Friday 22 November 2019

Bill was the right man, in the right place

Bill O'Herlihy loved being on television, and generations of viewers loved him being there too

‘He gave the impression that he had wandered in there from the real world’
‘He gave the impression that he had wandered in there from the real world’
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

It was John Giles who, not for the first time, got to the essence.

"Bill loved being on television," he said.

Which seems like a simple statement until you realise that for some strange reason, nobody else has thought of it, or put it quite like that.

Bill loved being on television, not because it had always been a burning ambition of his to be a "sports anchor" - there was virtually no such thing when he was starting, so he could hardly have had that ambition - but perhaps because it never ceased to amaze him that a thing which he enjoyed so much could be called work at all.

It was a trait which he shared with some of the great sports broadcasters of the 20th Century, this impression he gave that he had wandered in from the real world and found this place in which he could indulge all his enthusiasm.

And that he would be going back to the real world too, because that was where he lived, when the show was over.

When you think of men such as Bill McLaren of the BBC, a schoolteacher in the real world, you recall a similar attitude, this sense that he loved this television thing too much to call it a job, that it was much better than that. Which is actually the right way to regard it.

That enthusiasm, that sense of well-being always transmits itself to the viewer, who gets the feeling that that commentary box or that studio in which those people are so obviously enjoying themselves is the best place in the world to be at that moment, the only place to be.

Jeff Stelling, presenter of Soccer Saturday on Sky Sports, has it.

Again with Stelling, there's this strange sense that he has done other things in life, which have stood to him - and even if he hasn't, the fact that he can give that impression is admirable in itself.

With a lot of "career" presenters, you don't get that feeling.

They seem institutionalised by comparison with the "naturals", making you suspect they actually live in RTE or the BBC, with all the limitations that would imply.

They don't listen, the way that a Bill O'Herlihy would listen. They are too self-conscious, too worried about their own performance, because in their insecurity they feel that is all that they have. And so they are thinking about what they will say next, rather than what a John Giles or an Eamon Dunphy will say next.

It's not a lack of humility on their part, more a lack of character. Some of the tributes to Bill referred to the way that he could suppress his ego for the greater good, seeing in this a kind of humility.

But on further consideration, maybe it wasn't that at all, but a deep sense of self-confidence on his part, the kind that doesn't need validation every few minutes, a trait that is perhaps otherwise known as "being from Cork".

So he loved being there, all the more so because he


knew how important it was, how for a few times every year he and the panel were at the centre of an event of the utmost national significance - he had graduated from the toy department that is Current Affairs, a place which was never going to contain a man of his broad interests.

No, the football panel was at the core of Irish life, not least during those times when Ireland was either trying to qualify or had already qualified for a World Cup or a European Championships.

And at the end of it, win, lose, or draw - mostly lose or draw it must be said - Bill had to find a note of empathy with Paddy, with a million viewers in a state of some emotion.

It helped, therefore, that he was the least annoying of men. Which is unusual in itself, even among the best of TV presenters, many of whom are keenly disliked by a substantial minority of the population - it may even be the secret of their appeal, this edge that they have, this ability to antagonise a few hundred thousand people without even trying.

Bill didn't have that, strangely enough.

Though he clearly did not have an all-consuming interest in sport to the exclusion of all other things, he managed not to disturb the sensibilities of the aficionados, who would normally be so vigilant in that area.

At the other end, the normal people had no trouble relating to him.

Interestingly, his RTE successor, Darragh Maloney, has this quality too, this ability not to annoy enormous numbers of people - it is something for which Maloney probably hasn't been recognised enough, because it is remarkable that Bill, a most unannoying man, should be followed by one who is as unannoying in his own way.

Which is not at all to be confused with being inoffensive.

One of the reasons that the RTE panel members have been so superior is that the presenter has always been able to challenge them. Again, while Bill would be respectful of what they know about the game, he would not be afraid to represent the views of people who know nothing.

Bill loved being on television, and it seems that a multitude of us loved him being there too.

Sunday Independent

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