He’d have made a great replacement for Gaybo, but the Late Late’s gain would have been RTÉ Sport’s inestimable loss.
I’m referring of course to broadcaster Bill O’Herlihy, the big-name guest at this Saturday’s Park Hotel Awards in Dungarvan – “live.”
A reporter with RTÉ since 1965, the “tribal Corkman” – who was on the staff of the ‘Examiner’ before that, with ambitions to be editor – has been anchoring the national broadcaster’s coverage of major sports events since the ’72 Munich Olympics, a year before he set up the eponymous and very successful public relations company which he still heads.
A reluctant face on television – reckoning he had neither the voice, look, or presence for the box – he broke his duck when the legendary Frank Hall needed someone local to interview the last survivor of the Lusitania around the 50th anniversary of the ship’s sinking.
He only got into sport as a result of “a kick in the arse” he received after being quizzed for almost a week about his involvement in an investigation by the award-winning current affairs programme ‘7 Days’ into the State’s blind-eye approach to illegal money-lending, resulting in a Government tribunal of enquiry in 1969. (Any chance of an ‘Anglo’ one 40 years on?) “I recognised it for what it was,” he reflected afterwards, “an attempt to try to put a censorship on current affairs.”
It took a while but teaming Billo up with Eamon Dunphy and John Giles was the best move the Montrose mandarins ever made. Since first working together for Mexico ’86 (Dunphy having been an analyst during Argentina ’78 and Espana ’82, when ‘Sport Billy’ was the official mascot), the trio have been essential viewing.
He loves the two lads and the feeling is clearly mutual. Early last year he appeared on RTÉ Radio One’s ‘Conversations with Eamon Dunphy’, with the host introducing him as “probably the best sports broadcaster in the world… if you were in America, Bill, you’d be a billionaire.”
He dismisses Dunphy’s compliment as “a grossly excessive comment”. (Are they ever anything but?). “What he meant,” he surmises of the man who, he says, “would give you his last rolo”, is “that I was fundamental to the success of the group. I think it works because I look at myself as the man in the street. I’m not the person who has all the knowledge. I ask the questions.”
However, behind the faux naiveté, O’Herlihy knows his onions. “We’ve carried out research that shows that about 80 percent of people watching soccer don’t understand the game. There are times when I have to ask questions that may make me look like I don’t know what I’m talking about. But it would be a complete nonsense to have an incestuous conversation about soccer. I represent the people who don’t know what it’s about.”
Aided by Bill’s easy-going good humour, their rapport is natural and, whatever pre-production goes on, it appears completely off-the-cuff, and usually is; which is the secret of its appeal. Like this discussion on Ferguson and Strachan, Man U v Celtic, 2006:
Dunphy: “They’re both jocks, and as far as I know jocks come in two types – nice and horrid. And both of these men fall into the horrid category, they’re not one bit forgiving.”
O’Herlihy: “That’s a bit racist, Eamonn.”
Dunphy: “It’s not racist, it’s ethnic stereotyping.”
His assessment of the trio’s success is simple and spot on. “We’re much tougher in our questioning and much more forensic in our analysis. We have no ties with the clubs, so we can afford to be objective. With Sky, if you put millions into the game, the last thing you do is call the game rubbish.”
He said before Christmas that he’d love to have Roy Keane on the panel but concedes that’s unlikely for obvious reasons. (“Ah now, Eamon, you can’t be saying things like that”…)
Now 70, O’Herlihy is a durable sort, having overcome a triple-bypass following a severe heart attack in 1984 (at which time he was presenting ‘Sports Stadium’), and colon cancer surgery in December ’07. A benign growth as big as his fist, and a foot-and-a-half of his intestine, were removed. The tumour was found after Hilary, his wife of almost four decades (“a great woman”) insisted he go for a check-up. Two of his sisters had died from the disease in the previous few years, as did his mother long before.
Bill’s contract with RTÉ is up this year and it’s inconceivable that he won’t be offered an extension. He’s a wealthy man, so he isn’t still doing it for the money – even if “I often feel if I had concentrated on PR I would have been a lot more successful.” (As part of his PR “day job” he was involved in launching the hugely successful ‘John Rocha at Waterford Crystal’ range some years ago.)
Indeed, while viewers have always appreciated his facilitative skills, up until recently he felt he’d “never got the kudos. I think I have worked with people who have become really good television performers working with me. But somehow or other I have always been a rather grey and anonymous figure, I’ve always felt. Let’s be frank about it. I am a journeyman reporter. I am not a star and I have no illusions about it. I am not a television personality. I am a very solid television performer, and that’s all.”
That was almost seven years ago, despite having won a Jacob’s Award for his presentation of Network 2’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup, his all-time favourite sporting memory; even if “the football wasn’t great”, the drama was at fever pitch, not least in the studio.
‘Mr Okey Doke’, who never realised he used his catchphrase until ‘Après Match’ lampooned it, has since scooped the domestic Sports Journalist of the Year accolade (2003), and was voted TV Personality at the Irish Film and Television Awards last February.
His “schizophrenic schedule” would make someone half his age take stock. He’d love to present a sports chat show, á la Michael Parkinson, someone he much admires, but “I was never asked. “There’s a view sometimes that if you work in sport you are less important or less talented than people in other areas.”
Tell me about it. Or rather, maybe tell whoever thought Pat Kenny and the GAA would be a match made in heaven.