LARRY RYAN: Billo was simply the best

Billo was a man who truly made himself at home on telly, and invited us all in.

It is the way we are. Maybe it’s the way everyone is, when it’s one of their finest involved. 

As the tributes piled up for Bill O’Herlihy during the week, naturally we cocked an ear to hear what Johnny Foreigner made of him. Just for that bit of reassurance.

Graeme Souness isn’t as foreign as you’d like but he was still in demand across the networks to tell us about the “class act” who’d always made him feel welcome during his RTÉ stints.

But it needed a genuine continental, somebody like Didi Hamann, who duly obliged, tweeting how he’d miss an “outstanding presenter and even better man”.

Even then, I can’t have been the only one refreshing Ossie Ardiles’ Twitter feed on the hour, for the CONMEBOL seal of approval.

It’s only the odd time we’re confident enough to put our best man up against anyone’s. Billo was one of those cases.

Of course, when our politicians get involved in this area, much like in any area they become involved in, there is a tendency towards loose talk and exaggeration.

We weren’t quite told, this week, that this was the best small country in the world to do punditry, but we did hear one of our top men in the political game praise Billo for presiding over “the best analytical soccer programme in Europe”.

In a way, it was the most fitting of all the tributes, since it’s exactly the kind of outlandish statement you might hear on a good night on Billo’s ‘soccer programme’, at least if that was the way normal people talked. You can almost hear Eamo saying it.

“Italian analytical soccer programmes are muck, Bill. This is the best analytical soccer programme in Europe… let me finish, Bill.”

And you can almost see Billo arch an eyebrow slightly and steeple the fingers, or flip the pen between his hands, as he often did when presented with outlandish statements.

You can nearly see the smile, already in his eyes, sneak loose from the corner of his mouth. And you’d love to see him, one more time, recline a little further and let the statement slide, for the sake of divilment and momentum and argument.

It might be difficult, and time-consuming, to come up with a system to measure the best analytical soccer programmes in Europe against one another, especially a system that showed the work of Eamo and company was at the very apex of European soccer analysis.

But you’d be comfortable enough to back your judgment and call Billo’s the most watchable soccer programme in Europe.

But what of the man himself? How high can we elevate him in the annals? A rummage in his back catalogue suggests he wasn’t really a man for the quotes, or the memorable one-liners. Indeed, if he achieved nothing else in life, he was due credit for refusing to buckle when the rest of the football world was demanding puns.

Sure, we latched onto the ‘oke-dokes’; and ‘leave it there sos’; and ‘would it be fair to says’; but those were signposts of our affection rather than an indication of his need for it.

He was smooth enough, though by no means a masterful reader of autocues. It is hard to imagine him in Stelling’s Saturday cockpit, not to mind dealing with Merson.

Nor would he make his name via regular spillage of gaffes. Though there was the odd one, such as the European night when he issued the warning: “If you don’t want to know the scores in the other games tonight, look away now”, before a caption telling us Liverpool were one-nil up prompted Billo to thwart those looking away: “Actually, it’s one-all now in the Liverpool game.”

So what was the essence of his appeal? Maybe it’s the way we are, but it’s hard to resist looking at some of Johnny Foreigner’s send-offs.

I heard, on James Alexander Gordon’s passing, somebody suggest that this was “probably the only man in the sport that everyone liked”.

Gordon did have that unique ability, when reading the scores, to prepare you for the worst, without giving the game away entirely, through the subtlest intonation.

But that great man was able to preserve his approval rating by staying well clear of the provocative business of opinion. Incredibly, Billo was able to maintain his popularity while putting the idea out there for debate, more or less every fortnight for a couple of decades, that there might be something fundamentally wrong with Manchester United.

But maybe it’s fairer to compare him with his own kind. When the renowned American ABC presenter Jim McKay died, in 2008, The New York Times mourned a “hype-averse optimist”. It’s a designation that fits Billo off the peg.

Maybe it was the PR man’s trained blend of enthusiasm and cynicism that informed his ability to cheerlead when the time was right and deflate when the prevailing wisdom sounded wrong.

Or it might just be that his judgment was sound. Whatever it was, those instincts collided memorably in that now famous line, reading the results of a viewer poll before Ireland’s Euro 2012 opener with Croatia: “87% think Ireland will win, I don’t know why I’m laughing...”

The awful day that marked McKay out as something special came at the 1972 Munich Olympics when he was summoned from his hotel sauna to commentate on 16 hours of terrorism.

He did so as coolly as was humanly possible, only noting, when he returned to his hotel, that he still had wet swimming togs on under his suit.

Thankfully, it never came to that for Billo, but it’s easy to imagine him squelch through it. Authoritative, curious, unflappable.

I can certainly remember him spice up a long Olympic shift in 2004 by pointing out that none of the women’s 400m champion’s competitors were congratulating her, a good four years before Fani Halkia was busted for steroids.

Des Lynam is still with us, but many obituaries have been written for the Des Lynam that left the BBC. Perhaps Des became the benchmark for unflappability in the anchor’s chair.

“A laid-back style many have striven to replicate without quite succeeding,” wrote Martin Kelner, in the book Sit Down And Cheer, which traces the history of sport on TV.

“The most popular man sitting behind a desk in everyday British life,” felt former BBC Head of Sport Brian Barwick, during Des’s pomp.

“My ambition as an anchor was to be the next Des Lynam. But it was clear to me now that there wasn’t going to be a next Des Lynam,” wrote Eamonn Holmes, who is living proof that being fairly relaxed on screen brings no guarantee that everyone will like you.

Would we put Billo up against Des, a Clare man of course, but one we’ll concede to our neighbours? Put it this way.

As calm as Des certainly was, I don’t think we ever saw the camera swing back unexpectedly to find him, as we did Billo once or twice, probing away while casually winding his watch.


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