Johnny Lyons: a charming and truly unique character

With his personality, whip-smart humour and amazing voice Johnny was born to be on radio

There was a job going in The Sunday Tribune back in the mid-1990s that no one really wanted. It involved phoning around the PROs for the various local basketball clubs on a Saturday night to collect the weekend's results. It was 20 quid for a couple of hours work and no byline. Not surprisingly it was difficult to find anyone enthusiastic enough about local basketball to give up the biggest night of the weekend to do it.

Johnny Lyons grabbed it – as was his general approach to life – like it was an electric guitar and he'd just been asked to play a set with his beloved AC/DC. As a sub-editor working the late shift, I shared a desk with him for a lot of the Saturday nights that followed, long before Johnny Lyons became the "Johnnny Lyonnnns" of broadcasting legend.

What made those nights so memorable was the element of performance he brought to the job. He would phone a PRO in, for instance, Killester and announce, “Majella – it’s Johnny Lyons! Have you my babies?”

Of course, the PROs were utterly charmed by him. His conversations with them would continue long after he’d extracted the all-important scores and scorers, peregrinating from subject to subject: holidays, deaths in the family, plans for Christmas, the birth of children and grandchildren. Johnny loved sport, but his greatest love was people.


One Saturday night in 1995, Elaine Geraghty, the CEO of 98fm and the wife of the Tribune's production manager Tom Vavasour, happened to be in the newsroom. She couldn't see Johnny, but she could hear him, because his voice tended to carry.

She thought she was listening to the radio. “What show is that?” she asked.

We laughed.

"That's Johnny Lyons," we told her. "And he's not on the radio."

The following Monday morning, she put that right. Because Elaine knew it instantly. With his personality, his whip-smart humour and his voice – wow, that voice! – Johnny was born to be on the radio.

By then, he was already something of a legend in the world of Dublin sports journalism. Famous for his leather coat and mullet, his seemingly incompatible enthusiasms for heavy metal, cricket and Dutch football, and his tendency to salute you like he was inviting a darts player to the oche: your full name, shouted at an incredibly high volume, followed by an open-mouthed laugh that was more like an exhalation of air and an expression on his face that suggested he found everything just a little bit ridiculous.

And then there were the stories that had the quality of sounding apocryphal but, amazingly, never were – like the time he turned up at the Shelbourne Hotel to interview Ian Botham, not with a Dictaphone to record the interview, but with an enormous ghetto blaster. He left the legend of English cricket sitting in the lobby with the machine while he hared off down Baggot Street in search of batteries. Botham, who was more used to being interviewed by Oxbridge gents from the serious broadsheets, thought him delightful and gave him four hours of his time.

What shouldn't be forgotten, amidst all the stories about his colourful life and times, is just how seriously he took his job and how brilliantly he did it. It often occurred to me and other colleagues – for we sometimes discussed it – that had Johnny been born in America, with his talent, his voice and the way he engaged with people, he would have been a superstar, a sort of Howard Stern of sports broadcasting.

He had a child’s enthusiasm for sport and it never, ever got old to him. You could argue that there were better broadcasters, but what is beyond question is that there was no one like him. He had a personality that was utterly his own and he was fortunate to find a job and an employer that allowed him to give full rein to it.

The last time I saw him was a year, or maybe more, ago, when I appeared as a guest on his weekend show on 98fm. It was always easy to say yes when he rang, because whenever I met Johnny, it always made my day.

I arrived at the studio shortly after 8am. Johnny was sitting on a desk, in leather trousers and a black vest, talking to a cleaning lady, who happened to be Romanian, about Marius Lacatus, the former striker with Steaua Bucharest. I don't know how much of the conversation she understood, but I do remember that, as she hoovered underneath his feet, she was laughing very hard indeed.

There was something uniquely Johnny Lyons about the moment.