Bill O’Herlihy: Goodnight and God bless
Eamon Dunphy, Sonia O’Sullivan, Liam Brady, Jerry Kiernan, Risteárd Cooper, Mick Dowling, Gary O’Toole and Eamonn Coghlan on a genuine broadcasting legend
“He was a great broadcaster, an outstanding one and a wonderful person too.” Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
“He was a fantastic broadcaster; in any genre not just sport but he was totally central to what we did.
“He had a real passion for it and for journalism, a very keen eye. I think he was the best sports broadcaster in the world and I’ve seen them all. I think RTE were very lucky to have him; Liam, John and myself certainly were. He was the catalyst that made everything else work.
“There was a streak of decency that ran through Bill. I remember back during Italia’90 when I went out to Italy and ended up being the most despised man in the country.
“It was a difficult time because it was out there that I had said I was ashamed to be Irish but Bill, along with Tim O’Connor, very generously decided to set the record straight and so he made the point of getting the clip and showing people what I really said. He had a very strong impulse to clear things up. It was a journalistic impulse but a personal impulse too.
“He was a great broadcaster, an outstanding one and a wonderful person too.”
“I think back to the Roy Keane stuff in 2002. Eamon was in Roy’s corner, I was in the opposite corner and things got a little bit, well more than a little bit, heated in there. It wasn’t exactly a positive atmosphere but I think Bill probably got the best out of that for the show’s benefit. He handled that really, really well but then he was unflappable. We had accidents in there, incidents where you lost the commentary or whatever and he was just always able to handle it, often with humour.
“I think I started working with RTE in 1998 for the World Cup and he was always extremely well prepared, well read, whether it was one game or two, he would get into work much, much earlier than us to trawl through the newspapers looking for an angle that maybe somebody hadn’t thought of. He was very proactive. He could be feeling ill but he’d be up for the show; he was a great motivator for all of us.
“Eamon always maintained that his background in current affairs, as a journalist, served him very well for hosting the show and I think that’s probably right.
“I got to know Bill very, very well. We weren’t social buddies or anything like that but I spent a lot of time with him, weeks on end through a World Cup or European Championship and I’m very, very said to hear the news. Very sad and obviously a little bit shaken.
“Bill never pretended to know about whatever the sport was, certainly not boxing anyway. He never pretended he was an expert on it but he would always draw you out.
“He would absolutely tell you that he didn’t know anything about it and that we’d have to explain it. He always accepted that the analysts were the experts and he would try to draw that out by asking as many controversial questions as he could.
“What he would do is he would ask the so-called ‘stupid’ question because he knew that that’s what the ordinary punter would want to know.
“The 1992 Olympic was such a great occasion with Carruth and McCullough’s success. It was a fantastic time for Irish boxing and the Olympics was a massive hit. Bill revelled in that, he always revelled in any Irish sporting success whether it was on the football pitch, the track or in the boxing ring.”
“The best thing about being in the studio with Bill O’Herlihy was when he’d hand back live to the stadium, after we’d all said our bit, and he’d sort of huddle in closer to us, almost like he was pulling up the armchair in front of the TV, for a closer view of the action.
“So it would be himself and maybe Jerry Kiernan or Eamonn Coghlan and I, and it was like we were all sitting around the TV, at home, totally excited to be watching the races. Bill would be rubbing his hands at the pure thrill of it, because he had that genuine interest, and love, in athletics, and I think it was the same for any sport.
“I know Bill would have presented a lot of championships where I was running, but it was only when I first worked with him, during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, that I appreciated how good he was. He was completely relaxed, made you feel like you belonged there, and was always pushing the discussion, and the debate. He always wanted you to say what you felt. He would never put the words into your mouth, although sometimes he would suggest things, because he knew it would make more sense coming from you, rather than him.
“But nothing was brushed over, either, and he’d make sure he got to the bottom on things. He would certainly never interrogate you, and he was never negative towards any Irish athlete, either, because I think he knew how tough it is to succeed, especially at the Olympics. So athletes respected him, and he respected athletes.
“I last saw him in Dublin, around Christmas, all covered up in a coat and scarf, and as soon as I said hello, and he recognised me, he lit up like a bright light, so happy just to talk a bit about sport. And there was no TV camera in sight.”
“Any show with Bill O’Herlihy in the presenter’s seat was completely organic. You never knew which way it could go, because Bill was open for any discussion, never had any agenda, and certainly no ego. He allowed us to say whatever we felt, and that made it very exciting, very enjoyable, and I think very special.
“I was watching the Primary Schools Athletics in Santry when I got news. I was completely shocked, completely saddened, because first and foremost Bill was a great fan of sport, and particularly of athletics.
“Although I don’t think Bill actually knew very much about athletics. And that was actually one of his strengths. He would ask the easy questions, or the hard questions, because he wanted to be educated himself, as much as he felt the viewer should be. He genuinely wanted to inform the viewer, and that’s what we, the experts, were there for. If we were the experts we’d better have something decent to say. So I always knew I had to come prepared, because Bill would have done his homework too.
“He was obviously a household name, yet completely humble, and certainly never took himself too seriously. He was well able to laugh at himself, just one of his many qualities, and yet he was the complete professional, too, in how he prepared for every show. He also took great pride in presenting every show, with great enthusiasm, and I always enjoyed sharing it with him. And right before the start of every show, as the opening music was playing, Bill would clap his hands, and tell us, “right, folks, let’s enjoy ourselves. It’s only a programme’.”
“Bill was one of those rare presenters who could both lead a discussion and be a part of it at the same time. He was the like conductor of the orchestra, while also playing in it. And this meant the show was always stimulating, never boring, and a great joy to be a part of.
“One of his tactics was to ask the simple question, even the stupid question, but in a very smart way. He’d be looking for the angle, or some dimension, and he’d be able to draw that out of whoever was in the studio with him.
“And if I was in there with Sonia O’Sullivan, or John Treacy, or whoever else, he’d make absolutely sure we’d all get engaged in the discussion. He’d a great knack of doing that. There was no script with Bill, because he wanted it to be natural, with each of us giving our own thoughts and words.
“And Bill would always be provocative, in that exciting, and enthusiastic way. He was clearly a fan of all sports, and even if he didn’t everything about athletics, he would always come extremely well prepared, no matter how busy he appeared to be.
“And he was always fair on the Irish athletes, and realised that unlike soccer and the other team sports, track and field was a very individual and personal pursuit. So if think back to say Sonia, in Atlanta, in 1996, Bill would always be very sensitive with the Irish athletes, and he’d certainly never undermine them. He was always rooting for the Irish athlete, and wanted them to succeed more than anyone.”
“Standing beside real Bill (as we call him in Après Match) in the backstage wings of the Late Late Show last year, dressed in my Bill wig and jacket about to be introduced as Bill by Ryan Tubridy, the thought struck me that I had never told real Bill what a hero of mine he was.
“Growing up as I had, a sports fanatic, having shared so many happy times with this man hosting from the goggle box, I told him you could look at the same match on BBC or ITV, but he made every event seem special, simply because he was overseeing it.
“As with most people you meet in my line of work, he assumed I was taking the mickey or that a punchline was imminent, but I wasn’t and there wasn’t. So when I continued looking at him with a straight face he seemed genuinely touched and just said “Well that’s very kind of you, but I hope you’re going to say something funnier than that tonight”. Touché!
“He was a great champion of what the embryonic Après Match brought to the party at a time when we were viewed by some in Montrose (possibly correctly) as upstarts, often offering a chirpy compliment as he strolled past and we de-wigged outside Studio 6.
“They say you should never meet your heroes, but I’m glad I didn’t listen to them about Bill. He was simply a lovely man, a unique blend of gravitas and generosity and will be hugely missed.”
“I was fortunate to work with Bill covering the last five Olympic Games, and enjoyed every moment.
“He had the unique ability to ask questions at the level of the watching audience, while all the time knowing almost as much as the expert panellist.
“He was modest to a fault and only interested in making a contributor feel comfortable knowing that their comfort would reflect well on him.
“I’m glad he was able to choose the date of his own broadcasting retirement last year and thus learnt how much he was loved by everyone. I was very saddened to learn of Bill’s passing and my thoughts are with Hillary, Jill, Sally and his extended family at this difficult time.
“Few are so fortunate and even fewer are wise enough to recognise their fortune. Bill did. May he Rest in Peace.”