KIERAN SHANNON: 'I'll miss the lads': Bill O' Herlihy leaves it there in one of his last interviews

In one of his last interviews as RTÉ's soccer anchor, Bill O' Herlihy spoke to Kieran Shannon about Charlton, Dunphy, Giles and retirement.

For the past few weeks on Planet World Cup, Bill O’Herlihy found his head spinning as sure as any planet’s axis. 

For some reason he’d been sleeping poorly.

He might go to bed around midnight but invariably found himself waking up around 4am, before maybe dozing away for another couple of hours and then stirring again around 6.

Maybe it was the stress, maybe his age, though Darragh Moloney told him he’s found the multiple six-hour sessions in the studio gruelling as well. You don’t just walk onto that set, say Okey-Doke and off you go.

There’s poring over the papers to get the right angle, meetings with the production team, meetings with Eamon and John and the rest of the lads.

READ MORE: Retired broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy dies, age 76 .

READ MORE: Colleagues mourn ‘dear friend' Bill O’Herlihys .

In a way it’s exhilarating but in another it’s exhausting and it’s all very disorienting.

“I seem to have lost all connection with the days of the week!” he grinned self-depreciatingly from his public relations firm’s office when we caught up with him last week. “I have no idea what day it is!”

He knew what would be happening last night though. The final time he’d have one of those production meetings with the likes of the station’s executive football editor Eugene O’Neill.

The final time himself, Dunphy, Brady and Giles would sketch out what direction their pre- match analysis should go.

The final time one of the great four-man acts in the history of Irish entertainment would all be on air together in front of the entire nation. This time when he’d say “We’ll leave it there so”, he really would.

He’s 75 now. A fresh 75 but nonetheless 75. It’s nearly half a lifetime ago now since Dunphy and himself started covering World Cups together, that first being back in ’78.

It’s time.

He didn’t think he’d be very emotional last night. He doesn’t really get emotional; the first time he cried as an adult he was in his 50s.

“But I’ll miss the lads,” he’d say. “I’ll miss their friendship. And I’ll miss their knowledge. My knowledge of football has always been minimal in comparison to theirs but I’ve learned an awful lot from them.”

There’s an entire generation who don’t know him for presenting anything else with anyone else.

For anyone under 25 they probably only know him for his Olympics stuff outside the football.

They don’t know that he was and did so much more. You’ve probably forgotten too. That he used to present The Sunday Game alongside Jim Carney before Michael Lyster assumed the chair. That he used to anchor the rugby before Tom McGurk. And that before he ever did TV sport or PR work or worked in current affairs for RTÉ, he was a soccer correspondent as well as a news one for this paper.

READ MORE: Retired broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy dies, age 76 .

READ MORE: Colleagues mourn ‘dear friend' Bill O’Herlihys .

The impression we now have and that he gives is that he’s no expert, no authority; one who only bows to and extracts the wisdom of his panel. But surely he was approximating an authority on the game when he was on that football beat for The Examiner? He chuckles dismissively at that notion, telling you that Dunphy used to scoff at that idea as well.

“When we started broadcasting major tournaments we used to have journalists on the panel. And that was an anathema to Dunphy. ‘What the hell do they know?’ If you wanted really strong punditry you had to have people who had experience of the game at a high level.”

If Dunphy didn’t necessarily rate O’Herlihy’s football knowledge, he did rate his journalism.

They’d encountered each other before in 1974 when Dunphy had played under protest for Ireland on the Chile leg of their tour to South America shortly after Pinochet had taken power. Dunphy hadn’t been expecting such a rigorous and adversarial interview by O’Herlihy for RTÉ but was as impressed as he was surprised by it and found the same journalistic instincts brought out the best in his football punditry too.

By the time the 1986 World Cup was approaching though Dunphy felt their double act needed freshening up. Another voice. Enter John Giles.

“I was terrified when I learned John was coming on board,” says O’Herlihy. “Any dealings or observations I had of him playing or managing the national team were that he was this very reticent, aloof, dismissive figure.

“I thought ‘This guy now will buy and sell me and patronise me and put me down, making me feel like a right eejit.’ But that wasn’t the case at all. I found him to be a wonderful teacher and mentor.”

Dunphy will say that it worked because O’Herlihy was such a wonderful and tactful broadcaster.

“With extraordinary skill, Bill got John talking about the games as if he were sitting in his own front room,” Dunphy would write in his memoir The Rocky Road. “The tentative John was but a memory by the (1986) tournament’s end. Bill is a consummate television pro. Although ostensibly acting the eejit, he knows exactly where the conversation should be heading, knows the right question and how to couch it.”

O’Herlihy accepts that’s his skill. It’s not his gift. It was one he learned from observing – and listening. He watched how the best listened.

“The two guys that inspired my style of broadcasting would have been Gaybo and (Michael) Parkinson. Because they listened. I always felt that an awful lot of other anchors didn’t listen at all. They had a list of questions and regardless of what was being said they were going to ask those other questions. But very often Gaybo’s next question came from the last answer. He could bring things out of people by listening. Parkinson was a genius at listening. I remember in his very series of programmes being struck by that and saying to myself ‘That’s the way I’m going to travel.’”

For a while it seemed to be taking him and the RTÉ football panel only so far but then Italia 1990 landed. So, eventually, did a pen Dunphy threw in disgust after Ireland’s bleak display against Egypt. It was Dunphy’s most testing hour and in a way also his finest. A survey would show that 93% of the country over the age of five watched the penalty shootout against Romania. And most of them watched it on RTÉ. They watched most of that World Cup on RTE. Before that only people living in Single Channel Land would switch on to the national broadcaster.

“The 1990 World Cup was the definitive programme for us because it changed people’s perceptions of RTÉ’s coverage of soccer,” says O’Herlihy. “Before that people would to be desperately dismissive of Jimmy Magee and our coverage in general because so and so was on ITV and BBC. But with Italia ’90 people came to the conclusion that the RTÉ coverage was better, more analytical yet accessible and entertaining.”

While Dunphy’s antagonism with Jack Charlton was one of the storylines of those years, O’Herlihy also had his brush with the gruff Yorkshireman.

“I remember one time doing a one-hour interview with him before the World Cup. And to be honest I found him to be a total bollix. We were 15 minutes into the interview and he barked ‘Stop that!’ So we stopped it. I said ‘What’s wrong?’ He said, ‘You’re trying to walk me into trouble with the English media!’ I said ‘I’m doing no such thing, I have no agenda, I’m just asking a logical follow-up question to something you said there.’ But he said ‘No, I’m not having it. You have two options: you can stop the interview, restart and you don’t ask me that question, or I’m walking out of here.’

“I personally would have been quite happy if he’d walked but the producer wanted his interview so we had to start again. Jack was a bully that way. I know he was a good guy in other ways but the way he treated the Irish media, especially a sideline reporter like Ger Canning, was very dismissive and unfair.”

READ MORE: Retired broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy dies, age 76 .

READ MORE: Colleagues mourn ‘dear friend' Bill O’Herlihys .

Martin O’Neill he finds has the right balance in media relations and in general: suitably assertive and charming and respectful at all times. “And I tell you who also strikes me as a class act. Jimmy Barry (Murphy). He doesn’t put the knife into anybody. If someone asks a question he might not like, he still answers it with a grace. If somebody beats Cork, he’ll give them due praise. He’s a real sportsman.”

Understandably O’Herlihy couldn’t get down yesterday to see Jimmy and give Pairc Ui Chaoimh a farewell, he had his own to attend in Montrose. It’s like that with Cork now. It’s still such a part of him, the place made him what he is, but something, most notably some people, are missing.

“I still have brothers living down there as well but my two sisters are now dead. Margaret who lived in Athlone died from cancer and then Mary who wasn’t married passed away as well. She had breast cancer and then one day driving into work she lost the sight of one eye. She just kept driving and worked the whole day but she rang me from the office. I said ‘Mary, you have to do something about that.’ So later she drove over to the Bons Secours which was very near from where we all lived. And she was kept in and was dead in three weeks.

“That shook me. I was mad about Mary, and Margaret as well. And in a sense once she died and the house was sold my relationship with Cork changed. Because as much as I’m very friendly with my brothers and we talk regularly on the phone, it’s not the same when the family home is gone. My two sisters are gone and both my parents. The first time I cried as an adult was when Dad died. I was fiftysomething at the time. It just all of a sudden hit me as I was leaving Cork.

The place would just never be the same again.”

Up in Dublin things are about to significantly change as well. RTÉ’s coverage will be fine without him, he reckons. “Darragh (Moloney) in so many ways is so much better than me. I’m a better interviewer than him but he’s a far better presenter. Much smoother, more accomplished, more authoritative. I’m more of a stutterer and stumbler.”

There’ll be changes on the other table too, he’s certain. It’s no longer 1978 or 1990. These days in other sports or on other channels some of the best television and radio pundits are journalists. It might be a formula Dunphy used rail against but nothing stays the same.

“I remember Denis Irwin was on the panel a few years back and John was making a certain point about some player not tracking back. And Denis said ‘Well, John, the game has changed since your time.’ That annoyed John enormously because his attitude would be that the fundamentals never change. But there will be people who’ll say that our whole era is coming to an end now and I do think there will be other changes. I’m not privy to them but it seems to me that Richie Sadlier is a dead cert to do more work.”

Kenny Cunningham has a future too, O’Herlihy reckons, though he’ll have to curb his tendency to be “a bit coachy”. “He knows the game but he can sometimes talk too much like a coach and in one answer you might get four different theses. I think he can be too complicated at times but he has potential and is a very nice fella.”

But what about Billo himself? He’s not quite sure. This week he’s going to take a break for a fortnight. He and Hilary along with their daughter Sally and her husband and kids are going to head to the southeast corner of Spain and his house there in Vera. Drink some red wine, play a bit of golf.

He’ll work when he comes back. His father also worked into his 70s as an administrator in the old Orthopaedic hospital in Cork, and it took three people to replace him.

“Maybe it’s in my genes,” O’Herlihy says. “I say to myself I’d hate to be retired because if I had nothing to do I wouldn’t know what to do.”

He’ll be kept busy in his honorary job as chairman of the Irish Film Board; he was up in Galway only last Friday for the film fleadh there. He’d still like to do some more TV as well as the PR work he’ll keep ticking over with. Ideally he’d like to do the occasional chat-show slot if he was offered it. “I often felt that I would be good in a talk show situation because I have a fairly- rounded background.”

So maybe a slot like Miriam gets in the summer, or Gaybo does with gigs like the Meaning of Life? He says he wouldn’t be building his hopes up.

“There’s a hell of a difference between how entertainment would be viewed by RTÉ and how sport would be viewed. And there’s a hell of a difference between an A-list act like Gay and someone like me.”

But you have a lot in common too, Bill. You both listened. You were both watched. And you’re something of a national institution yourself.

READ MORE: Retired broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy dies, age 76 .

READ MORE: Colleagues mourn ‘dear friend' Bill O’Herlihys .


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