Monday 5 December 2016

Broadcasting behemoth held our hands through best and worst moments of life

Published 26/05/2015 | 02:30

Bill O’Herlihy, John Giles and Eamon Dunphy at the launch of RTE’s 2014 World Cup coverage
Bill O’Herlihy, John Giles and Eamon Dunphy at the launch of RTE’s 2014 World Cup coverage
Bill O’Herlihy, with guests including Eamon Dunphy, on RTE during the 1978 World Cup in Argentina
Bill O’Herlihy and his infamous hat during Italia 90

The flags flew at half mast in Abbottstown yesterday and for once the FAI managed to accurately gauge the mood of the nation.

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Let us be under no illusions - this country has lost the man who held our hand and guided us through some of the best and some of the worst moments in Irish life over the last four decades.

After all, we're a country of sporting fiends, even if we don't actively participate in sport as much as some other European countries. But through a combination of charm, easy professionalism and a deceptively brilliant style of teasing questioning that is only earned when you are an adroitly prepared professional who fundamentally understands the basics of what you are covering, Bill O'Herlihy managed to become a genuine staple of our most cherished memories.

That a hard-bitten hack from Cork, who managed to make a name for himself while still a teenager, should become so embedded in our collective psyche as a kindly father figure is, perhaps, not surprising. He was from Cork, after all, where charm and a certain spikiness go hand in hand.

No, what is amazing is that he managed to do so while also giving the impression that he knew only as much, or as little, as the person watching the match.

The thing is, he knew more than we did.

He also knew enough about the business of presenting to understand that it wasn't his job to give his opinions, it was to elicit the frequently controversial, and occasionally mad, opinions of his beloved 'expert panel'.

O'Herlihy was so much more than a mere straight man for the Three Amigos of Giles, Dunphy and Brady.

He also knew when to leave the audience wanting more.

And while there is no doubt that Darragh Maloney is a capable and more than competent replacement on RTÉ's football coverage, there is something about Bill that remains indelibly marked on our collective memory.

Crucially, Bill also knew when it was time to leave the stage.

But what a stage he has left, and what a gaping hole in our collective memory remains in the wake of his sudden death.

This is the man, after all, who covered 10 Olympics as well as 10 World Cups and his almost arrogantly understated style, which displayed a rare realisation that people tune in to see the host as much as they tune in to a World Cup final to watch a referee (in other words - never), somehow enabled him to transcend the role of being a 'mere' anchor.

This is the man who spent 40 years on live television, on occasions when the entire nation had tuned in, easily balancing the complicated task of listening to a producer in one ear while Dunphy and Giles - but usually Dunphy, in fairness - gave him a bollocking in the other.

But what a list of achievements he leaves behind.

Those Olympics and those World Cups were seldom easy, either for the viewers or the participants.

Yet this broadcasting behemoth managed to make it all look as perfunctory as a Messi dribble - no big deal when you have the skill to do it; utterly impossible when you don't.

Feeling so nervous about a game that you can barely talk? O'Herlihy was there to speak for us when we couldn't.

Incandescent with fury when Dunphy exploded in a - frequently correct, in fairness - rage?

He was there to gently tease: "Ah now Eamon, you can't say that."

Wanted to see the panellists squirm when they had made a demonstrably wrong prediction?

There was Bill to muse, with mischievous naivety: "Well, some people might say..."

That was the thing - he knew what 'some people' might say, yet he never descended to the level of being a proxy for the bore on the bar stool.

He was better than that and even though he has been unfairly accused of being a mere 'everyman' when it came to football, he was the kind of 'everyman' who had knowledge, who was curious and who was desperate to know more.

Ideally, this 'more' would then be delivered with typical gusto by a panel who, for the last decade, have been the only world class contribution we have made to the beautiful game.

He bowed out in typically gracious style after the last World Cup in Brazil - a fitting tournament to mark the end of an astonishing career.

His last words on his final broadcast last year were, appropriately enough for a PR man with an eye for a good line, a finer tribute to his own career than anyone else could ever conjure.

"I've been privileged to serve you, the viewers, and you have been astonishingly generous down through the years," he said.

No, Bill, the privilege was all ours.

Irish Independent

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