‘There was this thing I wanted to cross off the list–sportscom­men­tary’

Belfast man re­calls his jour­ney to be­com­ing a leg­endary soc­cer com­men­ta­tor . . . and clas­si­cal mu­sic DJ

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SOCCER - Malachy Clerkin

It will be a lit­tle be­fore 11 o’clock this morn­ing lo­cal time when Ge­orge Hamil­ton takes his seat be­hind the mic at Dan­marks Ra­dio at DR Byen, hard by the Emil Holms Kanal in Copen­hagen. He will patch through to Pe­ter Curtin, the Lyric FM sound engi­neer in Lim­er­ick with whom he has a vir­tu­ally tele­pathic un­der­stand­ing by now, and by the spa­ces he leaves at the end of his sen­tences Curtin will di­vine when to press play on the var­i­ous pieces of clas­si­cal mu­sic that go to make up The Hamil­ton Scores.

The show will run for three hours on Lyric, af­ter which there will be time for lunch and not a whole lot more be­fore Hamil­ton is due across town at what the lo­cals call the Parken. He will take his place in the gantry when the sta­dium is all but empty and un­fold his notes. And as the Parken fills and the at­mos­phere builds and the World Cup qual­i­fier against Den­mark be­gins and the ac­tion ed­dies off into those un­know­able places that weld tele­vi­sion view­ers to their seats, he will add his own sound­track, a world re­moved from the sedate pace of his morn­ing’s work.

Any way you flip it, it’s some work­ing life for any­one to have built for them­selves. Hamil­ton is the world’s tight­est Venn di­a­gram, the soc­cer com­men­ta­tor who moon­lights as a clas­si­cal mu­sic DJ. Or maybe it’s vice-versa – the Lyric shows take up six hours of the week­end sched­ule now, af­ter all, and gar­ners the sec­ond-high­est rat­ings on the sta­tion. He made his first ap­pear­ance on the sta­tion on Christ­mas Day 2002 and last week­end was the show’s 14th an­niver­sary.

“It’s a lovely sur­prise,” he says. “I am as­ton­ished re­ally that at this point in my life I have ended up with this sched­ule of com­mit­ments. I mean, how do you come up with a job de­scrip­tion that in­cludes be­ing a foot­ball com­men­ta­tor and host­ing a clas­si­cal mu­sic show?” How in­deed, Ge­orge? Well, it be­gins in Belfast in the early 1950s, where he was the only child in the house. His fa­ther had sung pro­fes­sion­ally, his mother like­wise but just for fun and some­where along the way, it was de­cided that the young boy should have a piano to play.

Said piano sits in Hamil­ton’s house in Del­gany to this day, with a per­for­mance pro­gramme from a show his dad was in­volved in back in the ’‘30s perched atop it. Af­ter the piano came the cello, and with it a place in the school orches­tra for the six years he was at Methodist Col­lege, whether he wanted one or not.

“And I ac­tu­ally came to the con­clu­sion not long af­ter I left school that I ac­tu­ally liked clas­si­cal mu­sic – be­cause I wasn’t do­ing it any more. I was now look­ing for it, buy­ing records in and around Belfast. I was do­ing it quite qui­etly. It would have done noth­ing for my street cred. There was a record store on Botanic Av­enue and I was an habitué of it and oth­ers, look­ing for nice clas­si­cal records to pick up on vinyl.

“Mozart was my first love. I’ve ex­panded since – as your tastes change and you lose your sweet tooth, you move into more chal­leng­ing things. I was afraid of Beethoven for a long time but I’m not any more.

“But I still love Mozart. I was driv­ing into Dublin yes­ter­day, lis­ten­ing to Niall Caroll on Lyric and he was play­ing the Over­ture to the Mar­riage of Fi­garo. And it is just the most joy­ous piece of mu­sic, a bril­liant piece of mu­sic. And as I was driv­ing down the N11, I was just go­ing, ‘That is just fan­tas­tic, I’m so glad to be lis­ten­ing to it.’”

But we’re get­ting ahead of our­selves a lit­tle, car­ried by the mu­sic. Go back to that house in Belfast and the lit­tle boy born in 1951. Be­ing an only child is more than just a bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail here. There was a free­dom in it for Hamil­ton, bound­aries set a lit­tle looser than his peers would have been used to.

One con­ces­sion was a ta­ble foot­ball game called New Footy – “A sort of a pre-cur­sor to Sub­bu­teo” – and be­cause there was fre­quently no other claim on the ter­ri­tory, he used to take over the kitchen ta­ble with it. When there’s no­body around to talk to, you’re never self-con­scious about talk­ing to your­self. Thus was the foot­ball com­men­ta­tor born.

“That’s ex­actly right,” he says. “Com­men­tat­ing came from that, talk­ing over the matches I was play­ing against my­self. There are loads of us. Fred Cog­ley, Ger Can­ning, Marty Mor­ris­sey, Jim Sher­win, Michael O’He­hir, me – we were all only chil­dren. When I worked in Eng­land, I came across oth­ers. Jim Neilly is an­other one. Roy Moore, the for­mer Ra­dio 2 DJ was an­other. I would think there is def­i­nitely some­thing in that.”

He skated through an arts de­gree in Queens, came out with French and Ger­man and no great plan as to what to do with them. A year in a school in West Ger­many cured him of any no­tion he had of be­ing a teacher. He was pretty much re­signed to par­lay­ing his de­gree into some sort of staid busi­ness ven­ture or other when, in an at­tempt to scratch an itch, he threw his name into the BBC to see if there was any sports work go­ing.

“There was this thing that I ba­si­cally wanted to cross off the list and it was sports com­men­tary. I wanted to have a go at get­ting into it, just so that I wouldn’t be sit­ting there in years to come and think­ing, ‘God, I loved do­ing those lit­tle foot­ball com­men­taries as a kid, why did I never even try to see was it a pos­si­bil­ity?’ So that’s what it was, as much as any­thing. It wasn’t an am­bi­tion, it was more, ‘Okay, let’s see if this is in any way pos­si­ble so I can sort of cross it off the list.’”

This was in early 1974. All the foot­ball gigs were sewn up but a va­cancy was open­ing up in rugby as a ra­dio com­men­ta­tor. A woman called Joy Williams, who would later go on to be­come head of sport, took him un­der her wing and told him he was to go to Twick­en­ham for the Eng­land v Ire­land Five Na­tions match and do a com­men­tary that would only be heard on a closed-cir­cuit broad­cast in the BBC.

He did so and by the Mon­day morn­ing he was sit­ting down with Cliff Mor­gan, the great Welsh com­men­ta­tor – he of the fa­mous Bar­bar­ians v New Zealand com­men­tary – to pick over what he’d got right and not so right. He was 24 years old and couldn’t be­lieve his luck. He got the nod from Mor­gan and that was that – a fort­night later he was in Lans­downe Road com­men­tat­ing on Ire­land’s 9-6 win over Scot­land.

Dif­fer­ent times. The BBC put him up in the Shel­bourne Ho­tel and on the day be­fore the game, Williams took him down to Trin­ity Col­lege to watch Scot­land go through the cap­tain’s run. At one point, she grabbed him by the el­bow and marched him over to be in­tro­duced to Bill McLaren, much against his will.

“I was hor­ri­fied – don’t be tak­ing me over to meet Bill McLaren, he doesn’t want to meet me! Joy wouldn’t hear of it. ‘Bill! Bill! I want you to meet my new boy.’ And of course, he had a big Hullo!

“I pre­sumed that would be that but a cou­ple of min­utes later, he ex­cused him­self from the com­pany he was in and turned to me and said, ‘So to­mor­row’s your first one, is it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah’ so he went, ‘Well come on down the touch­line with me here and we’ll have a chat.’”

It’s a lovely sur­prise. I am as­ton­ished re­ally that at this point in my life I have ended up with this sched­ule of com­mit­ments That’s ex­actly right. Com­men­tat­ing came from that, talk­ing over the matches I was play­ing against my­self Jimmy was huge wher­ever we went. Jimmy was so much more plugged into the GAA scene than me so he was mobbed wher­ever we went And David said, ‘Well, if you want to feel re­ally old. I was born ex­actly one week af­ter the Eng­land game in Stuttgart in 1988’

Masters of the game

And for the next short while, one of the great masters of the game gave a one-on-one tu­to­rial to a kid he’d only just been in­tro­duced to min­utes ear­lier. Hamil­ton’s head was spin­ning.

“‘I’m go­ing to tell you some­thing now,’ Bill said. ‘Don’t ever rely on the num­bers on the shirts to tell you who the play­ers are. Be­cause they don’t al­ways oblige you by turn­ing their back when you want to iden­tify them.’ And that was the start of it.

“I’ll never for­get it. The Scot­tish cen­tres at the time were Jim Ren­nick and Ian McGeechan and he pointed to them and he said, ‘This is the trick. Get in your head who they all are and then get into your head who they ac­tu­ally are. The first job is to know all the names, the sec­ond is to get a men­tal pic­ture of them all. So Ren­nick is the lit­tle fella with the baldy head and McGeechan has got the black hair. And see Ian McLough­lin, the prop? He walks like a bar­rel.’

“Then he took out of his pocket this thing that looked like an en­ve­lope. But it was four A4 pages all stuck to­gether. He said, ‘On Mon­day or Tues­day, I start up here (in the top left cor­ner) and I put the teams in. And then as the week goes on, I fill in more bits as I think of them. And I end up with four pages that I lay out in front of me be­fore the game starts.’

“I was look­ing at this, all colour-coded and with notes filled in ev­ery­where all over the four pages. And I said, ‘God Bill, that’s an amaz­ing piece of work. How are you ever go­ing to be able to get all that into the broad­cast?’ And he said, ‘I won’t. I’ll only get five per cent of it in. But I won’t know which five per cent un­til I need it.’ So that was it, from that day on, you had to be pre­pared to junk 95 per cent of all the work you do.”

That was 43 years ago. Hamil­ton’s ca­reer since has taken in 10 World Cups, 10 Olympic Games, count­less other events in count­less other coun­tries. Fred Cog­ley, who was then head of sport in RTÉ, sent him a let­ter in 1978 ask­ing would he be in­ter­ested in work­ing for them at that sum­mer’s World Cup; he wrote back say­ing he would be de­lighted to.

And that’s where it started, re­ally started. His first game for the ages was Scot­land v Hol­land in Mendoza, Archie Gem­mill’s slalom through the Dutch de­fence and all that. As the World Cups passed, he’d be in one half of the coun­try and Jimmy Magee would be in the other. They’d meet up even­tu­ally some­where along the way, even af­ter Jimmy re­tired. His death this sum­mer was the end of a road that left no box unticked and no itch un­scratched.


“Poor old Jimmy, that was just sadly the pas­sage of time,” Hamil­ton says. “He made it down to Rio for the World Cup in 2014. He was fund­ing him­self, ob­vi­ously he wasn’t work­ing. But RTÉ got him the ac­cred­i­ta­tion so he was able to go to a cou­ple of matches. “We started off in Sao Paolo and we moved up to Rio and we were stay­ing in the Olinda Ho­tel on Copaca­bana beach. We walked into the lobby and there was Jimmy sit­ting there with a pot of tea in front of him. ‘Ah, lads!” he shouted, de­lighted. I asked him how he was get­ting on and had the trip been okay and he said, ‘I had to go busi­ness class – at my time of life, the back of the plane is no place to be.’

“But that was his life. That was what he loved. He wanted to go to the World Cup in Brazil, even if it was only for a few days and a few matches. He got to the Mara­cana and loved it.” They were a duo for a long time. Know

Your Sport el­e­vated them to some­thing vaguely ap­proach­ing celebrity sta­tus across the 11 sea­sons it ran for. That said, Hamil­ton al­ways knew that the part­ner­ship com­prised, at most, 1½ stars.

“Jimmy was huge wher­ever we went. Jimmy was so much more plugged into the GAA scene than me so he was mobbed wher­ever we went. There was one time we were do­ing the Nis­san Clas­sic bike race and it started in Ken­mare that day and Jimmy was roy­alty down there. He was walk­ing along the in­side of the crush bar­rier and peo­ple were hang­ing over it get­ting him to sign au­to­graphs. They could hardly get the race started be­cause Jimmy was back there sign­ing au­to­graphs.

“It was amaz­ing. Know Your Sport lifted us both into some­thing else en­tirely. It evolved over time from be­ing a stu­dio-based show to one where they would take the OB Unit down to, say, Kilkenny for John Bow­man’s Ques­tions and An­swers on a Mon­day night and then they would leave the OB Unit there and we would do two shows on a Tues­day and two more on a Wed­nes­day. That’s how we took it on the road. And then we al­ways did the semis in Athlone be­cause that was in the cen­tre of the coun­try and so no­body would have to travel a very long way.

“It was com­ing out of light en­ter­tain­ment and then they went to spend the money on some­thing else. Tim O’Con­nor took it into sport then and kept it go­ing. But even­tu­ally, as the bur­geon­ing rights is­sue be­come more and more ex­pen­sive, it was done away with to save money.”


And so he goes. Copen­hagen tonight, Rus­sia next sum­mer what­ever hap­pens. He is the very em­bod­i­ment of Con Houli­han’s im­mor­tal line about miss­ing Italia ‘90 be­cause he was away at the World Cup. Hamil­ton has never been here for any of the great days or nights; he has al­ways been there. He has never known a pub to erupt at an Ir­ish goal, never seen the streets of Dublin af­ter a Gi­ants Sta­dium or a Lille.

That’s be­cause he has al­ways, al­ways been there. Take tonight in Copen­hagen. With­out get­ting overly dog­matic about it, we can say with a fair de­gree of con­fi­dence that no­body has been present for more ma­jor soc­cer tour­na­ment play-off matches than Ge­orge Hamil­ton. Cer­tainly no­body in Europe.

This will be the ninth time Ire­land have been in a play-off for a World Cup or Eu­ros – Hamil­ton has sat in sta­di­ums in Liver­pool, Brus­sels, Bursa, Tehran, Paris, Tallinn and Zenica for them. Tonight at the Parken will be his eighth time call­ing one of these twi­light do-or-die af­fairs. No other coun­try has been in more than six play-offs, most haven’t been in more than two. We al­ways end up here and we al­ways have the same tour guide.

Some­how, with­out any­one re­ally notic­ing, he be­came the el­dest statesman around. Dear old Jimmy went this year, Fred Cog­ley too. Ge­orge was al­ways a gen­er­a­tion younger but now there are a few gen­er­a­tions be­low him again. Last Sun­day, af­ter the Sec­ond Cap­tains’s lads had him in for a sit-down, he was talk­ing among the hacks ahead of the FAI Cup fi­nal at Lans­downe Road.

“One of the younger guys, David Sneyd of the Ir­ish Daily Mail, was across the ta­ble. He’d heard the pod­cast and said he liked it and I said some­thing along the lines of, ‘Well, for their 1,000th episode they clearly wanted some­one who was verg­ing on 1,000 years old him­self.’ And David said, ‘Well, if you want to feel re­ally old. I was born ex­actly one week af­ter the Eng­land game in Stuttgart in 1988.’ So there you go – he’s not yet 30 and I still think I’m 30.”

Age is mean­ing­less, of course – Mozart didn’t make it past 35.

Long may he play.


RTÉ com­men­ta­tor Ge­orge Hamil­ton: the Belfast man’s ca­reer has taken in 10 World Cups, 10 Olympic Games and count­less other events in count­less other coun­tries.

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