- 25 May 15
Our resident sports writer Craig Fitzsimons remembers the "honorary uncle"...
In the last two minutes, news has reached my ears of the passing of Bill O’Herlihy, mainstay of RTE’s footie coverage for four decades, veteran of ten World Cups and ten Olympics, and a sort of honorary uncle to each and every fan in the land. The merits and demerits of ‘The Panel’ may have long since polarised opinion among fans; but you would struggle to find anyone with anything other than kind words to say about the host, an eternally reassuring, genial presence, as calming as a warm mug of tea in the middle of a raging thunderstorm.
His half-time team-talks had a unique way of steadying the nerves – briefly, of course as he proceeded to mischievously stir the pot with Messrs Giles & Dunphy and subtly invited them to tear strips off the players or the managers or one another. RTE’s coverage has long been envied by British fans in the know for its willingness to push the limits, in stark contrast to the bland-ular fever that tends to infect BBC, Sky and (Jesus wept) ITV, with their endless parades of excessively polite ex-pros honouring the golden rule that Thou Shalt Never Criticise A Fellow Professional.
RTE’s approach was always gloves-off, no-punches-pulled, go-for-the-throat; and one always suspected Billo had a lot more to do with this than he let on. He knew exactly when to throw in a grenade and where best to fire it, lobbing a sly curveball at (most usually) Dunphy in the full knowledge that he could be trusted to run with it. Tempers would fray, Eamo would work himself into a tizzy of righteous indignation, Liam Brady would gleefully dismantle Dunphy’s ridiculous sweeping generalisations; the room would seem to crackle with malevolence; and somehow, Billo had the unique capacity to calmly oversee all this as if he was having a fireside chat in his living-room. You half-expected him to yawn, stretch and head through to the kitchen to fetch a couple of beers from the fridge.
I only crossed the man’s path once, at the bar (naturally) at a social gathering to commemorate Giles’s 50th birthday, and he was exactly as he seemed on screen, with a warm expansive greeting to someone he’d never seen in his life and the sort of naturally matey, utterly genuine smile that can’t be faked. I left it at ‘Howarya’ and resisted any impulse to bash his ear about football, but didn’t doubt that he’d have been able to converse knowledgeably and passionately on the subject, had I been of a mind to inflict it on him.
The pain of his passing will be most deeply felt by the wife and two daughters of whom he was so proud, but I’ve a hunch the pang of loss has been felt in its own little way by hundreds of thousands who never knew him. Okey-doke; requiesat in pace, Bill.