Larry Ryan: George Hamilton still giving words a life of their own

You need an excuse to pester George Hamilton, there’s usually an anniversary due. We’re approaching high season, writes Larry Ryan
Larry Ryan: George Hamilton still giving words a life of their own
RTE commentator George Hamilton has his own radio studio at home and is keeping busy during the lockdown.

You need an excuse to pester George Hamilton, there’s usually an anniversary due.

Houghton in Stuttgart or The Nation Holds its Breath. 10 years, 15, 20, 25, 30. George will oblige, patiently reel off the greatest hits, writes Larry Ryan

But this time it’s personal. Because tomorrow clocks up 20 years since the greatest sentence ever uttered.

Real Madrid are two up in the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford — Roy Keane OG and Raul — before a United onslaught. Then a moment of what is known in the trade as ‘pure George’.

“Real Madrid are like a rabbit in the glare of the headlights in the face of Manchester United’s attacks... but this rabbit comes with a suit of armour in the shape of two precious away goals.”

An iconic voice releasing words into the wild where they take on a life of their own.

Two lads in a Dublin apartment are highly amused and write it down. My flatmate, now brother-in-law, Gareth, draws a cartoon of an armoured rabbit. T-shirts are printed. Dangerhere.com is born to attack the dot-com boom.

Sadly, nearest we came was an offer of 25 grand from some betting operation out East. The chap wanted to fly over and do the deal with a bag of cash. Hmmm. Maybe safer leave it off.

That boat missed, instead one of us was fatally distracted from his true calling in the e-learning industry and gradually sucked into writing nonsense in the paper. Finding the polar opposite of the dot-com boom.

So by way of contrition, at least George is good enough to keep answering the phone.

And when George answers the phone, just like on the high-octane Champions League nights, you just go wherever he takes you.

LR: How’s lockdown?

GH: I feel like I’ve become a little cottage industry. Because I’m doing Lyric from home. And I’ve been doing some football voiceovers as well. They sent me a commentary microphone so I have all the gear, my own radio studio.

LR: Ah, so you’re keeping the hand in? I was worried you’d have to go back to where it all started, commentating on your own table football matches in the kitchen.

GH: Ha ha, no, it’s mostly bringing up to date retro stuff that’s going to be shown over the next few weeks. And for Lyric I now have access to the music database and all that. So I have in front of me on my home computer what I would have in the studio.

LR: You’re nifty enough on the technical side?

GH: My daughter tells me I’m, what’s the word, tech-savvy. I would dispute that. I’m possibly the king of workarounds. I get there, but it’s not necessarily the way I’m supposed to.

LR: I hear you. First I’d heard of Zoom was a month ago.

GH: Yes, there’s a couple we would socialise with, dinner or whatever. And every Saturday night comes through the message with the Zoom request.

And we have seven o’clock drinks together. Virtually. And my daughter’s husband is French and they live in Wicklow, but they had dinner one night with his mother in Paris, so to speak.

LR: By my calculations you just slip into the bracket for recommended cocooning now.

GH: Just about. My wife is a radiographer and my stepdaughter’s a GP and I am getting all sorts of instructions. So yeah, I’m very careful.

LR: Anyway, the rabbit, George.

GH: Yes, you’re very good to keep bringing it up!

I do remember when it happened and I got a bit of ribbing about it. And Dangerhere went mad with a wonderful cartoon.

These things sometimes happen when you start and go down a track and realise that you’ve got to get off the track again.

United were all over them and I had to somehow get back to Real Madrid being still in control in some respect. And the rabbit was in my head and then how do you save the rabbit, you put it in a suit of armour. What else?

It’s nice to remember things like that, but it’s part of doing commentary.

People often ask do you script your lines and the old ‘nation holds its breath’ has been out again and again and again, obviously, particularly with the Jack programme.

And I try to explain how you can’t do that. And I can hear it now, guys at the end of a match, and they’ve been bursting to get this out, and it comes out like a frigging volcano. And you just know that they sat at home and worked it all out. But it’s just not spontaneous.

I would never have got ‘the nation holds its breath’ two days before, in a hotel room in Rapallo. I just wouldn’t.

Because it has to be in the moment. And the rabbit in the headlights is another example of where you get taken somewhere that you didn’t intend to go but you’ve got to get yourself back from it. And if you’re depending on notes you’d have so many you’d be lost.

You have all this stuff, sure. But it’s not script as such. It’s nuggets that may be of relevance, but equally may not. Packie Bonner’s long-lasting run of not conceding a goal, for example… [laughs]

LR: Oh danger here… I think we’ll let you off those ones today.

GH: Thank you. It might have been Dangerhere that said it had been proven, statistically, that I am responsible for 87% of the goals Ireland have conceded.

LR: I think it might. Of course what actually got you into trouble halfway through the armoured rabbit was remembering the away goals. Still your kryptonite in Europe isn’t it?

GH: Oh yeah. Too many sums to be done. It’s much simpler when it’s an international and you know that it’s simply two-nil. The moment of most relief comes in a second leg when whoever scores means it can’t go to extra-time. So you can actually say with authority, this will be finished in 90 minutes.

LR: Any idea how many Champions League nights you’ve done now?

GH: I haven’t actually counted them but I reckoned Munich in 2012 with Chelsea was my 25th European Cup or Champions League final.

It is still great to be part of a football crowd. I remember only recently a game in Dortmund. And Dortmund’s stadium is of the city unlike Bayern’s Allianz, which is in a wasteland on the way to the airport. And just walking with Ronnie Whelan and Peter Collins or Tony O’Donoghue, looking at that stadium and just being part of that crowd, I’m thinking wouldn’t you just love to support this team, because you’re caught up with the whole thing.

LR: You obviously allow yourself get caught up. But I think the rabbit line shows that you have never taken it or yourself too seriously, have always been prepared to be a bit playful with things.

GH: Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean at the end of the day it is entertainment. We’re kind of entering Bill Shankly territory, football’s much more important than life or death. Of course it is, and it isn’t. Jurgen Klopp’s is a good way of putting it; the most important of the least important things.

LR: Many people have pointed out their enjoyment of your quite thorough biographies of the referee before kick-off.

People often ask do you script your lines and the old ‘nation holds its breath’ has been out again and again and again. And I try to explain how you can’t do that, because it’s just not spontaneous - it has to be in the moment

GH: Yeah, I like to think that comes from watching too many Match of the Days with my dad and getting interested in the referees.

LR: The only guy whose home town we got to know. Slough, or wherever.

GH: Yes, because when the referee makes a decision that maybe you don’t agree with, you’d like to know maybe who he is and what he does.

And then it’s amazing the things that you find out as you dig deeper. There was a chap in the Champions League, Herbert Fandel, a German, who was a concert pianist.

LR: My favourite was the guy whose sister Tanya was a ballroom dancer. Now that’s research.

GH: Gosh, who was that? I’ve forgotten that one.

LR: I’ll have to look it up. Something that does divide opinion is your magnificently fancy pronunciations of foreign names, going all the way back to Jan MolBU.

GH: Yeah, that comes from my background in languages. If it’s a player’s name, I do try to get it right.

The one that springs to mind is Nuremberg during the 2006 World Cup. The Dutch were playing and this new centre forward appeared, K-U-Y-T. And I had no idea how to pronounce it.

So I left the commentary box before the game and picked out three random guys in an orange shirt and asked them how you said the fella’s name and they all said ‘Cowt’. I wanted to ask at least three of them in case one of them was taking the mickey. [Laughs]

LR: Of the many outlandish analogies on Champions League nights, a personal favourite was the 2004 final and Flavio Roma being left exposed like a jilted lover under Clery’s Clock.

GH: Ha ha, God bless your memory.

LR: Gilesy loved that one. You had a great relationship with Gilesy, going back to the Saturday 3 o’clock glory days. But you seem to work well with them all, Ronnie, Ray Houghton, Jim Beglin of course.

GH: Oh yes. The coldest match I ever did was in Amsterdam, one night in the old Ajax Stadium back in the 90s. And John Giles was the man that night.

These guys are all easy to get on with because there’s that big thing in common, the football. And what we do is not rocket science and the division of roles is not rocket science either.

The first time working with somebody, we very carefully ensure we know what we are doing together, and that we aren’t, in any sense, competing with each other.

There was one co-comm that I won’t name because it wouldn’t be fair. Anyway, he was very much a ‘will I take the first replay or the second replay’ kind of guy. And I’d say ‘look, don’t hang yourself up on that’, because this thing will take on a life of its own.

The incident may be such that I am so high up that I’ve got to get down off the ladder before you can come in. So it might have reached a second replay before I’ve stopped. Don’t regard that as you’ve been snubbed.

And equally, if a goal is so out of the blue that I have actually stopped and let the crowd take it away, then you feel free to come in because I don’t need to come back.

But if you weren’t getting on, I think it would be obvious and it would certainly take away from the broadcast. It might add a different dimension, but it wouldn’t be the dimension you’d want.

LR: Well, it would be entertaining, but I can’t recall that with you. I do get a sense Jim Beglin enjoys the flights of fancy more than most, let’s say.

GH: I would say you’re probably not wrong in that. Yes, we’re in regular textual contact. That involves a lot of banter.

If it’s a player’s name, I do try to get it right. I had no idea how to pronounce Dirk Kuyt, so I left the commentary box before the game and picked out three random guys in an orange shirt and asked them how you said the fella’s name and they all said ‘Cowt

LR: On the same wavelength.

GH: Yes. And we’re both left backs, though I didn’t obviously play at the level he did. But there is something in football about left backs.

LR: You were decent, close to signing for Portadown?

GH: Gibby MacKenzie, the Scot, wanted to sign me when I was at Queens. But I was doing languages and was about to go to Germany for a year. He said ring me when you get back.

I played for a junior club over there in a suburb in the Ruhr, and when I came back Gibby had been sacked. So that was the end of that. Then I went to London with the BBC.

I did play against [venerable BBC Northern Ireland commentator] Jackie Fullerton one day, when he was with Glenavon. I was out of position at right back. And Jackie was a top class left winger. So this was a big deal. And for some reason I remember this one moment, when Jackie was taking me on, and I got the block in and it was the highlight of my season.

LR: You stuck a reducer into Jackie Fullerton?

GH: Yes, and he denies it ever happened. He had a wonderful autobiography many years ago.

I was in a bookshop in Greystones and I bought it. And the girl in the bookshop said, ‘what are you buying that for, would he not give you one?’ But if I went to the trouble of writing a book, I wouldn’t be giving it to people. Anyway. I read the book, it was a terrific read.

LR: No mention of the tackle?

GH: Ha ha, no. Not even a mention of me.

LR: It must be time to get a book out yourself.

GH: I’d love to. But every time I think about sitting down trying to do something, something else comes up. And you could say to me this would be the ideal time to get started. And maybe it will be depending on how long this lasts.

LR: There would have to be a chapter on George the Gah man, which somebody mentioned recently. Is it true you used to do the post-match All-Ireland hotels?

GH: I did, The Grand in Malahide generally. We’re talking late ‘80s, early ‘90s. The Know Your Sport days. I was assigned to a team. So win or lose, I’d do the hotel. The two I remember are one of the years Meath won, and when the Antrim hurlers lost.

LR: ‘89. So you were in the opposite corner when Tipp’s famine ended?

GH: I was. I actually spent the first half of the match beside Nially Patterson’s goal, at the Canal End. I was with Antrim from the Friday, came up to Belfast to Casement Park, kind of went down with them on the Saturday. And back up to the border on the Sunday morning to meet the fans as they made their way south.

I actually did Up For The Match one year, with Mary Kennedy I think. Meath were in it.

The reason I remember is Meath were to be featured first and Sean Boylan didn’t show. And he sent a message to say he’d be late, so the programme had to be rejigged.

There was some player issue the night before the game and Boylan was dealing with it.

LR: There’s a separate interview in George’s secret life in the GAA.

GH: I had a great time the year Down won in ‘94. I was lucky enough to get two tickets to that. And I met all sorts of people. Pat Jennings was there a couple of seats away, in the Hogan Stand.

LR: Let’s finish this in the traditional fashion, and ask again, when is RTÉ going to bring back Know Your Sport.

GH: I actually suggested they should rerun it at the moment. They’d get great value, 30 shows every season. And 11 seasons. Maybe that’s too many. We hope the lockdown is over before that.

LR: Pleasure as always. Until the next anniversary...

GH: Thank you, Larry. And I hope you find Tanya.

Ten minutes later, the WhatsApp arrives.

Jakob Kehlet from Denmark. Did the Ireland game in Moldova, October 2016.”

Pure George.

More in this section