“Grobbelaar got it all wrong and Niall Quinn said ‘thank you very much’. The former All-Ireland minor hurler… 19 years of age, it’s a bit Roy of the Rovers, isn’t it?”
His was one of the voices you heard on clear nights if you propped the wireless just perfect, or pulled in the car at the right spot. Peter Jones, Bryon Butler, George Hamilton.
Then, in 1984, RTÉ head of sport Tim O’Connor pulled the big coup and scooped First Division Saturday 3pm kick-offs for Sports Stadium.
“His rationale was that he wanted an Irish voice that would be identifiable with English football, which I was to those who listened to BBC Radio 2. Get the guy who was doing it to do it, rather than ‘this is RTÉ going across to cover English matches’.
George had worked for the station before, on the undercard to Jimmy Magee and Philip Greene at the ‘78 World Cup in Argentina. But now he was the voice of Niall Quinn’s debut goal, Liam O’Brien’s 90-second red card, Luton Town’s plastic pitch. Hillsborough.
“Obviously, Jimmy wouldn’t have been best pleased. He couldn’t fathom why they would give it to the younger guy. But then, at the outset, I didn’t do all the Ireland matches. Jimmy did them as well, we swapped around. And when I did my first World Cup final in ‘86. Jimmy was in the commentary box with me.”
Soon enough, they were great friends and near inseparable.
“For 10 years we were like a double act away from actual commentary. Did that make me Ernie Wise to his Eric Morecambe?”
George was cast as straight man when Know Your Sport was born in 1987.
“Mary Hogan, a wonderful lady whose sparkling intellect brought many a bright idea to the airwaves, came up with the notion of a sports quiz for the people. Jimmy was the guy they hung it on in terms of the broadcasting personality. I had presented Sports Stadium at times, but I wasn’t known as a kind of a light entertainer, for want of a better word.”
“Splendid answering indeed,” is how George would reward the buffs, while at half-time the Memory Man faced trial.
George admits to the same cynicism as us all, at first. Jimmy surely saw some of the questions.
“But no, there was no smoke and mirrors, that was all for real. He hammed it up beautifully, but never once, over more than 300 shows, did he fail to come up trumps.”
During those hotel stays, on trips around the country together, George copped the secret. Jimmy read every column inch of the sports pages at breakfast. “With four sausages.”
Industrial relations invariably figured prominently those days. Overtime practices changed. Work to rule. A union boss insisted stagehands, the lads who shifted the set, were responsible for scoring on quizzes, according to the rulebook drafted in the 60s.
“We had a proper electronic scoring system, with Mary Hogan as the referee. But then the stagehands said, ‘no, no, this is our gig’. So you can imagine from a slick programme that was done in one take, it became a series of ‘cut, cut, could you answer that question wrong again?’ Mary could only watch in despair. And management weren’t prepared to deal with it, which sadly, at that time, was only too typical.”
It was shifted around the schedule and finally killed off in 1998. The only cross words in George’s charming book are for those who pulled the plug.
“The thing was pulling in, at its peak, 750,000 on a Thursday night on RTÉ One. And I would have thought a manager should have been looking at that and saying, ‘this is something we should be minding’.
“Unfortunately, inside Donnybrook, they didn’t see it as such for whatever reason. I don’t say that, in any sense, that I should have had 30 years as the frontman. It would probably have gotten stale. David Vine didn’t host Question of Sport forever. But the programme was bigger than the people on it and bigger than the people who took the decision to take it off the air.
“It withered on the vine. People still talk about it and still ask, ‘is it ever going to come back?’”
It wasn’t, mind you, George’s first quiz venture. An only child, his original media coconspirator was Paul Smith, a boy who lived across the Cregagh Road in East Belfast. In Paul’s garage, they fashioned a camera from crates and toilet rolls and George sat behind the little trestle table his dad used for wallpapering, grilling local ‘contestants’.
“Of course Paul went on to invent ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ and sold it for megamillions. I should have stayed in touch.”
“With good clean family entertainment, like snooker and ice dancing, and everything else in between, ready and willing to snap up the sponsors’ cash, who needs football with its backbiting, its two-faced double-dealing, and its hooligans, to sully the name of a fine, upstanding business?”
Think you have the measure of George Hamilton’s CV? Keep turning the pages, beyond football and rugby and athletics and cycling and rallying and Lyric FM.
Interrogating Ian Paisley and John Hume as presenter of Good Morning Ulster, BBC Radio Ulster’s flagship breakfast current affairs show, at the height of the troubles.
Shooting the bantz with Terry Wogan for offbeat slots during the LA Olympics.
Host of Platten à la Carte, a weekly BBC German Language music show from Broadcasting House in London, “matching music to requests that had come in by post from behind the Iron Curtain”.
There’s a Russian doll of Georges. And who’s this, holding court on the state of soccer in the Sunday Independent in 1983? Two titans of the age side by side, Eamon Dunphy and… Michael Henry.
“I wasn’t sure I’d be allowed by the BBC. Anyway, I made discreet inquiries and I was given a discreet answer, which was if they didn’t know it was me there wouldn’t be much they could do about it. So yeah, I became Michael Henry. I did it for four years and thoroughly enjoyed the double life.”
He chuckles through the story of his column on Ronnie Whelan. George indelicately revealing Liverpool were unhappy with Ronnie’s girth after a return from injury, Ronnie’s brothers in Dublin reading it, and sending Ronnie on the warpath in search of Michael Henry. He learned the real culprit was likely an Irishman working at the BBC… and blamed Alan Green.
“Alan took that one on the chin for me. But Ronnie has mercilessly ribbed me about it over the years.”
In the column quoted above, Charlton Athletic had lost its sponsor — the wallpaper chain Fads — and George fears football’s edifice is crumbling.
Is he any more optimistic about the landscape now?
“It’s a very different proposition to Bob Lord’s Burnley, when the local butcher could own the football club. I’m almost happier following the Bundesliga now than my beloved Arsenal, because at least I know that it’s not run by outside investors with no connection whatsoever to the roots of the thing, that it’s not somebody’s plaything and it’s more grounded in fandom.”
“The seeds of doubt that were sown at the weekend against Egypt have been… doused by a dose of Jack Charlton’s almighty weedkiller.”
George has always taken it in good spirit, the ‘danger here’ stuff, the drawing attention to the odd gaffe, the allegations of disastrously premature chicken counting.
In the book, he cheerfully recalls the original of the species: USSR, 1988.
“My interventions have, apparently, been statistically proven to be responsible for 87 per cent of the goals the Republic of Ireland have conceded. The innocent remark, ‘Bonner has gone 165 minutes of this tournament without conceding a goal – he’s heading for his ninth consecutive shut-out,’ was made when play was deep in opposition territory, and morphed within a moment into a transfixed shriek. ‘Danger here!’
“For in those few seconds, the ball had travelled over half the length of the pitch and was now at the feet of Oleg Protasov. He promptly dispatched it beyond Bonner’s reach into the Irish net. Ouch!”
He found his groove as a commentator, he reckons, sometime between 1981 and 1983, feasting on a healthy diet of big matches.
“I was working with a lot of supreme wordsmiths. Peter Jones had a wonderful way with words and description, and I cannot but have learned from him. I spent so much time on air alongside him.”
Before sending him out there, BBC Radio Head of Sport Cliff Morgan handed over one sheet of A4 paper — his commentator’s bible: “The bullet points summed it all up. Score. Time. Geography. Accuracy. Start from there and carry on.”
He never strayed too far outside those lines, but he is loved for the way he coloured in between.
For the inquisitiveness and precision that first gave us Yan Molboo and Yupp Schtum.
For being our tour guide in every city he visits — an appreciation of places and sounds palpable.
For the natural curiosity and interest in people that gives us the name of Mats Hummels’ dog, or tells us the ref is a former concert pianist.
And for that sense of fun that keeps it all in a little perspective.
“Spain have had the possession but not the sharp edge… like plastic airport cutlery.”
“The genie’s in the bottle, but England haven’t got a bottle opener.”
“For a player that’s active in Dijon, you could say that did not cut the mustard.”
How does he explain why exactly he is good?
“Well, I studied languages, I did English and then majored in German and French. So literature, it’s about words. If you’re fortunate enough to be of a literary bent, you’re going to have an awareness of words.
“I would have a distinctive style… but it’s also about life experience and about what you can bring to the party because there’s more to it than just describing action, particularly when it’s television and the pictures are there for you to see.”
The flights of fancy have taken him down the odd blind alley. Where you might meet a rabbit in the headlights with a suit of armour in the shape of two precious away goals.
“Sometimes you do begin to say something and you realise that it’s not going to take you to where you want it to go. So you have to somehow get around the corner as best you can on two wheels, and then steady the thing and hope that it goes on down the straight after you’ve had your little speed wobble.”
“It’s there, Alan McLoughlin has done it… And Windsor Park is stunned into silence.”
George was studying at Queen’s University before he made his first Catholic friend, Tom Egan. He was christened in the same Presbyterian church as George Best. The Sash is in his songbook. His father played for Cliftonville, but George was a Glentoran ‘superfan’.
When he got a puncture in Belfast shortly before he was due to read the early morning news, George was comfortable knocking on the window of an armoured RUC landrover to cadge a lift.
On one level, he knows he’s a man displaced. It’s why, when asked to write a book about delivering the most famous line in Irish football history, he felt a need to supply personal context.
“How did I end up being the guy in the seat in Genoa that Monday afternoon, because there was absolutely no logic to it, given that I was the wee man from the Cregagh Road in East Belfast, and this was the Republic of Ireland at a first World Cup? You just couldn’t have drawn that line.”
He’s not entirely sure why, but was always fascinated by life in the south. When his parents bought him a transistor for passing the eleven-plus, it was southern voices he listened to on clear nights, having tuned in a signal from Athlone.
“I took to listening to Radio Éireann. Showbands seemed so much more a part of a world you could belong to than the stars who emerged after the Beatles burst onto the UK scene.”
That ugly and beautiful night when Alan McLoughlin silenced Windsor Park to take the Republic to the World Cup might have been a conflicting, uncomfortable experience.
But George seems to sail serenely past divisions of that kind. He swears he has never taken a moment’s grief for his background.
“Hand on heart, no. In the wonderful era of social media, there might be the odd something or other. But, honestly, I cannot recall an incident.
“My own background, there was never any suggestion that there was anything untoward about being different religiously.
“The mixture of my mother’s ancestry meant that we had Catholic cousins in a place called Glenarm, in the Glens of Antrim. And we went for a summer holiday there and this lady let us stay in her bungalow on the front and she withdrew to the family home, which was above a shop in the centre of the village.
“I must have been seven or eight, and when she came down to open up the house, above the fireplace was the Sacred Heart lamp. And of course it meant nothing to me, because I wasn’t brought up Catholic. But Frances, the mother’s cousin, said, ‘Oh, I’ll turn that off for you’. And my mother said, ‘you will do nothing of the sort’. My mother was religious in a Protestant way. But she said, ‘this is yours, this is your house, you’re not turning that off’.
“That image has stayed with me. Frances McCauley’s Sacred Heart lamp was more important than how we might feel about the Sacred Heart lamp.”
“The Nation holds its breath”
The book is a joyful collection of stories. There is a lesson for GAA journos everywhere in the way he leaned on Dutch contacts to interview half the Holland squad in ‘88, despite Rinus Michels’ media ban. Though it meant climbing out a hotel window.
He travelled out to Sofia and back with Gary Mackay and the Scotland team that changed the course of Irish football. He recalls Packie Bonner meeting the return flight in Glasgow, carrying the day’s newspapers, to thank the Scots for what they’d done for us.
“It was a nice touch. And we were the last people he expected to see and he was so overwhelmed he gave us the newspapers as opposed to the Scottish players.”
This time of year, many books are pub