Since at George Hamilton’s suggestion, we’re having a most convivial lunch in the private members’ Ulster Reform Club in his native Belfast – an old world choice of interview location which requires your correspondent to step out of his sartorial comfort zone and into a jacket, shirt and tie – it seems only fair that I try to get my retaliation in by mischievously putting the cross-border broadcaster on the spot.
“So, George,” I say, “it’s Northern Ireland v the Republic of Ireland at the Euros: where does your allegiance lie?”
But if I thought this was a question cunningly designed to make the commentator shift uncomfortably in his seat, it turns out I’m very much mistaken. His reply is disarmingly candid and delivered with a broad smile.
“The point is that I’ve probably lived longer in the south than in the north,” he says. “And my most recent experiences and personal successes have all been tied up with the Republic of Ireland. I went south and I think I went native (laughs) So much so that the BBC will often come to me now for a perspective from the south. To them, I’m ‘once of this parish’.
“Anyway, I think we’re all in much happier place than in the 90s (when the two Irelands met in World Cup qualifying). If it were to come to pass in France, I think huge positives would come out of it. And since they’d be coming face to face, it would also mean one would still be going through.”
Although born and bred in the North, Hamilton says that he was always fascinated by life south of border “We holidayed there a lot and I used to read ‘Spotlight’ magazine and follow showbands,” he tells me. “I knew all about Dickie Rock and Brendan Bowyer.” The Miami were another of the bands he tracked from a distance through the pages of the showbiz mag so he was deeply shocked by what became known as the ‘The Miami Massacre’ — the July 1975 UVF gun and bomb attack on the group’s minibus which left five people dead, including three members of the band.
“I was in Munich staying for the summer with a student friend when it happened and I remember being most upset,” he recalls. “I was absolutely horrified because, well, where does it stop if you’re doing something like that? I mean, there were an awful lot of non-combatants caught up in the violence but that was just ridiculous.”
That George Hamilton should have been a fan of the showbands to begin with comes as a bit of a surprise since, quite apart from being the voice of Irish football, George — as evidenced by his popular Lyric FM show — is renowned for a taste in music that would be rather more high brow than the stuff with which Ireland’s dance hall kings used to send ‘em home sweatin’.
An only child, he inherited the classical music gene from his mother Gretta, at whose urging he took lessons and became an accomplished pianist and cellist. His parallel passion for football, meanwhile, was fanned by his father Jim who played as a striker for Cliftonville — notably scoring a hat-trick on his debut for the club— with the result that, as a wee boy, George was a familiar presence with his autograph book in the dressing rooms at Solitude.
As a secondary school pupil at a rugby-playing Methody, George’s own involvement with football was mainly restricted to the local summer leagues until he went on to Queen’s to study German and French and, turning out for the university team in the Irish League B Division, had his closest brush with ‘the big time’.
“The story of my footballing life is that I went to do a refereeing course and then a coaching course, the summer before I went to Germany for the year,” he relates. “One of those taking the coaching course was a very well-known man in Irish League circles in the 60s and 70s, a Scot called Gibby Mackenzie, and he actually offered to sign me for Portadown. But I said I couldn’t because I was planning to go away to Germany for a year. So he said, ‘alright — when you come back’. But then he got sacked in the meantime. When I came back, he was gone (laughs).’
And with him went George Hamilton’s nascent football career. Instead, he would go on to make his own indelible mark on the sport by providing the soundtrack to the actions of others. And it turns out that the origins of his commentating are also to be found in his Belfast childhood.
When his parents bought him a table football game called ‘New Footy’ — “the lesser cousin of Subbuteo”, as he describes it — young George took a heat-resistant mat that sat under the table cloth, marked it out as a football pitch, and proceeded to play and commentate to his heart’s content. The memory prompts an interesting observation.
“You’d be surprised at the number of only children who have ended up as commentators,” he says. “Ger Canning, Jim Sherwin, Fred Cogley, Marty Morrissey…Michael O’Hehir was another one. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon. Basically, you’re talking to yourself.”
He began talking professionally to others in his final year at Queens when, on an impulse, he auditioned for the BBC in Belfast and got his initial broadcasting break as a freelancer doing scripted reports on local rugby matches. After graduating from university, he secured shifts as a current affairs reporter which led to a position as first, a con
tinuity announcer, and then, in a significant raising of his profile, as a presenter on the current affairs programme ‘Good Morning Ulster’, which he did for two and a half years. His fluency in German also saw him contribute frequently to German radio stations when the Troubles were at their height.
Sport was where his heart really lay, however, and in 1974 he made his debut as a live match commentator, covering an Ireland v Scotland Five Nations rugby match. But, two years later, it was the occasion of an especially star-studded football international which saw him deliver his first live commentary on television.
“Northern Ireland v Netherlands in Rotterdam, a World Cup qualifier, George Best v Johan Cruyff, 2-2,” he says, reeling in the years. “And Best was brilliant – he actually nutmegged Cruyff at one point — and everyone thought this was the renaissance after Danny Blanchflower, the manager then, had talked him out of retirement.
“Hopes were high after that match: ‘this is it, we’re on our way, first time since ‘58’ – which by the way was what had really first got me interested in sports journalism: Malcolm Brodie’s stuff in the Belfast Telegraph from the World Cup finals in Sweden. And he became a great friend and mentor over the years.
“But now the big story was that Best was back and it was all going to be great — and then they went to Liege to play Belgium in the next match and they lost 2-0.”
But if Georgie didn’t make it to the World Cup Finals in 1978, George did, recruited by RTÉ as their fourth man — along with Jimmy Magee, Philip Greene and, formerly of this parish, Billy George — to cover the tournament in Argentina. He then worked for both RTÉ and the BBC at the 1982 and ’86 World Cups, the latter encompassing another red-letter occasion when Pat Jennings played his last game for Northern Ireland, on his 41st birthday, in Guadalajara, against Brazil. The match might have ended in a 3-0 beating for the North but, as George points out, “there was no shame in going out to Brazil.”
In terms of his own broadcasting career, however, Hamilton regards those World Cups as mere “precursors to the one that really lifted off” — the Republic’s long-awaited tournament debut at Euro ‘88.
“In 1988 I was the assigned commentator to the Republic of Ireland and that made it really different,” says the man who supplied the words in Stuttgart when Ray Houghton’s header looped into the English net. That 1-0 win in the Neckarstadion, the momentous 90 minutes which launched a new era in the history of Irish football was, he almost sighs, “completely unforgettable”.
As, indeed, was the whole experience of bringing the story of Irish football going where it had never gone before, to the folks back home, at a time when media access was virtually all-areas.
“We stayed in the team hotel. I played tennis on an off-afternoon with Niall Quinn. Niall came into the lobby one day: ‘Anyone fancy a game of tennis? I said, ‘Sure, I’ll play’. So it was the wingspan of a Niall Quinn against me — I had no chance!
“Then when we came back after the win against England, the hotel was overrun with fans. No security, no nothing. Just everybody having a lovely, innocent celebration. I used to be assigned to one of the teams in the All-Ireland final and this reminded me very much of one of those All-Ireland parties when you’d go back to the team hotel after the game.”
It was Euro ‘88 which also turned George Hamilton into a household name, a television personality with his own, albeit unintentional, catch-phrase. “Certainly, it was out of the Hanover game that came the ‘oh, danger here’,” he concedes.
The reference is to the meeting of Ireland and the Soviet Union in Hanover when, with Jack Charlton’s team playing superbly and leading through Ronnie Whelan’s spectacular volley, George chose the 75th minute to big up Packie Bonner’s stats: “And Bonner has gone 165 minutes of these Championships without conceding a goal… oh, danger here…” And next thing, of course, the ‘keeper was picking the ball out of his net, after Oleg Protasov had equalised.
The phrase returned to haunt Ireland all over again four years later at the World Cup in Italy, just before Gary Lineker turned the commentator’s cry of alarm into painful reality by bundling the ball past Bonner to give England the lead in Cagliari — although, at least on this occasion, there was to be a happy reprieve for George, the team and the watching millions, when Kevin Sheedy struck his celebrated equaliser.
“I did have to recognise that I used the phrase a bit and I tried to stop using it,” George admits now, “but it still comes out from time to time.”
But Italia ’90 was also the tournament in which George came up with the imperishable line which has become for Irish football what ‘Some people are on the pitch…” is for the English game: the commentating gold standard.
“There are times when you realise you got it right on the day and that was one,” he says, filling in the background to the moment just before Dave O’Leary put foot to ball to strike the most famous penalty ever taken by an Irish footballer.
“We were on RTÉ 2 but it was now past six o’clock so the RTÉ News was on and I got word in my ear that News would be taking us live as well and I’d have to give a quick update as to where we were. So I did a quick resume and carried on as normal. Your mind is going 110 miles an hour and you’re processing all sorts of stuff but, just at that moment it struck me that now anyone who was watching television at home was watching this. Because there was nothing else to watch — no TV3, no TG4. This is what was showing in Ireland at that moment. And it struck me that, as Dave O’ Leary stepped up, the nation was holding its breath. And it just came out like that. And I’m bloody glad it did!”.
His finest hour? “I think it probably is, yeah. Because what is commentary about? It’s about finding the right words to match the picture. And thankfully, I did.”
In general, he says he tries to tread a careful line between patriotic passion and professional neutrality.
“You don’t want to tip over into being a fan with a microphone but I think there’s a level of forgiveness for your delivery when it’s a big moment in a big Ireland game,” he reflects. “A good example of that – because it did actually strike me at the time – was the Shane Long goal against Germany. Because, whatever it was I said, how I called the ball hitting the net was certainly more urgent than had it been, say, Lewandowski scoring for Poland against Germany.” Which brings us nicely up to date, and a chance to peer into the kit-bag which George Hamilton will take with him into the commentary box in France. Its key contents are always the same: a self-compiled, colour-coded commentary chart containing the essential stats about both teams; a laptop for additional fact-checking; a stop-watch; a pair of binoculars; and three pens.
But, of course, there is no safety net in live broadcasting and, no matter how painstaking his preparations, occasionally he is bound to come a cropper. His worst cock-up?
“The women’s 800 metre final at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 when I got the winner and the runner-up – two East Germans – back to front.” And when did he realise his error?
“When (producer) Niall Cogley back in Dublin said ‘oops’ (laughs). Luckily, it was in the middle of the night so nobody really noticed, and we had a chance to do it again. So when it went out in the morning, it was fixed.” It’s a tightrope act, right enough but, at 66, George Hamilton — having made a full recovery from heart surgery five years ago — has no intention of stepping down any time soon.
“It seems to be still working,” he smiles. “I love doing the job, travelling to matches and love being at events I want to be at anyway.”