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With his ESPN World Cup commentary, Smyth puts a bulge in the onion bag

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Peter Nolan

In the blow-dried, stuffed-shirt, cookie-cutter world of network broadcasting, a true original has become a rare thing indeed. Even in the toy department of television broadcasting, sports, which once gave us Dandy Dan Meredith singing “turn out the lights, the party’s over” to signify a blowout and Howard Cosell’s caustic commentaries, conformity reigns. Now, of course, to conform means to be outrageous, in the smart aleck, ironic way that has overrun sports broadcasting.

Into this homogenized world stepped Tommy Smyth. Since 1993, the Knockbridge, Co. Louth, native has been working for broadcast giant ESPN, entertaining and informing an ever-widening circle of viewers around the globe. The recently completed World Cup was Smyth’s coming out party.

Smyth was ready for his chance when it came, but it didn’t come easily. Unlike most of his ESPN colleagues, Smyth doesn’t have a college journalism degree. As Smyth put it, “my college was Gaelic Park.” For many New York Gaelic sports fans the discovery of Tommy Smyth, “one of our own,” on ESPN has been a very comforting development.

Smyth had been doing a radio show “Ireland Calls” when then New York GAA President Jackie Salmon gave him a ring. Salmon invited Smyth to announce the teams when Galway and Kerry came out from Ireland to play at Gaelic Park. That was in 1979 and Smyth, who had immigrated in 1963, was well qualified to comment on the GAA.

Soon after his arrival in the U.S., Smyth signed up to play with the Shamrocks, in the old German American Soccer League, now the Cosmopolitan League, and the Louth Celtics Gaelic Football Club. He would eventually play for the Louth Celtics for 30 years. “I touched four decades,” he recalled, adding proudly that he “held every position in the club, including president.”

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From his New York GAA days, Smyth has developed his devil-may-care style. In the upper echelon of the sportscasting world, where Smyth now resides, lineups, stat sheets and substitutions are rushed to the press box for the announcers’ convenience.

These were luxuries that Smyth was not afforded in the less formal world of the New York GAA. “I remember when guys wore the wrong numbers, and I had to run around to get the teams,” he said. Commenting on a match from the top of a van, with speakers powered by the engine, is not an experience that many professional broadcasters can point to on their resumes. Smyth particularly recalls an occasion at Paddy’s Field in Woodlawn, in the Bronx, when two of New York’s Finest spotted him driving his broadcast booth across the field. It took a bit of explaining, but Smyth and his van got to stay.

It is a long way from the top of the van in the Bronx to the country’s largest cable sports network, but Smyth’s first and most frequent broadcast partner, J.P. Delacammra, is not surprised at Smyth’s success, just delighted.

Choosing his words carefully, Delacammra, just off a plane in Dallas where he was covering a Metro Stars match, said, finally, “I feel great joy at the World Cup Tommy had.” The veteran play-by-play man believes that “Tommy is finally getting his due in this country.”

Dubliner Niall Swan is one who has become a fan. “I wasn’t crazy about him at first,” Swan concedes, “but I’ve grown to appreciate his passion.” An official in New York’s Cosmopolitan Soccer League, Swan said he feels “the standard of commentary Smyth provides is very good and he brings a lot of excitement to the match.”

Smyth’s accent, redolent of his homeland, may have held him back at first, although Delacammra says he always understood him. During these last hectic weeks, however, Smyth and his accent were all over the airwaves and even the Internet, where he recently answered questions from around the globe.

ESPN publicist Mac Nuulu says that “Tommy’s Chats draw 800 questions and comments; he gets a great response.” Nuulu tells of getting e-mails from Europe, expressing surprise at the high level of soccer from a U.S. broadcast.

Delacammra and Nuula also praised Smyth’s work rate. During Korea-Japan 2002, Smyth appeared daily on ESPN News, contributed to ESPN’s Sports Center, in addition to guest spots on Tony Kornhieser’s radio program and his television sports talk show, “Pardon the Interruption.” Smyth was also in demand as a World Cup expert. “One morning I did 17 radio interviews in two hours,” Smyth said. This was all in addition to Smyth’s primary duties, calling World Cup matches. Smyth called 23 World Cup matches in all, bringing his folksy brand of commentary to his largest audience yet.

Calling-card humor

Catchy expressions and humorous remarks are Smyth’s calling card, and indeed Niall Swan says people will often ask, “Did you hear what Tommy Smyth said last night?” But Delacammra cautions, “Don’t miss out on Tommy’s knowledge.” “Tommy,” continues Delacammra, “has the ability to be the Dick Vitale of soccer.” Vitale is, of course, the well-known college basketball analyst whose expertise is often presented with humor. Delacammra is a great admirer of Vitale and Smyth both and believes that sometimes, “Tommy will say something just to get a reaction out of me.”

For his part, Smyth insists he has “no preconceived ideas when I go on the air.”

“The only one that I plan is the onion bag,” he said.

“A bulge in the old onion bag,” Smyth’s colorful description of a goal, has become a part of the sports lexicon. A soccer equivalent of “in the paint,” from basketball, or “kiss that baby goodbye,” from baseball.

“I should have trademarked that one,” Smyth said, laughing. “It’s been turning up all over the place.”

During one World Cup match, Smyth’s broadcast partner opined that if a particular shot had scored, the match would have been completely different. Without missing a beat, Smyth replied, “If my mother had wheels, she’d be a bicycle.”

“People ask me where I come up with one saying or another,” Smyth said. “It’s just my upbringing. Just being around Irish people, you hear expressions and they stay with you.”

For the most part Smyth plies his trade in front of the monitor in ESPN’s Bristol, Conn., studios, rather than live on site. ESPN sent only one broadcast team to Korea and Japan for this World Cup and caught some media flak for it.

“In a perfect world, yes, you’d love to be there,” said Smyth, who added that he is nevertheless comfortable with the current set up.

“Working with the monitor makes you sharp, you have to anticipate,” he said. “If Beckham has the ball for England, you have to know which player will be overlapping, looking for the pass.”

Smyth’s ESPN schedule had him well prepared for his World Cup opportunity. Smyth does a Scottish Premier League match live every Saturday. On Sunday, he does a Spanish League match and a Serie A (Italy) match. Smyth does Championship League matches on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday, 321 games last season, all from Bristol.

“That experience stood me well,” he said. “I’ve seen them all play so many times. I know from looking at them when they’re going to scratch.”

As if all that weren’t enough, Smyth also hosts a weekly Formula One motorcycle racing show, and the Highland games. These games feature such exotica as the caber toss, in which large men throw a telephone pole-type object. Smyth points out that 200,000 people attend the Celtic Games every year in California.

Smyth still maintains his radio show, “Ireland Calls,” which got him started back in 1969. His wife, Treasa, whom he met in Gaelic Park, works on the show with him. He also has a son, Anthony, headed to college in the fall, and 15-year old daughter, Lisa.

Smyth worked long and hard for his success and is clearly enjoying it. He did it by being himself. He never tried to change his accent or his personality, he just, as he said, “gave it a lash.”

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