I speak with broadcasting legend Bill O’ Herlihy as he reflects on his career, life after retirement and the challenges that domestic sport’s broadcasting faces.
“I was 49 years on TV. The time had come. Nothing was going to happen this summer and so I thought I might as well look at it in a practical way. I got a fantastic send off and I was absolutely humbled”, says former sports journalist and broadcaster, Bill O’ Herlihy. While soccer fans worldwide were concerned with the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina, it was an equally bittersweet day for Irish followers of sport as they would see their broadcasting hero, O’ Herlihy hang up his boots for the last time.
A native of Glasheen, Cork, situated only a short stroll away from UCC campus, O’ Herlihy began as a journalist with The Cork Examiner and became a sub-editor there at the age of 16. With a strong tradition of journalism in his family, Bill has nothing but praise for the newspaper he learned his craft in “It was a great environment to work; they were very encouraging. There was a great mentoring system there”
In 1966 Bill made the transition from newspaper journalism to television and although he may cringe at memories of his first television broadcast, he recognises that his entrance into the world of broadcasting was during a period of huge transformation when the industry was still developing“I was the luckiest guy in the world because I was involved in television at a time of huge change. The programme Newsbeat was the first show to broadcast stories from rural Ireland, very much like Nationwide. I was also lucky to be in current affairs in a time of great change” reflects the 76 year old Corkman, obviously still humbled by his success.
However, Bill’s time at the helm of current affairs broadcasting was cut-short upon a government enquiry into the reporting on the show 7 Days which he worked on. Reflecting on the fiasco, Bill realises that it did great damage to current affairs and investigative journalism in Ireland.
“RTE was in many ways set up to be an arm of government, suddenly the government thought they were being treated very harshly by current affairs which was evaluating their performance and being quite critical. They looked at the reporting on that programme and it was found not to be authentic- which was bullshit. There was huge damage done to current affairs broadcasting and it’s only in the last 10 years that it’s got back on its feet again, it was very passive for a long time”
Bill’s dalliance with current affairs would prove beneficial upon his entrance into the world of sport’s broadcasting. In a career which saw him anchor coverage for 10 Olympic Games, 9 World Cups and countless Premier Leagues and Champion Leagues, it’s ironic how one of his earliest colleagues commented on his unsuitability to the sport’s department. “Michael O’ Hehir told me ““You’re welcome but I don’t want you. Your image is all wrong for sport, you’re a real tough broadcaster, that’s not how we perform in sport””, laughs Bill
O’ Herlihy is most celebrated for his work alongside the famed panel of soccer analysts, Eamon Dunphy, John Giles and Liam Brady. Bill looks back on his time chairing the controversial trio with great fondness in his career, taking his inspiration from broadcasting stalwarts Michael Parkinson and Gay Byrne.
“My function was to make sure the guests look good. I took my advice from Michael Parkinson and Gay Byrne. They never overwhelmed their guests. I made sure I brought out the best in the lads. We all knew our jobs. My knowledge of football was infinitely lower than their knowledge of football” asserts Bill
While the panel may have been a source of entertainment for Irish viewers throughout the years (who can forget those infamous Après Match spoofs?) from the outset one of their major aims was to educate a country that had denied it’s passion for soccer for so long.
“We discovered a survey done on soccer at the time of the 1990 World Cup that only 30% of people in Ireland understood the game. We had a job then to entertain them number one and create an understanding of the game. Eamon and John particularly did that and more laterally Liam Brady”
Having touched on the 1990 World Cup and I myself being born five years too late to experience the epic tournament, I ask Bill what it was like working during such a revolutionary time in soccer broadcasting.
“It was an extraordinary time in Ireland. We had a wonderful editor called Maurice Reidy. He made sure that all coverage of the World Cup wasn’t just about soccer, but was about Ireland. He made it a very inclusive broadcast. We brought in Gaelic Games people, schools and community groups. In fact I was told by one of the execs that everybody over the age of 5 watched the penalty shootout when David O’ Leary got the goal and George Hamilton came up with the great line ‘the nation holds its breath’ “
Like when he entered the field, Bill is aware that sport’s broadcasting is currently going through a period of change, as big players like Sky Sport’s threaten the very existence of terrestrial sport’s coverage. “I saw a story in one of the papers today that the Six Nations could go to pay- for-TV. RTE can’t compete financially with BT or Sky Sports. Having it on free- to-air TV is essential for the development of sport. One thing you might find and I hope I’m wrong that Sky sports dominate to such an extent that all you’ll get on terrestrial TV will be delayed transmission”
With numerous awards under his belt which exemplify his stellar career in sport’s journalism, I ask Ireland’s most acclaimed and liked broadcaster, what are the necessary characteristics needed to succeed in the ever-changing field of sport’s broadcasting?
“The ideal thing would thing to do would be to concentrate on a particular game and focus on becoming an expert on that sport. You have to start off local and make that path for yourself. Nobody is going to be picked from obscurity” So although O’ Herlihy believes he was “the luckiest man in the world”, it’s clear that a lot of this luck has to be self-made in an ever-developing industry.