LARRY RYAN: Giving thanks for George’s return

Put it down to guilty conscience.

Call it, if you must, a lifetime achievement award. Or consider it an acknowledgment of one of the finest sporting comebacks in a year of bounteous bouncebackability.

But please turn away, for a moment, from the pitch or the track, to toast the gantry. My sportsperson of the year is George Hamilton.

Act of contrition first. While George lay unconscious for three days in the Blackrock clinic in late 2011, it didn’t seem entirely appropriate that, alongside the genuine outpouring of concern, coexisted a generous supply of ‘danger here’ jokes. If it won’t inflate my penance, I might even admit to making one or two.

When a few of us started 11 years ago, several observant judges had already linked Irish football’s greatest misfortunes with George’s tendency to usher us into the winners’ enclosure a fraction early. I suppose we helped cement his reputation as a disastrous jinx.

It’s one he won’t shake now, even though George has long sworn off the chicken counting.

All these things – the odd gaffe and the outlandish metaphors; armoured rabbits in headlights etc – ensure George is loved by many.

There are others he drives to damaging their televisions.

But should any of this define his work?

When a man was flat on his back with his head gasket blown, as he described it, should we not, instead, have paid tribute to the finest football commentator working in these parts? And have we given thanks enough for his return?

Just as the nation once held its breath in Genoa, how many football supporters now recall their dearest memories through George’s words? Like the Cliftonville faithful. George was at Windsor Park for BBC in 1979 when the Irish Cup final entered its final minute with The Reds craving a first success for 70 years.

“And here’s Tony Bell, I wonder can he fix it?” Yes he could.

Or what about those other Reds, 26 years later? “Liverpool have won the Champions League. Their magic carpet takes off in Istanbul.”

But this isn’t about George’s quotes – God knows, we’ve had enough mileage out of those – but rather a suspicion he’s a touch undervalued.

Sure he has travelled a distance in the nation’s affections since 1990, when a Fianna Fáil TD argued on radio, presumably voicing the concerns of his constituents, that Jimmy Magee should be commentating on Ireland matches since he was more in tune with people this side of the border.

They got their way in Rome and we went out. Just as Jimmy linked up with Bergkamp and Jonk in the Citrus Bowl four years later to send us home again.

All the same, Jimmy – unlike his cheerleaders 23 years ago – might be the only one of this country’s old institutions still going strong. He is cherished alongside Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh and the Book of Kells among our national treasures.

Will George ever gain that standing? At a time when the national broadcaster is rightly proud of its football coverage, it is Billo, Gilesy and Eamo that hog the limelight, that sing on talkshows, that publish books.

Yet George is arguably the star turn – certainly among the best three commentators we are exposed to, along with Martin Tyler and Clive Tyldesley.

But sometimes it seems George and Jimmy are forever typecast in their old Know Your Sport roles. George, the safe pair of hands keeping things kicking over. Jimmy, the performer.

Mind you, George might have been the finest quizmaster this country has produced too. KYS was certainly our best televised quiz. “Splendid answering indeed,” was praise as coveted as the umbrellas up for grabs.

Still, for all he’s given, when he made the Late Late Show last Christmas – brought on to the strains of Danger! High Voltage – he was there not to talk about his life, but near-death. It was the same week Fionnuala Britton won her first European cross-country. She was billed to appear too, but didn’t make it, for some reason.

George recalled the last words he heard from the doctor before his ‘intermission’. “This is serious, but it’s fixable and we’re going to fix it.” Thankfully, like Tony Bell, they did.

What a year George recovered for. Although he wasn’t fully fit until February, the Euros and Olympics sat atop his usual workload. Alas, George was invariably required to bury our hopefuls rather than praise them.

Little wonder, after a long year, that George might have dropped his guard in Budapest last month when Fionnuala retained her title and he was allowed to win just once. Jerry Kiernan flagged it. “I noticed a catch in George’s voice there, and George is normally a very unemotional individual.”

“Brilliant, brilliant Britton wins.” George too had survived rough terrain and was back to his best.

He may not yet be a certified treasure, but close your eyes and few voices are as easy to conjure.

A shrill blast of the referee’s whistle. It matters not a whit. Bless my soul, he’s missed it. It’s Stuttgart all over again. And, yes… danger here.

It’s brilliant, brilliant George too, no danger.

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