You’ll have heard many of them since his death was announced at the age of 82, crackling through countless YouTube clips with the same electricity as the distant days on which they were uttered. And in each of his most famous lines the tools of his trade were on show.
“Different class... different class!”
“Oh it’s a beautiful goal! Isn’t it a beautiful goal?!”
“Barry I’m so proud of you. Ah, we love you, well done Barry!”
Jimmy understood that the greatest moments often needed only the simplest adornment. The shift through the gears, the change of inflection. And while the Memory Man was renowned for what was in his head, his best lines came straight from the heart.
Diego Maradona’s goal against England in 1986, Don Givens’ against Russia in 1974, the tumult of Loftus Road as Barry McGuigan celebrated his world title, and many, many more: On so many of those occasions it was not the vast trove of knowledge into which Jimmy dipped, but rather his hopeless, unconditional love of sport and its great practitioners.
It was that passion that fuelled an extraordinary career which began when boyhood begging letters to Raidió Éireann were eventually rewarded with a job. What followed read like the sort of inventory of accomplishment he loved to catalogue in his own sporting heroes: Ten Olympic Games and 11 World Cups; Tours de France and European Cup finals; boxing title fights and all sorts of world championships.
All the way was that emotional connection that made his descriptive powers come alive, the sense that his deep immersion in sport was not a dry, academic interest, but rather a lifelong celebration of ordinary people doing amazing things.
So McGuigan was “the little man from Clones” who became champion of the world; Katie Taylor was “this young girl from Bray”; and for John Treacy’s Olympic silver in 1984: “The crowd stand for the Irishman from Villierstown in Waterford. The little man with a great heart.”
Magee understood that in those moments he was describing the passage from small-town hero to sporting deity, that the little streets were being hurled upon the great — it was a beatification of sorts.
Magee tragically lost his son Paul to Motor Neurone Disease in 2008, and later described commentating on Paul’s first game with Shamrock Rovers as his most emotional moment in broadcasting. In a way, there was something paternal that shone through with all those whose greatest achievements he bore witness to: Katie, Barry, Bernard, Paul McGrath, Diego. He seemed proud of them all somehow.
Perhaps it was that sense of unconditional love that lay behind his loyalty to Michelle Smith, whose innocence from doping charges he consistently championed. Jimmy Magee belonged to sport’s prelapsarian age, a time before the drugs, greed and corruption took hold; when people say that we will never see his like again, it’s because it is impossible for someone like him to ever exist again.
To look back on his career is to see a different world, a glorious technicolour cavalcade, glamorous and innocent at the same time. Quiz books, Know Your Sport umbrellas, Jimmy Magee’s All-Stars (a repertory troupe of GAA legends and showband stars, obvs), The superstars and the globetrotting commentator lapping it all up. Oh, and he compiled the first Irish top 30 singles chart, naturally.
I met him for the first time in Poland at Euro 2012, strolling around a hotel lobby on the day of Ireland’s game against Spain. I introduced myself and expected the understandable hauteur of one who had been to so many of these shindigs, yet instead I got warmth, jokes and questions about what was going on over there in Ballymount — the human interest that inhabited his work.
On another occasion he bemoaned the modern practice of ‘off-tube’ commentary, done from a broom cupboard many miles from the actual event — this, after all, was the man who’d hobnobbed with Pelé, witnessed Maradona first hand and rubbed shoulders with Ali.
But back to the tools of the trade. His commentary for Treacy in Los Angeles had it all. The impromptu list of Irish Olympic medallists that concluded with “Wilkinson, Wilkinson, and for thirteenth time an Irish medal goes to John Treacy!” just as the latter crossed the line, it demonstrated his unsurpassed knowledge, technical mastery and boyish enthusiasm.
But, most importantly, he was inducting Treacy into the pantheon, the realm of the immortals — and by doing so in such unforgettable style, he was joining him there.