Sunday 19 November 2017

Obituary: Bill O'Herlihy, sports broadcaster

Born: September 26, 1938; died May 25, 2015

Absolute gentlemen: Bill O'Herlihy with George Hamilton in a rare studio appearance together
Absolute gentlemen: Bill O'Herlihy with George Hamilton in a rare studio appearance together

George Hamilton

Bill O'Herlihy and I were long-distance colleagues. It was a curiosity of our working relationship that when we were on air together, we were never in the same place. And in a strange kind of way, he was the reason why.

When RTÉ was assembling its team for the World Cup in Argentina in 1978, Bill was an obvious candidate to travel with the principal commentators Jimmy Magee and Philip Greene. But with a PR company to run, he had too much going on and offered his services instead as part of the home line-up.

The rest is history. Bill fronted the coverage from South America, and a glorious chapter in the history of Irish broadcasting began.

Something else happened too. With Bill based in the studio in Donnybrook, the away line-up was incomplete. Billy George of the then Cork Examiner accepted an invitation to travel, and a letter was posted to Belfast where I was the soccer commentator with BBC Northern Ireland. So began my association with RTÉ TV Sport, and until his retirement last summer, Bill was with me every step of the way. With me, but never there.

Ten World Cups. Nine Olympic Games (he'd already done one when we first teamed up for Moscow 1980). Championships and Champions League nights. His was the voice that handed to me, and his was the voice that picked up when I'd sign off at the venue. But he made sure he felt like he was there. When the sound checks were being done before we went on air, Bill would always insist on having a chat. From the studio floor, he'd ask about the weather. He'd want to know about the atmosphere, even how it had been for us in and around the stadium, all to get a feel for the event, the occasion. It was the same when we'd meet up back at base.

A most gracious and affable colleague, he'd always seek out bits and pieces of background, and we'd have a laugh over the inevitable glitches that would have done their best to scupper our efforts along the way.

When I went off to my first World Cup in 1978, and Bill was in the chair back home, there were just four TV channels to watch in Ireland. As John Giles and Eamon Dunphy took their seats alongside him, the landscape changed, slowly at first, then radically as satellite broadcasters began to dominate sports coverage.

But none of them matched what RTÉ was doing with its presentation, and Bill O'Herlihy was at the heart of that. There isn't another sports front man familiar to Irish viewers who lasted like him, or could come close.

That's said as a regular listener, for high in the grandstand there was no way we could see Bill steer the discussion. But we could hear him. And we could appreciate just how good he was at letting the panellists do their stuff, presiding over the discussion like your favourite uncle, the one who's never going to annoy you no matter how pesky the other relatives become.

I loved his enthusiasm, too, nowhere more evident than in that clip that featured him donning the silly hat when Ireland won the penalty shoot-out in Genoa to earn a place in the World Cup quarter-final in Rome. Hard to believe that's 25 years ago now.

It's not surprising that the pundits over whom Bill presided have all spoken of the loss of a good friend. For the thing about Bill was he made you feel good about yourself. In my case that was manifest in every handover, the upward cadence as he called our names, the reminder that they'd done their stuff back in studio, now it was the commentary team's time to shine.

When I had a health problem some years ago, Bill was the first to write. He'd had similar surgery many years before, and quoted his consultant's advice. You've two choices after this treatment, he'd been told. You can behave like a cardiac cripple. Or you can get back to leading your life. We all know what Bill did, and his example encouraged me to do likewise.

My memories too are of a proud family man, a much-loved husband, father, and grandfather. You knew when you were around Hilary, and Jill and Sally, that he was very much their Bill. You saw affection and high regard as well when you visited his and Hilary's favourite place of relaxation, Foxrock Golf Club, where he was just one of the guys.

He touched everyone who met him. Didi Hamann and Trevor Steven, two distinguished former internationals whose World Cup experience brought them on to RTÉ panels, were among those who called from abroad on hearing the sad news. They appreciated excellence when they encountered it.

It was a pleasure and a privilege to share not just the stage but some after-hours fun with one of nature's absolute gentlemen. Our loss is nothing to that of his family. But we all know we were touched by greatness. Bill O'Herlihy - simply the best.

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