FOR many, George Hamilton is the quintessential voice of Irish football.
The Belfast man’s job as chief football commentator for RTÉ sport means his Ulster accent has informed and entertained Irish sports fans through the ups and downs of the national team.
As the undisputed voice of Irish football, Hamilton’s evocative and famous commentary is familiar to millions of people.
The Ulster man, now 71, has commented on some of the sport’s key moments over the past five decades – Jack Charlton’s success as Ireland’s manager, George Best’s return to the international service for Northern Ireland, Pat Jennings demonstrating why he was considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world.
Hamilton has captured the rippling fortunes of Irish sport for generations of fans, since he first took the mic in the mid-seventies.
RTÉ’s chief football commentator has seen it all – not just football: he’s behind the microphone for a wide range of sports, from rugby to cycling, and has been on the pitch, at the edge of the track or around the boxing ring at the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and World Championships in almost all disciplines.
During his career, Hamilton met the football aristocracy – Pelé, Cryuff, Eusebio, Cantona and of course George Best; he was baptized in the same Presbyterian church in east Belfast as Best.
The Irish Academic Press has just published Hamilton’s memoir A Nation Holds Its Breath.
The title comes from the 1990 World Cup.
The scene: it’s Romania against Ireland. David O’Leary has been given the responsibility of taking the penalty that could send Ireland to the World Cup quarter-finals. This kick can decide everything.
“The nation is holding its breath…” Hamilton intones as O’Leary steps forward to shoot.
After an excruciating wait he returns home
“Yes, there we are! Hamilton shouts.
A Nation Holds Its Breath traces Hamilton’s fascinating journey from his upbringing in Protestant east Belfast, his early years at Queen’s University with the Troubles as a backdrop, to his inspiration by another Irish sports commentator, Eamonn Andrews.
As a young boy, Hamilton would be fascinated by the BBC’s Light program on a Saturday. This station provided second-half commentary on a top English League game, followed by Sports Report, presented by Andrews – set to become one of Britain’s biggest radio and television stars .
In addition to his sporting duties, Hamilton also finds time to host a classical music show on RTÉ Lyric FM, The Hamilton Scores.
Hamilton is a very capable musician and was for a time Principal Cellist in the orchestra of his school in Belfast, Methodist College.
“My father had a great voice and sang regularly with local musical societies.
I still have the schedule for an appearance at the Grand Opera House in Belfast. My mother could hold a note too, so there was always a lot of singing in the house.
They wanted me to make the most of any musical talent I had, so they signed me up for piano lessons.
From there, there was a progression to stringed instruments and eventually the cello.
We can truly say that George Hamilton has more than one string to his bow.
Sports commentators are often targeted, even criticized, for their use of clichés, mixed metaphors and in general a tortured use of language.
There’s even a section dedicated to slip-up comments in Private Eye called Colemanballs.
But the criticism from sports commentators is a bit unfair. These broadcasters are the last bastion of live broadcasting, the only ones who have to compose on the fly.
Talk shows are pre-recorded; news readers, presenters and the like have pressure cookers, news interviewers know exactly what their guests (or victims) need to be interviewed about.
But sports commentators have to improvise as they go, comment on the unexpected, unravel for the viewer or listener exactly what is going on, no matter what is happening on the sports field, field, field or court. track.
And no better at that than George Hamilton
Sports humor website DangerHere.com takes its title from another Hamilton quote: “And Bonner came into these championships for 165 minutes without conceding a goal. Oh, danger here …”
They call him The King of the Jinx on the website because they feel his “there is danger here” often portends a goal against the Republic.
For those of you unfamiliar with Hamilton’s reviews, here’s a taste of his style:
“And Ireland must contain the Baggio brothers.” [Later in the game…] “The Baggio brothers, of course, are not related”
“When I said they scored two goals, of course I meant they scored one”
“You can trace it all back to Boumsong’s razor-sharp clearance, which led to a throw-in, which led to a free kick, which led to a corner kick, which led to a goal.”
“Dick Advocaat [the Dutch manager] is Dick the dope! They had two goals ahead but whoa ho ho, they missed it all!
“Kevin Moran, the oldest man on the pitch today…. 35 years. Of course, the referee could be older than that… and technically he is also on the field… again, his linesmen could be even older than him… but are they technically “on” the field?
“I might be tempting fate but I don’t see the Poles scoring… OH NOOOON they just got !!”
“A victory is a victory is a victory. And if you want to win, you need a goal… Italy only have zero in Podgorica. It’s Kishichev, Petrov… oh noooo.
George Hamilton’s book The Nation Holds its Breath is out now, published by Merrion Press.