RTE commentator George Hamilton has been relaying action from sporting fields the world over for as long as he cares to remember, and with ‘Euro 2016’ kicking off in France this month, he shares some of his golden Irish sporting memories with Dave Devereux
As the European Championships kick starts a sensational sporting summer, a familiar voice will be beaming its way into sitting rooms the length and breadth of the country as RTÉ commentator George Hamilton eloquently describes the action as it unfolds.
A veteran of four decades in the broadcasting game, it’s clear that the man from Northern Ireland has lost none of his verve and passion as he heads into another major championship.
An only child, Hamilton grew up just off the Cregagh Road, not far from some other famous sons of Belfast: George Best, who was christened in the same church as him, and Van Morrison, who also lived within a stone’s throw of the future commentator.
He attended the Methodist College, the well known rugby school, and his passion for sport took firm root and began to blossom during his time there. A young George played rugby although, as he admits himself, not to any significant level, and also played first eleven cricket.
However, it was when he went to Queen’s University in Belfast, where he took a degree in Modern Languages (German and French), where sport began to really take hold, and he also utilised his skills for the administrative side of things.
‘When I went to Queen’s I went into sport in a bigger way. I was secretary of the soccer club at Queen’s for two of the years that I was there. That’s when I got to know (RTÉ broadcaster) Ger Canning because he was my equivalent in UCC, he was in the soccer club there. I’ve known him for a very, very long time,’ he said. It was during his time at Queen’s that the seeds were sown for a successful career in television and radio, although the fledgling broadcaster couldn’t possibly have envisaged the path it would take him on.
‘I suppose when I look back at it now it was my ambition to do that but I never thought that it might be possible. I had the opportunity to do an audition at the BBC in Belfast. At the time there was no full-time sport journalism available in the broadcast media, which is what I kind of half fancied doing so I got this audition which got me in to do match reports on a Saturday afternoon during my final year at Queen’s, and I did reports on rugby matches.
‘That kind of got me in the door and the following summer there was some freelance work when people were on their holidays and one thing led to another and I ended up on a contract as a continuity announcer, which also involved reading the news. I did that for a short period of time, then moved into a programme that would be the local equivalent of Morning Ireland called Good Morning Ulster.
‘I wanted to get into sport, but there wasn’t sufficient sport to make a living at it, so I carried on with the current affairs, doing sport whenever I could, and in the process had become a football commentator,’ he said.
George got his first real big break in 1978, when he was approached by RTÉ to join their team for the World Cup in Argentina.
‘I gave current affairs up when I had a chance to go full-time at football. That would have been in 1977. The following year RTÉ were heading for Argentina for the World Cup, which would have been their second World Cup – they had done ’74 in West Germany as it was then.
‘In 1978 they were being more ambitious and they needed more personnel. They had a commentator for television, Jimmy Magee, and a commentator for radio, Philip Greene, but that was it. They needed two more commentators. They sourced Billy George from what was then The Cork Examiner, but they were still stuck for one.
‘Mike Horgan, who was the team leader on the away trip to Argentina, suggested they might approach the fella who did it for the BBC in Belfast, which is what they did, and I ended up going to Argentina and when I came back they offered me a job.’
Since the World Cup in 1984 George has been working at every major championships, bar the 1984 Euros, as he had switched back to the BBC for a few years and the British station wasn’t covering the tournament as neither England, Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales had qualified.
However, it wasn’t long after that championship in ‘84 that George was winging his way to Dublin to get his teeth into a new adventure with RTÉ sport.
‘At that time Tim O’Connor had a vision for RTÉ TV sport which involved covering what were then First Division football matches live on Saturday afternoons, which of course was before Sky ever started, so he approached me to come back to RTÉ. With the prospect of doing that, which was effectively the same job I had in London but living in Ireland, I came back to RTÉ in November ‘84 and it went from there,’ he said.
Hamilton is responsible for uttering possibly the most famous words in Irish sporting history when he said ‘the nation holds its breath’ as David O’Leary stepped up to take what would be the winning penalty to send Ireland into the World Cup quarter-final and the commentator says that tournament holds a special place in his heart, although beating England in Stuttgart two years earlier trumps it for sheer elation.
‘My most memorable tournament is Italia ‘90 because of the whole drama of the thing but probably my most memorable match was the England match in Stuttgart, when they won 1-0. The first time for anything is always very special. The whole circumstances of that. The fact that I had lived in Germany during the course of my degree studies and had German friends and I actually had friends in Stuttgart.
‘The whole thing had come together as my ideal moment, which was commentating on Ireland beating England in Germany of all places, and in a town in Germany that I knew my way around and had friends in. If you could have written the script for how you’d like your finest moment, everything fell into place that day,’ he said.
This summer’s tournament in France holds extra resonance for Hamilton, with his native Northern Ireland, as well as the Republic involved, and he’s hoping for more positive memories to be weaved this time around.
‘Northern Ireland were in the ‘86 World Cup which I covered for RTÉ and were in the ‘82 World Cup, which I covered for BBC Radio in London, so I was there at their two most recent involvements. As a kid growing up in Belfast obviously that would have been my team then, but I had the misfortune of commentating on both their eliminations in 1982 and in 1986, although the ‘86 one was a great occasion because it was Brazil that finished them off. It was Pat Jennings’ last match and it was his birthday,’ he said.
Hamilton’s sporting acumen isn’t reserved to football and he loves to broaden the spectrum with his trips to cover the Olympics every four years, although one of his lasting memories from the seismic spectacle is actually away from the track, where his degree in languages came in very handy.
‘One thing that really stands out for me is the 1988 100 metres when Ben Johnson beat Carl Lewis and it subsequently came out he’d been on the dope. That was funny from a broadcasting point of view because I covered the press conference in which it was announced from a booth in Seoul.
‘With French being the official language of the Olympic movement the conference was being conducted in French and I was doing my best to commentate it as best I knew, but letting them speak, but they were only speaking in French.
‘Max Mulvihill was the producer back in Dublin and he knew I had languages and he just came into the talk back and said “if you have any idea what they’re saying just translate it as you go along, just get the gist of it and it will keep us going”. So I did my one and only burst of simultaneous translation, which wasn’t the easiest because the name of the drug was featuring quite a lot and it meant nothing to me. I’m not a pharmacist, or scientist or chemist or anything like that,’ he said.
‘So I continued on doing the best I could and I was obviously making sense. It was the biggest news story going on at the time. Unbeknownst to me RTÉ was carrying this press conference more or less in its entirety when the BBC and ITV pulled away because it was in French and they didn’t happen to have the simultaneous translator. I made the front page of the now defunct Irish Press in what a coup it was for RTÉ that they managed to keep this press conference going, when the big boys across the water had to pull away and talk about it in the studio. That was a big moment,’ he said.
Hamilton took piano lessons and played cello in the school orchestra in his formative years in Belfast and he gets to explore one his other great passions in life – music – on his Lyric FM show The Hamilton Scores.
‘It’s a total labour of love. At the start the idea was it would be like a football match, 90 minutes long on Saturday, but it would principally be about where I had been and tie in the music with that, but then it expanded to 120 minutes, like a football match with extra-time, and then expanded like a penalty shoot-out, it went to three hours, and it’s now on Sundays as well,’ he said.
Hamilton had a health scare in August 2011 when he was rushed to St Vincent’s Hospital from the Blackrock Clinic in Dublin to undergo emergency by-pass surgery after informing his GP that he couldn’t breathe properly, but fortunately everything worked out well and, having made a full recovery, he was back on the airwaves by December.
‘Everything is fine thankfully. It was a very strange experience to have but medical science is a wonderful thing. You have to do what they tell you after surgery like that, but if you do it all works out. The professor said “this is serious but it’s fixable and we’re going to fix it”.
‘When a medic tells you that you know he’s seen it before, so you just say fair enough, go for it. I’ve never had an operation of that significance before. I was fearful but the professor reassured me enormously. They know what they’re doing and he was right, and that was nearly five years ago,’ he said.
Hamilton married his second wife Linda in the summer of 2013 and the couple have five children and three grandchildren between them, and although the 66-year-old commentator has been relaying action from sporting fields the world over for as long as he cares to remember, the burning passion for the job still rages as strongly as ever and retirement is something that is far from his thoughts.
‘I still enjoy it. If I thought I wasn’t able to do it as well as I used to do it, I wouldn’t do it. I’ve no plans to retire, because I haven’t been asked to,’ he laughed.
‘I think we’re very fortunate in the game that we’re in. You look at all broadcasting stations and there seems to be quite an age spread between people like me and beyond me and people at the other end. And I must say I think the two go together very well, the impetuosity of youth and maybe the experience of the older ones when you put them together is a nice mix and the whole business of broadcasting, be it radio or television, is you and I as the consumer has to be comfortable with who is speaking to us. I’m happy to keep on doing it as long as they want me because I enjoy the broadcasting game. It’s all I’ve ever done,’ he said.
Hamilton has certainly seen a lot of changes in his time in front of the microphone and broadcasting has become an entirely different animal over the past four decades.
‘It’s a completely different world and a different world in the way we do it. We’re very much outsiders now, where Euro ‘88 for example we were very much part of the fabric. It was almost as if we were part of Jack Charlton’s team.
‘We stayed in the same hotels, played tennis with Niall Quinn in Stuttgart – that kind of thing. You were that close to them, almost like part of the team.
‘It’s all changed now. Of course money makes a big difference and pulls down the shutters between you and them. You can only get at them now through media officers and press conferences and so on.’
The chasm may have widened between the players and the media but, with his warm style, Hamilton certainly has the knack of bridging the gap between commentator and viewer down to a tee. ■