George Hamilton: ‘The event is unscripted so why should you script what you’re going to say?’

Music-loving soccer commentator George Hamilton has made a second career as a presenter of the Hamilton Scores on RTE Lyric FM. And in a way, he regards commentary a bit like a good jazz performance.

George Hamilton: ‘The event is unscripted so why should you script what you’re going to say?’

Next Thursday, June 25, is the 25th anniversary of Ireland’s 5-4 penalty shoot-out win over Romania in the World Cup last-16 in Genoa. Which means it’s the 25th anniversary of the most famous line in Irish sports commentary, uttered by George Hamilton before David O’Leary converted the winning penalty: ‘The nation holds its breath’

Q: It must be very satisfying for a commentator to have such an iconic line on the record.

A: It’s obviously great to have had the opportunity to have uttered that line. The fact that the phrase has stuck is great. I am not in the habit of writing down lines. The event is unscripted so why should you script what you’re going to say? You’ll only be trying to mould the event round what you want to say. And I think it becomes very obvious if a commentator is trying to do that. Nobody could have imagined the drama of it anyway, so anything prepared wouldn’t have fitted.

Q: No doubt there are a few commentators on the circuit who script the lines?

A: Oh yes. But you’re not going to expect me to tell you who. I think you have to trust yourself. It’s a bit like jazz in a way. The framework is there. But you wouldn’t be playing jazz if you weren’t an accomplished musician who knew where to go and get from A to B. You can go off on a tangent, but you’ve got to get back to B.

That’s how I regard commentary. The canvas is blank. We’ll see what transpires. And allow experience to guide you through.

The Six One news was on the air and we were on Network 2.

The director in Dublin said Six One is joining you so welcome them and briefly explain what’s going on. TV3 hadn’t come along, so the seed was planted in my head that nobody in Ireland is watching anything else on TV at this moment. So it was the obvious thing to say, because the nation was holding its breath, and sometimes the simplest things are the most memorable.

Q: Did you immediately think; yep, I’ve got that right?

A: No, you don’t think, gosh I’ve nailed it, because you’re ready to react to the next event. And I have no recollection of it ever striking me until later, when it was pointed out to me. Quite when its status moved on from a line of commentary to something you’ve been kind enough to describe as iconic, I’m not too sure.

Q: Your first reward was to be drenched in champagne by Packie Bonner?

A: Myself and Tom Flanagan, an RTÉ floor manager, my minder, sidekick, wing-man, had driven 200km from Milan and as were were driving out of Milan, we went into this supermarket and bought this bottle of Asti Spumante and put it in the back of the car in the blazing sunshine.

We had to smuggle the bottle into the ground, but we got it in, and the match lasted a very long time, as you know, and the bottle sat in my satchel for the duration, and eventually when it was all over we went to the interview area and we got Packie Bonner and David O’Leary. Tom produced the bottle and three little plastic cups and we toasted each other on the air.

Of course the two boys had been out in the blazing sun for two hours plus and the last thing they probably wanted was tepid Asti Spumante. They did the decent thing and took a mouthful, but having tasted it they quickly decided the best place for it was over my head and poured it over me live on television, all over my Hawaii Five-0 shirt.

Q: Is it your favourite commentary moment? ‘Liverpool’s magic carpet takes off in Istanbul’ wasn’t bad...

A:  Ha, ha...I’ve been very lucky. Even when my namesake Gordon Hamilton scored the try in the quarter-final of the World Cup in 1991, that was a wonderful moment. I often say Ray Houghton’s goal against England in ‘88, because the first time for something like that is always the best. And then Houghton’s goal against Italy in ‘94 is another one. There was “Michael Thomas has won the league for Arsenal” in 1989. As an Arsenal fan I was pleased with that.

Q: Are you ready to come out as an Arsenal fan?

A: I have done. But I don’t blow a trumpet about it. I follow them alright. It was a family thing. An uncle of mine was a professional cricketer with Surrey and the London connection somehow led to a connection with Arsenal in the house. So I’m just delighted to get the opportunity to see them once a year or so in the flesh.

Q: You did seem to be involved in all the great Ireland moments. Then Jimmy Magee would take over and get us knocked out of tournaments. Was there a rivalry between you back then?

A:  Bear in mind, we were co-hosts on Know Your Sport at the time, so we did actually get along. In Italy, the rota had been drawn up before we ever went, so Jimmy was always down to do that game in Rome. Because the Italy game became such a big deal, they actually took me off whatever game I was supposed to do and gave me a presentation role in the stadium in Rome with Chris Hughton, doing post-match interviews and the rest.

I mentioned the Gordon Hamilton try - I got that match and not Fred Cogley because of a pre-arranged rota.

That was the way it worked in those days. Fred Cogley was the Head of Sport at the time and the rugby commentator, but I still did it because that’s how the games fell. It was no big deal.

Q: Ah, Know Your Sport. Do you have a Know Your Sport umbrella and why hasn’t that show been brought back?

A:  Funnily enough, the Know Your Sport umbrella I have is the second version, the dark blue one. I don’t have the original grey and white one, the one with the sun on it. My proudest moment came when I was commentating on a Munster rugby match on a wet Wednesday afternoon in Musgrave Park. And in the sea of umbrellas there was one Know Your Sport umbrella. It ran 11 years. Unfortunately I think the people upstairs just got tired of it. I don’t think sport, other than live sport, is deemed sexy enough for primetime TV.

Q: Have you consciously cut down on the ‘danger here’s’ over the years?

A: No no (laughs). One or two still come out. There might even have been one in the Champions League final. There was a danger anyway. I don’t know if it was here or there (laughs).

Q: Because as much as Jimmy knocked us out of tournaments, you’d have to take responsibility for Euro ‘88 elimination and maybe for us failing to qualify for ‘92?

A:  Oh yes, undoubtedly my chicken counting contributed to the draw in Poland. Apparently, it was statistically proven that I was responsible for 87% of the goals that Ireland conceded.

Q: You’ve cut down on the chicken counting over the years. Would that be fair?

A: Oh yes. That’s fair comment. That’s a criticism you do not take lightly.

Q: Who were your favourite commentators growing up?

A: The one that made me want to be a commentator was an old Welsh solicitor in Lurgan who did it for BBC radio in Belfast, Ronald Rosser. The first TV commentator I ever heard was Kenneth Wolfenshome on the BBC. That’s what I mean about scripting things. His iconic line ‘they think it’s all over’... you just couldn’t have scripted that.

I enjoyed Barry Davies very much. And Brian Moore on ITV.

I’ve had great times and assistance over the years from all kinds of people; currently the likes of Martin Tyler and Clive Tyldesley and Guy Mowbray and John Murray. Mike Ingham was a good friend of mine. He was so distinctive in his turn of phrase. The late Bill McClaren was also very helpful to me when I started out.

Q: As turns of phrase go; the rabbit in the glare of the headlights with a suit of armour in the shape of two precious away goals was something special.

A: Ha. I was halfway into it when I had to get back out of it again.

I’d got the rabbit in the headlights bit out, when I realised they were alright, so I had to qualify it, and the suit of armour seemed the way. We’re back to the jazz again.

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