTE through to BBC and Sky I have noticed over the years that many of my colleagues ask him advice, and act on it. He was always a great person to have in my corner, and there is no way I would have progressed as I have done without his wisdom and advice”.

Whiskey lover? Check out Conor’s appearance on Celebrity Mastermind last New Year’s Eve

 

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