Tony O’Donoghue.

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Tony O'Donoghue: Before Google and Wikipedia, Jimmy Magee was the internet

I won’t be alone among my peers in broadcasting, and indeed in the ranks of the many sports stars that he interviewed, in saying that Jimmy Magee moved easily from his status as hero of mine to becoming first a colleague and then a friend whose warmth, kindness, and good humour was as legendary as his memory, writes Tony O’Donoghue.

Tony O'Donoghue: Before Google and Wikipedia, Jimmy Magee was the internet

The train journey to Dublin from Cork had become a familiar one, so much so that the guy on the catering trolley would enquire, “two sugars, isn’t it?”. As a freelancer on RTÉ Radio Cork in the mid-90s my ‘gig’ was presenting the Friday evening Drivetime slot — a mix of music, traffic news (Patrick Street was bumper to bumper, the Quays heavy but moving) and weekend sports previews.

When the opportunity arose to become involved in a major new sports show on ‘National Radio’, I jumped at the chance.

The Memory Man could tell you the exact date, although I’ve forgotten, when ‘Saturday Two to Five’ first aired on RTÉ Radio One.

It was billed as the fastest moving sports show in the country and was controversially replacing a gentler paced show, the much loved ‘Airs and Races’ presented by Val Joyce.

There would be racing commentary still, of course, but there would be reports from all the Premier League Grounds in England, as well as club and county GAA, All-Ireland rugby, basketball, cricket, motorsport, swimming, hockey, and bowling. Only Jimmy could be equally at ease with any and all of the above.

And in answering some of the critics who had railed against the loss of ‘Airs and Races’ he dedicated the first show “to his redundant pal, Val” referencing the previous incumbent of the host’s chair and also the famous horse that Jimmy himself had a share in.

He found common ground with listeners old and new, effortlessly soothing troubled waters.

That was the essence of Jimmy Magee and so being plucked from relative obscurity in Cork to edit Jimmy’s programme was a broadcasting tutorial, always worth the weekly commute. There was little point in writing a brief for him before an interview because invariably he knew more than your research could ever uncover about a sports star or a forthcoming event. But he wore his knowledge lightly, never intimidating but always welcoming and inclusive. In the days before Google and Wikipedia, Jimmy Magee was the internet.

Jimmy lived for sport and not only was it his career, it was his hobby too. In truth, it was his life.

Seeing that I was something of a fish out of water during my early days in Dublin he invited me to train and then play with Stillorgan Celtic — the club of two of his sons — Paul, who tragically predeceased his Dad, and Mark.

What I hadn’t realised was that Jimmy himself was ‘the Gaffer’, and this Walter Mitty of Irish sport put as much time, energy, and enthusiasm into his management role as he did to any of his ‘professional’ assignments.

Clearly taking a leaf out of the Don Revie playbook, he would ‘scout out’ next week’s opposition from a field or two away and compile dossiers on their strengths and weaknesses.

“Make him turn inside and force him on to his left foot.”

It was then you would have to point out…. ”but Jimmy, you said all the great players wear number 10!”

We had a full-back, a cobbler by trade, who went by the name ‘Floppy’ Peacock. Apparently it was because, despite his job, his sole invariably fell away from his shoe.

But what a player he was!

And so, every time I met Jimmy subsequently, in the great cathedrals of sport from the Camp Nou to the Stade de France, from Croke Park to Tolka Park or from Olympic stadia all over the globe, he would gaze out at the stars on show and pose the question..

“Are any of them really fit to lace Floppy’s boots…?”

In compiling a Best XI or a Best XV in any code, Floppy’s name would always crop up and that Stillorgan Celtic squad had a bond and a team spirit that would be the envy of a Klopp or a Mourinho.

Jimmy found a way to integrate disparate personalities and had an easy rapport with everyone he met, always welcoming of a new generation of talent that he could see only good in.

The loss of his son Paul to Motor Neurone Disease a few years ago was hard for Jimmy to take. Paul was a fine sportsman and broadcaster himself, representing his country in bowling and playing for Shamrock Rovers, St Pat’s, Finn Harps, and Bray.

When our friend and colleague Colm Murray was also struck down by the same disease I could see the pain return to Jimmy, who was never quite the same man after the loss of his wife, Marie in 1989.

But despite the sadness he still found a way to let the sunny side of his character play the leading role in a life enriched by sporting drama.

To Mark, my friend and former team-mate, and to Jimmy’s daughters Linda, June, and Patricia and the rest of their family, may I offer my sincere condolences and my eternal thanks that I had the pleasure and the privilege of knowing your Dad who was to us, like his hero Maradona, different class. DIFFERENT CLASS!

  • Tony O’Donoghue is Group Football Correspondent for RTÉ.

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