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The Week in Radio: We'll leave it there so


Bill O'Herlihy

Bill O'Herlihy

Bill O'Herlihy

A quarter of a century may now have passed, but for hardcore fans of hirsute, be-quiffed and wise-cracking alien puppets, the memories must be as bitterly fresh as ever they were.

Context? Ireland v Romania. 0-0. Penalties. Nation holding its breath. Dave O’Leary. You (surely) know the rest. Delirium. Pandemonium. Joy unconfined? Not entirely.

“Now let me tell you... before we join our panel for discussion,” boomed an ecstatic Bill O’Herlihy, “that ALF has been deferred... and we’re on the air until 10 o’clock!” I doubt they ever forgave him. The disgruntled and militant ALF fans, that is. As for the rest of us, we were too busy peeling ourselves off the ceiling to give even half a damn.

And there was Bill. Garish yellow top. Clapping hands, baseball cap (inset right). All “Ciao, Roma!” giddiness, while Eamon Dunphy (sporting a fine head of curls) memorably quipped: “You are ALF, Bill!”

Radio producers searching for the essence and quintessence of Bill O’Herlihy, the broadcaster, returned often to that clip on Monday, as news of his sad and sudden passing filtered through. For it was a clip that captured O’Herlihy at his goofiest and most ebullient. At his most endearingly daft.

“There was just a warmth about Bill on screen,” said Joe Molloy (pictured left) on Monday’s Off the Ball. “Cup of tea. Champions League night. Winter. Bill on the screen. That was ok.”

“Like a warm blanket,” Colm ‘Woolly’ Parkinson concurred.

And while many voices, on many stations, were highlighting how that very warmth and avuncularity contributed to O’Herlihy’s popularity and longevity, others were celebrating his unrivalled skills as a mischief-maker (or “an absolute wind-up merchant”, as Parkinson put it).

Over on Matt Cooper’s (pictured left) The Last Word, Ewan MacKenna (ghost-writer of O’Herlihy’s autobiography) spoke of how O’Herlihy “poked and prodded, irked, irritated and wound-up the panellists to get the best out of them... in a very quiet way”.

It was a picture painted by many. O’Herlihy, the chuckling and benign instigator. The ringmaster. The gleeful stirrer of the pot.

“Although he looked charming and was charming,” said Graeme Souness (back on Off the Ball), “he enjoyed the mischief”. “He would throw a few hand grenades in... and play one off against the other.”

The results were occasionally explosive and unfailingly entertaining (largely because of those occasional explosions).

“Pub talk” was how Souness summed up the dynamic of the O’Herlihy-chaired football panel. Meaning (I think) that it was zesty, and sometimes testy. But charmingly free-wheeling. And a welcome antidote to the often polished-but-anodyne fare on offer elsewhere.

Later in the show, John Giles, his long-time colleague, compared O’Herlihy to “a good referee”. Someone who you don’t “notice... because they’re not showing off”, not trying “to dominate”.

And what of his self-confessed lack (or professed lack) of expertise regarding soccer matters? Was it all just affected guilelessness? Was it all just faux-naivety designed to draw the panellists out? Matt Cooper reckoned so.

“He knew more about football than he let on, didn’t he?” Cooper asked Giles (on The Last Word this time).

Giles’s reply? “Ah... I wouldn’t say that!”

Cue big laughs. From both men. On a sad day. Even the most zealous and hard-hearted of ALF fans could scarcely fail to be moved.

Off the Ball, Newstalk, Daily

The Last Word, Today FM, Weekdays