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Dublin: 16 °C Wednesday 23 April, 2014

Danger here… TheScore meets George Hamilton

RTE’s best-loved commentator sat down for a nostalgic look back at his distinguished career and fond memories behind the mic earlier this week.

Image: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

HE HAS APPEARED at more European Championships than Edwin van der Sar and has more World Cup games under his belt than Pele.

He was yards away when Houghton stuck the ball in the English net in Stuttgart, Bonner saved from Daniel Timofte in Genoa and McGrath bossed the Italians at the Giants Stadium.

George Hamilton has been, without a doubt, the voice of Irish football for a couple of generations now.

The long-serving RTE commentator, busy preparing for his Euro 2012 departure when we caught up with him earlier in the week, will be attending his seventeenth major tournament in Poland and Ukraine but hasn’t lost a shred of the enthusiasm he felt when he first donned the headset and picked up the microphone over 30 years ago.

“It’s just amazing to be part of this thing and to know that so many people are interested in it and want to involved in it,” 60-year-old Hamilton says.

“The old cliche, if you stop being excited by it then you shouldn’t be there. A team that you’re closely involved with will always excite you. It is a very special occasion when they come out onto the pitch, the anthem is played and off they go. It still feels very edgy.”

Originally from Belfast, Hamilton got his first taste of working on televised sport with the BBC. There  only on a part-time basis at the time, he was also doing an MBA and heading towards a career in management when he realised that wasn’t the right path for him.

Looking back, it (commentating) was something I had always wanted to do. I suppose you follow the career advice your given thinking you’ll end up doing this or that. Once in the door at the BBC, it became apparent that I didn’t want to go into an office every morning and solve everyone elses problems. One thing just led to another and I ended up here (at RTE) at the right time.”

After an initial two years, he spent another four with the Beeb in London. Late in 1984, however, a number of changes in the sports department saw him return to Ireland and apply for a job with the national broadcaster.

What was to follow was the most successful period in the history of the beautiful game in Ireland. As Hamilton admits himself, he was in the right place at the right timr. During Eoin Hand’s last game in charge of the team, he was sent to Wembley to report on the qualifier between Northern Ireland and England, while the great Jimmy Magee was tasked with “doing the funeral rites on Hand’s reign”, as he puts it.

Played in the afternoon due to the fact that floodlights had not yet been installed at Lansdowne Road, Ireland were badly beaten, 4-1,by Denmark. Their northern counterparts held out for a 0-0 draw and with it a place in the 1986 World Cup.

“So Eoin was let go, I went to Mexico having seen Northern Ireland qualify that night and Jack Charlton was appointed that February. That was the start of it. I got very lucky because they do say that timing is everything and clearly the timing of my return to RTE coincided with that and off we went.”

The Charlton era

Fans may not have taken to Chartlon immediately, (“there were banners in the grounds saying ‘Go home Jack’ in the begging”), but the early negativity was quickly forgotten when, with a little help from Scotland, Ireland qualified for their first ever major competition.

Ireland had finished up their campaign and all that was left was the meeting of Bulgaria and Scotland. Hamilton, travelling on the same plane as the Scottish team, was sent to Sofia but was expecting another ‘nearly-men’ story to add to the history books. The thing was, a young midfielder making his debut, named Gary Mackay, hadn’t read the script.

“We covered the match because there was real interest,” he recalls. “It was going to be another case of nearly making it, or a bad refereeing decision or missed chances. We had to be there for when it all unravelled once more but it didn’t and it was very dramatic.

“I remember vividly that there was a foul committed on the far side and the referee played advantage. Those were the days that players didn’t go down at the very touch and the Scot battled on and Mackay scored the goal off an advantage played.

“It was quite an astonishing performance from the Scots to do that with nothing at stake. We came back that night with the team and it was just an astonishing thing to be a part of. They were delighted for what they had done for the Irish. People like Packie Bonner were team-mates of some of the players and he actually came to the airport to meet the plane.”

So Ireland were one of eight teams competing in Euro ’88 and Hamilton, along with editor Mike Horgan, producer Steven Alkin, and the late Vere Wynne Jones as reporter would be there to witness every moment. Magee, meanwhile, would be sent to various destinations around Germany covering other games.

Credit: INPHO/Getty Images

For many fans, it was a first experience in a foreign land. Hamilton, on the other hand, was a fluent German-speaker who had lived there for a year and conveniently had friends in Stuttgart. One such friend allowed him to get an exclusive with the chief of police in the build-up to Ireland’s opener with England.

“There was no 24-hour Sky at that time but BBC and ITV were covering it. Of course the first game was against England and there was a potential for trouble. They wanted to interview the chief of police but were both batted back. My friend who worked for south German radio, said he’d find out what the problem was and came back to me.

“The basis is he doesn’t speak English so they didn’t think of going with an interpreter whereas I could interview him. I did the translation and  Mikey did the voice over.”

Images of the Neckarstadion on that scorching day in June remain vivid.

“The weather was wonderful, the fans were in the town for the whole weekend because the match was a Sunday. I’d been at European and World championships before but to see the sea of green, it struck me that Irish people only ever had the chance to congregate in an All-Ireland and things like that but this was the only time that they could put on the Irish shirt together.

“Rugby at that time didn’t have the following that it does now and the replica jersey  thing was relatively recent and it was just an amazing sight to see.”

On the pitch, Houghton’s header looped over Shilton six minutes in and the lads did the business. A draw and a 1-0 defeat against eventual finalists the Soviet Union and Holland managed to capture the imagination of the nation.

It was a huge watershed. At the time we used to stay with the team and the hotel was small one in a forest outside Stuttgart. When we got back, we couldn’t get into the hotel because of the amount of fans who had turned up. It was absolutely overrun. It wouldn’t happen these days as the players are closeted away but it was party time. Everybody knew and Jack just let them at it for the night.

“We were never thinking that we were going to win the tournament but just see how far we could go was the attitude because it had never been done before. When they look back at it they say they won the game they should have lost, lost the game they should have drawn and drew the game they should have won.

“Now it wouldn’t have made any difference ultimately as the results would’ve ended up the same and they would have been out but they were able to look back on it at the end and say it was the two teams from our group that contested the final.

“Then of course after that, it raised the bar and they had to achieve. They did it in Italy, they were denied by a very late goal by Sweden, they did it in ’94 and what ended it was a play-off game in for Euro ’96. He consistently delivered at that level. That was a very special era for Irish football.”

On the mend

Last August, Hamilton was forced to take an extended break from the job that he quite clearly loves so dearly because of a health scare stemming from a ruptured valve in his heart. Thankfully the problem, which actor Robin Williams also had, was repairable.

“It wasn’t the normal kind of heart attack or bypass, it was a mechanical breakdown. RTE were brilliant. Nobody’s indispensible, we all know that… or at least should know that. They said ‘ we’ll be carrying on until you came back, when the medics tell you to come back.’

“So I had the operation in August. I returned to work leading into Christmas but I have only got into my old routine again since the start of February.”

“I missed it. It was very hard to watch the matches. There is no point beating yourself up about it because then you will never get back.

“The important thing was getting better and then to resume because they kept the seat warm for me and off I went.”

Eager to get back but cautious not to return before he was ready, Hamilton is in top form once again and all set to depart for Poland on Wednesday. And with a bit of luck, we’ll be hearing gems such as this one over the next month:

Real Madrid are like a rabbit in the glare of the headlights in the face of Manchester United’s attacks. But this rabbit comes with a suit of armour in the shape of two precious away goals.”

VIDEO: Stunning timelapse footage from Ireland’s Euro 2012 send-off game

VIDEO: An animated history of Irish football

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