We’ll Leave It There So

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He’s been the steady hand guiding generations of football fans through some of the most heady days in Irish sport. After decades on our television, and 36 years tearing his hair out with everyone from Denis Irwin to Don Givens on RTE’s football panels, Bill O’Herlihy is embarking on his last World Cup final as anchor. ybig.ie look back at some of Billo’s memorable moments.

Since 1978, O’Herlihy has covered every FIFA World Cup, European Championship and Olympic Games. Eamon Dunphy first appeared on air with him at the ’78 finals, a tournament Ireland had narrowly missed out on. After then failing to make the ’82 World Cup, the national team’s fortunes moderated to an extent over the following years. 

Yet despite a medical scare, Bill was still there to present for RTE, as John Giles and Don Givens joined the panel. Mexico ’86 was a broadcasting challenge for everyone early on, as frequent picture break-ups removed whole segments of live games.

Euro ’88 was Ireland’s first tournament, and O’Herlihy presented the vast majority of the 15 games. With the Republic having reached a major finals for the first time, there was increased spotlight, and a bigger challenge to RTE, who showed the maximum live games possible with delayed coverage of the final group matches.

Niall Quinn joined the panel for the final between Holland and Russia. The emphasis was on solid analysis rather than the free-for-all it would later develop into. With Dunphy’s return for the 1990 World Cup, the level of debate was turned up a notch, as Peter Collins was sent in to read other tournament news.

Within nine days, Ireland had drawn with Egypt and Dunphy made his mark. Despite Bill trying to calm him down at half-time telling him he was using “strong words”, Dunphy continued with the infamous pen-gate at the final whistle. He vanished for the Holland game to write for his paper at the time leaving Bill, Billy Hamilton, and Giles to deal with the uproar at home and in Italy, over the following days.

alf2The win over Romania saw sweetness and light for a night, as Bill told the country of all the regular programmes that would be cancelled after the result; “Alf has been deferred and Home and Away has been deferred.” Dunphy went out to Rome for the quarter-finals, leaving Martin O’Neill to fill in for the game and the team coming home to Dublin during coverage of the other last-eight ties.

By now back presenting Ireland’s qualifiers full-time for Euro ’92, the country watched in a state of shock as Bill announced to the nation that England achieved the draw they needed in Poznan, instantly after Ireland’s win in Turkey. Ireland and England hadn’t lost a game in the group but England had beaten Poland at home and Ireland had not. The extra point decided the issue.

For World Cup ’94, the rollercoaster of a campaign saw us celebrate draws in Denmark and Spain, sink at home to the Spanish, collect three away wins in three weeks for the first and only time, and sweat out an agonising four-minute wait after the tense draw in Windsor Park for Spain to beat Denmark in the final game. Back in the studio, the champagne corks replaced the coke cartons, but the celebrations were otherwise rather muted. Eamon Dunphy was missing from the panel for the finals, while Joe Kinnear came on board and, ruled out of the competition through injury, Quinn returned. Bill took a step back from presenting every game.

Euro ’96 faded away after a bright start for us, but saw the first signs of what was to come over the following years during the tournament, as Barry Murphy began after show sketches of the panel, then later at the Atlanta Olympics, aka “Melty Hughes”.  Bill told the viewers that he hoped we would see more of him in the future. And sure enough we did. It developed into Aprés Match, formed aptly during France ’98, while Liam Brady joined up. Indeed, the sketches were probably the best thing of the finals themselves.

With Ireland back at the World Cup in 2002, the tournament in Japan was manic in the RTE studio. With Dunphy back on board with the regulars, he wasn’t short of an opinion or two after Keane’s walkout.  That wasn’t enough for him though, as he had to take his anger a step further by wearing the colours of Ireland’s game-day opponents in the studio, and insisting that Brazil would not win the World Cup. Denis Irwin was among the reserve panelists. Aprés Match were sent in to present and analyse the World Cup third-place games, a one-off feature every four years. Brazil duly won their seven games, and the World Cup.

With Staunton hired to oversee the European Championship qualifiers for 2008, mercifully for the manager, TV3 covered the away games sparing Stan the wrath of the RTE panel but leading to the memorable on-air quote after the Cyprus game; “I’d have given anything to hear what Dunphy, Giles and Brady would have made of the nightmare.”

The next notable incident came in 2008 as the regular panel commentated and analysed the second half of the Germany-Turkey semi final. When the live feed for the game in Switzerland crashed, they earned considerable praise for their efforts afterwards.

The following World Cup campaign and the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni presented its own issues for the reputation of RTE’s elder statesmen with many now openly accusing them of  a crusade against the new manager. As the campaign continued and Trap remained in place, Graeme Souness joined the panel and brought a refreshing independence to the analysis.

The return of Liam Brady led to some frosty encounters in the studio. Trap’s former assistant took offence at Bill’s line of questioning the attendance after the Macedonia win at home. Eamon’s tongue struck again after the Russia result in Dublin, with Darron Gibson taking it full force, a comment which he then apologised for next time out. The win over Armenia was swiftly followed by the announcement that “we won’t qualify” from Bill’s long-time battler.

A new addition got on board for the 2014 World Cup in Richard Sadlier. The vital late win in Astana was met with derision by him and Bill, and talk of the sack was back. The German result next time out allowed everyone a chance to reflect. RTE jumped though and declared the upcoming game against the Faroes as “almost certainly” Trap’s last game in charge.  The routine win was emphasised by Brady in vociferous arguments with Dunphy in studio. Bill went on an RTE chat show soon afterwards to announce he would retire after the World Cup final.

As results went downhill though, the studio entertainment soared and Brady was frequently outgunned by his fellow panelists. After getting the change of coach they wanted, Noel King was next up for rigorous analysis, but there was no mercy from them after the inevitable outcome in Germany.

And so, having started out 35 years earlier, Bill had seen another qualification cycle end without the Irish send-off he would have wished for.

Now aged 75, O’Herlihy prepares to ring-lead the World Cup circus for the final time before the panel will be shaken up in the march towards France. There have been some unforgettable moments down the years, as many off the pitch as on it, a testament to the quality of the RTE analysis and O’Herlihy’s professionalism as a broadcaster.

We’ve watched the month-long extravaganza in Brazil along with him in our living room until the final when we’ll say for the last time, as the man himself might put it, “Goodnight Bill and God Bless”.

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