The unique career of George Hamilton and how it all began
Belfast man on becoming a legendary soccer commentator and classical music DJ
George Hamilton at Greystones Golf Club on Tuesday. “I am astonished really that at this point in my life I have ended up with this schedule of commitments.” Photograph: Cyril Byrne
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.
There was this thing that I basically wanted to cross off the list and it was sports commentary
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.’”
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.