'William Dunlop was a natural racer, but, goodness, he was a natural as a father too ... perhaps being a dad helped heal him in losing his own father, having that love to share with another person who was part of him'
Janine Brolly, partner of the late William Dunlop, tells a new BBC NI documentary about the road racing legend, how she misses him more and more each day and why she'll always regret he didn't live to see their second daughter Willa. Ivan Little reports
With her bottom lip quivering and tears rolling down her face, the heartbroken partner of Ulster motorcycle star William Dunlop, who was killed in an accident last year, has said she misses him more and more as time goes on.
"I adored him," says Janine Brolly, who has revealed in a new BBC Northern Ireland documentary in the run-up to the North West 200, that her whole body shook with fear for an entire race the first time she saw William in action as she realised what he did for a living was "crazy and terrifying".
William, who was a member of the famous Dunlop racing dynasty, died during practice for the Skerries 100 races in Co Dublin in July 2018. The 32-year-old Ballymoney man was hero-worshipped as one of Northern Ireland's greatest-ever road racers, who'd won a huge number of titles at high-speed, high-octane events like the North West 200 and at his favourite race meet, the Ulster Grand Prix at Dundrod.
William knew the risks he was taking. He'd grown up with motorcycle racing and tragedy. His father, Robert, was killed at the North West in 2008 and his uncle Joey died in a race meet in Estonia eight years earlier.
In the half-hour documentary, Remembering William Dunlop, presenter Stephen Watson paints a picture of a shy and modest man, who, despite having the adoration of thousands of fans, disliked the limelight and was dubbed the Quiet Man. But Watson also talks to his family and friends as he tries to find out why the rider, who took the chequered flag over 100 times, was so successful and what made him tick.
However, it's the interviews with Janine Brolly which provide the most telling and poignant insights into the massively popular sportsman. Janine, who's also from Ballymoney, recalls how love blossomed after they bumped into each other on nights out with mutual friends.
But while, like everyone else in the town, she was aware of who William was and his sporting background, she never regarded him as a celebrity, because she'd little or no knowledge of road racing.
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"William being a sports personality was never something that factored into our relationship," she says, adding that she met him during the off-season, when he was winding down from racing. "So, we had the opportunity to get to know each other without racing involved But, as our relationship developed and grew and we set up home together, certainly life with a road racer completely takes over your whole life, both for the person doing the racing and the person at home who loves him."
She says that she didn't watch him race in the first year of their relationship. "But I popped over to the Isle of Man for the TT, which is quite a mammoth one to go over and see first time." Janine describes the experience as "brilliant", but "terrifying".
She adds: "When I got onto the grid, my knees started to shake. There's this electricity on that starting line and I think the magnitude of what he was about to do hit me. He was going to hurtle down this hill at crazy speeds."
Janine remembers giving William a squeeze, wishing him good luck and telling him that she loved him before watching the race, along with friends and family in the stands.
"I can remember I still shook the whole way through it and I thought, 'This is what this guy does for a living. This is crazy'."
Janine says William's world was turned on its head by the arrival of their daughter, Ella. "He was a natural as a racer. But, goodness, he was a natural as a father straight away. It took me by surprise how quickly he settled into that and how much he loved it.
"And perhaps being a dad helped heal William in the loss of his own dad, having that love to give and that love to share with another person who was part of him. It was lovely to watch the two of them together."
Janine talks about how William's concerns over her second pregnancy made him quit the Isle of Man TT in June last year.
She says: "We had received news about our pregnancy with our daughter, Willa. As parents, we were worried about our baby. I think whenever your income is dependent on your wins and maybe the wins aren't coming, it can maybe get into your head. He called me and said, 'I'm coming home, Jan. I'm done here'."
Instead of racing, William took Janine and Ella away for a weekend. "It was the most lovely weekend. He was so relaxed. As a family, it was lovely to spend proper quality time together."
The Dunlops weren't to know, of course, what lay ahead of them.
Janine says that, when William "got into a better head space" and said he was going back to race in the Skerries 100, she didn't have any worries - especially as the hospital reports about her pregnancy were looking progressively better.
"Everything was looking so, so good," she says, adding that William was in good form as he headed south for the races and asked her to print out records to stick up in his van about his wins at Skerries.
"I think he was trying to regain confidence in his own ability, which was there, but life had kind of got in the way for him with regards to his career."
Janine also printed a photograph she'd taken of William and Ella and, after his death, she was shown the last picture of him before the practice session at Skerries and he was sitting beside that image of him and his daughter.
"The one that he was proudest of was of him and his little girl," she says. "It's such a shame that he got so little time with her and the fact that he never got to meet our second little girl, Willa."
The documentary also shows footage of Janine and William's mother, Louise, attending the Irish motorcycling awards, where he was inducted posthumously into the Hall of Fame.
Louise says: "We have to keep going on. We have lost dad and we have lost William, but you never saw them down about anything. They just kept on racing. And it's a credit to them and to the strength of the whole Dunlop family. We are extremely proud of Janine and the two little girls are beautiful. They're very like their daddy."
Former champion rider Phillip McCallen tells the programme-makers that William didn't court fame.
"He just wanted to race motorbikes, win and go home and that was his way of life," he says.
Football and motorcycle racing pundit Liam Beckett, who's close to the Dunlop family, says William showed promise on the soccer pitch, where another side of his personality quickly emerged.
He adds: "One thing I always noticed about William was his competitive edge. If he lost, he wouldn't take a cup of tea, he wouldn't speak. He had that winning mentality and I could see that shine through from a very early age."
William's cousin, Gary, who's also a racer, tells the documentary that his mother, Linda, saw a lot of similarities between her husband Joey Dunlop and his nephew William.
Gary says that whenever the second generation of the family started racing, people always looked at them and said, "They're the Dunlop boys".
He adds: "I think we all understood how difficult it was being from the family."
Gary says that, while it was great to have the Dunlop name, it could also be a curse. He says the children weren't always comfortable with having the name, but adds: "It doesn't take away from how proud we are having these people in our family as relatives."
Gary says William liked to keep himself to himself, but adds that he was so fiercely competitive in racing that it was "scary".
The documentary traces William's career from its beginnings as a teenager. His first race, at Aghadowey, was tough, but motorcycle ace Ryan Farquhar could see promise and he tells Watson that he warned people not to be fooled by the fact that William was lapped.
And success did eventually come his way and the Dunlop name on the trophies was as often as not William's, not Robert's.
But nine months after William's first major triumph, his father Robert was dead. William and his racing brother, Michael, were totally devastated, but eventually they resolved to continue racing. Janine says she understood their decision, because racing was engrained in who William was and it was also a connection to his father, adding: "I can imagine the thought of giving something like that up would have been incredibly difficult."
At their return to the North West 200, William won the 125 and 250 races. Race director Mervyn White says that William's achievements were special and meant a lot to him - especially in the wake of his father's death.
Liam Beckett says William was a one-off. "He was the greatest exponent of 125 racing that Northern Ireland has ever had. It wasn't the name Dunlop that took William to where he was, it was his sheer ability and I considered William to be great. If William was in a race, particularly if he was on his game, it would have been a foolish man to bet against him. He was a bit like his da. He could jump on to any bike."
Other friends and racers, including Lee Johnston and Glenn Irwin, tell the programme-makers that some people regretted that William's full potential as a motorcycle rider would never be fully realised. They also talk of how William struggled to cope with fame and never accepted that he was as good as he was.
Several recall how one of his greatest triumphs was at the Ulster Grand Prix in 2013, when he beat one of the sport's finest exponents, Bruce Anstey, overtaking him on the last corner of the last lap with a move that has never been repeated, according to the experts. The following year, at a wet North West 200, William and his brother Michael fought an exhilarating battle against each other in a Superbike clash that has gone into the record books as one of the most thrilling contests in the history of the sport here, with William winning, but only just.
Mervyn White will never forget the excitement. He says: "I remember the spectators on the grandstand on the seaside that year were going crazy, because they could see the big screen. I saw William afterwards in the paddock and he was absolutely over the moon."
Farquhar says: "I thought Michael was going to bully him and get the better of him, but William stuck it out over the Coast Road and gave it to him. And I thought, fair play to you, you've come a long way from the first time I saw you riding at Aghadowey in the 125."
Remembering William Dunlop, BBC One Northern Ireland NI, Tuesday, 10.40pm