Still on top of his game

In extracts from his new book, Bill O’Herlihy recalls his childhood in Cork, an Evening Echo secret, and why he has an eternal soft spot for both Dunphy and Giles

SOMETIMES it’s important to contemplate the journey on which one has travelled. And most lunchtimes on a break from my public relations business, I find myself at Mass in the nearby St Mary’s Church, Haddington Road, in Dublin. And then, just as now, I think of the very starting point and where I grew up on the Glasheen Road.

When I was a kid it was on the western edge of Cork, although now it’s nestled in amongst the suburbs, and it was there I was born into a family full of love. I was blessed and maybe that’s the primary reason that has allowed me to make it all this way because in many ways it’s one’s childhood and upbringing that shapes and hones a person.

I recall where that love came from and remember my father who was an extremely hard-working public servant. Initially a clerical officer in St Finbarr’s Hospital, he went on to take charge of the administrative side of the Orthopedic Hospital.

Dad was an extraordinarily generous person in terms of his relationships with those around him and he was one of these rarities in that he always saw the good in others. Of course, there was the occasional exception and my brother Jack sometimes reminds me that there was a picture of the Sacred Heart positioned in our dining room and it had ‘moving eyes’.

If we ever did something wrong, we had to stand in front of that picture and be honest. And you told the truth then because you had those eyes staring through you no matter which way you sidestepped and it was quite intimidating.

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Soccer wasn’t even my first sport because I have a torrent of memories that involve going down to the Athletic Grounds, the Park as we knew it then, now Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

It was a golden era for Cork hurling. We had Christy Ring, who I saw many times for Cork and Glen Rovers; Seán Condon, who was a great player for my parish team, the Barrs; Tom Mulcahy, who was a fabulous All Ireland-winning goalie; and Paddy Barry of Sarsfields.

It was a time of epic games involving the Glen, the Barrs, Blackrock and Sarsfields because Cork city was the centre of hurling, long before the demographics changed and commuter towns developed.

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We lived next door to the O’Learys and we were all very friendly. My grandfather John Horgan had a plumbing and heating business and he had this big van. We got a loan of this one Sunday and I remember 17 of us, O’Herlihys and O’Learys, were packed inside in it. We went to Ardmore and while that was a day-trip, our summer holidays were always for the entire month of June. We went usually to Myrtleville and later to Ballycotton where all our friends would come to visit. Life and happiness would be packed inside the walls and I have no doubt our parents did without a lot to make sure we always had that summer break too.

They were the kinds of sacrifices they made, most of which I never knew, especially involving my father, until much later on.

He was a down-the-line clerk and while he’d have had a permanent and pensionable job, that didn’t translate to income.

But on Friday evenings he always came home with a present for us — and this was a measure of the man and his love for us — he could only afford it because he’d walk home.

That way he could save the bus fare to get us something small, usually sweets. In fact, when we were kids there was a great competition in our house to get the first kiss from Dad, and we’d be running to the bus stop each evening.

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One day, and the Evening Echo never knew this of course, there was no lead story. Nothing that I could justify making the front page. It was before the war in Vietnam, or Indochina as it was then, but there was a huge battle in Dien Bien Phu that was important in terms of everything that followed. I got a paragraph in over the wires and decided this would be fine as long as I could spice it up a little. I justified this to myself by saying in my head the readers of the Echo don’t give a damn about Indochina. Perhaps I was in a little bit of a panic but I had to improvise too so I got my typewriter and fabricated an entire story based on this paragraph. There was hand-to-hand fighting and all kinds of stuff going on by the time I was finished with it.

When the editor came back, he said “Willie, have you got my lead?” “There you go,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t see what had been done. And as it turns out he didn’t, and it led the Echo that night. It passed the editor and the readers and none were any the wiser.

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John Giles has always been to me something of a mentor. I’ve learned an awful lot from him and he’s always gone out of his way to show me how things work in football. He would show me guys who hide in matches and this kind of thing. As I’m writing this in the RTÉ studio, he sits beside me, awaiting the kick-off anxiously, in the hope that all the study he’s done for the match pays off. He’s proven right yet again.

People may think it’s odd that I hold Dunphy in a similar regard. As I put my pen down and look up again, he is pulling in a chair for the floor manager to watch the game but his gesture is matched by strong words.

“Sit in there and don’t be scared of me. Hey, by the way, it’s freezing in here, can we do something about the heating,” he shouts out as his homemade curry prepared by his wife Jane appears on the desk to be consumed during the opening 45 minutes. “Is anyone listening? Can we put on the heating.”

He is volatile and everyone knows it. He can blow up on issues I’d regard not worth getting stressed about, never mind erupting over. It’s not an insecurity though, nor a lack of self-control. Indeed I think it’s a great strength. In terms of any sports panel in RTÉ, Dunphy has had the strongest influence on the success of the concept and the proof, if needed, is that there is nearly always a Dunphy-type figure on panels for other games.

I don’t understand why Giovanni Trapattoni is still managing Ireland. Sure he qualified us for the Euros and brought us to the play-offs in the World Cup, but our performances against Croatia, Spain and Italy were abysmal. Worse still, the game against Kazakhstan was, arguably, Ireland’s worst performance for years, even if we scraped a lucky win. I subscribe to the view Trap has nothing more to give and that he’s caught in a football timewarp.

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We won’t be around forever. But we are fortunate on this panel as we have some great people on the way up.

Ronnie Whelan has huge promise and is progressing all the time. But one of the difficulties for people coming in is that in their early days they might have been intimidated by the three lads on the grounds that they are always there and they are so strong and opinionated.

What about Roy Keane for the panel? I don’t think anyone would object but there are some reservations based on his performances across channel.

Besides, great panels are not always about big names. Richie Sadlier has made a big impact and is one of my favourites. He is not afraid to call it, is tough but fair without being hysterical. He has a great journalistic instinct and in my judgement has a big future as a television analyst. So too Kenny Cunningham, who gets better and better and had a very good Euro 2012. They represent the future with Darragh Maloney, arguably the most comprehensively talented broadcaster in RTÉ Sport, as the anchor who takes over from me.

But hold it there! We are not going anywhere for some time. While the past has contained a little bit of everything, and the present of tonight’s show has gone well, we have our own futures too. Besides, I love live television, those quiet seconds when you can hear your heartbeat outrace the countdown to air and finally you go out in real time to hundreds of thousands of viewers. It will be tough to leave but as of now, that will have to wait for another night as the show comes to an end.

“We’ll leave it there so,” I say, as the light goes out on the camera and the screen fades to black.

* We’ll Leave It There So by Bill O’Herlihy is published by Paperweight Publications

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