George Hamilton: The voice of a nation and that day in Genoa
Thirty years ago today, the Republic of Ireland knocked out Romania after a penalty shoot-out in Italia 90 and RTE commentator George Hamilton's words were immortalised. Here, the Belfast-born voice of RTE sport speaks to Brendan Crossan about his career and that unforgettable day in Genoa...
IF someone’s got a script, it’s going to sound scripted. And, if spontaneity is key it’s very difficult to define the imponderable art of great sports commentary.
For the best part of five decades, Belfast-born George Hamilton has been painting the most majestic pictures for TV viewers.
Like referees who make all the right calls and add to the enjoyment of a game, sports commentators – at least the really great ones - say all the right things at the right times.
Sometimes saying nothing is part of the gig too.
Thirty years ago today in the sweltering early-evening heat of Genoa, the inimitable George Hamilton was perched high in the Luigi Ferraris Stadium press tribune making a gallant stab at perfection.
‘The nation holds its breath…’
Immortal words, his immortalised words, just as David O’Leary ran up to slot home the winning penalty to knock out Romania and book the Republic of Ireland’s place in the World Cup finals at Italia ’90.
RTE were lucky to have two of the finest commentators on their payroll at the same time – the late Jimmy Magee and Hamilton himself.
Speaking from his Belmont home in Belfast last weekend and grappling with being grounded, his modesty gets in the way of him trying explain the constituent parts of his craft.
“The key for me is spontaneity,” he says matter-of-factly.
“First and foremost, everybody can see what’s on the screen. Your job is to embellish the picture as best you can, and the first thing you don’t do is state the obvious. You’re trying to offer insights that the person looking at the two-dimensional screen cannot have. The fact that you have sight of the whole arena gives you the opportunity to do that.
“If someone has got a script, it’s going to sound scripted.
“The fact that I’m wearing headphones and I’m holding a microphone, I am aware of the responsibility of that moment.
“It’s very hard to describe. It’s not like a tennis player bouncing the ball 13 times before he serves but [in Genoa] I’m pretty sure I was in a place of heightened awareness through that penalty shoot-out. That’s where those phrases come from, like: ‘The nation holds its breath,’ and all that. As a commentator you’re striving at every moment to get things right.”
A lover of classical music – Hamilton hosts the hugely popular ‘Hamilton Scores’ on RTE Lyric FM every Saturday and Sunday morning – he happily uses a jazz analogy in breaking the question down.
“The best example or parallel is from the world of music. It’s like a jazz improvisation, because you know where you started and you know how you’re going to end it, but it’s actually getting there. You listen to Oscar Peterson or somebody going off on a riff, the soloist takes over; everybody else is aware of the framework but you have to trust the soloist to get you to that point.
“Of course, we’ve only one commentator and it’s me that’s doing the interpreting.
“You have the experience of doing it and you know what you’re trying to achieve – if that’s not too pompous a way of putting it – because it’s kind of in-the-moment journalism.”
As the Irish media remembers the dreamy days of Italia ’90 and indeed other unforgettable summers involving the Green Army, the Irish Independent newspaper ran a slick promotional ad of the soaked-in-nostalgia articles lined up for the following week’s editions, under the heading: ‘A nation holds its breath.’
Only an occasional tweeter, George replied with a humorous emoji: ‘Ah lads, it was ‘The Nation’…
ARGENTINA 1978. The boy from the top of Cregagh Road is in dreamland.
George Hamilton is finding the words in the Estadio Ciudad de Mendoza to describe Archie Gemmill’s slalom run through the Dutch defence and chipped finish that gives the Scots hope of advancing beyond the group stages of the World Cup.
Although he was working for BBC London in ’78, Hamilton received a letter from RTE Head of Sport Fred Cogley inviting him to be one of their commentators in Argentina.
Hamilton replied saying he’d be delighted to.
“The way they decided to cover the ‘78 World Cup was with four commentators because it was such a vast logistical operation in Argentina and it was probably cheaper to send four people and base them in four different locations instead of moving around a lot...
“I was sent to Mendoza which gave me access to matches involving Scotland, Brazil and Holland. I was very, very lucky.
“I read World Soccer magazine as a kid and I was fascinated by South America – and here I am, in South America, Argentina, covering football matches. I’m a World Cup groupie now and I can’t wait for the next one.”
Four years later, he made it back-to-back World Cup appearances in the commentator's box, covering among others Scotland and Northern Ireland’s Spanish odysseys for the BBC.
“That was my first experience of the whole of the World Cup, not just six matches,” he says.
Hamilton commentated on the third/fourth placed play-off match (France versus Poland) and watched from the comfort of his living room in Wimbledon Italy beating West Germany in the final.
BORN in 1951, George’s parents were musical. His father sang professionally and his mother every bit his equal.
They encouraged their son to play piano and cello. He was schooled at Methodist College before heading off to Queen’s to study German and French.
In an Irish Times interview in 2017, he told Malachy Clerkin that being an only child probably led him in the general direction of sports commentary.
“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. Jim Neilly is another one. I would think there is definitely something in that.”
He spent a year teaching in West Germany before returning home and throwing his CV into the BBC in 1974.
From that moment on, his career was mapped out.
By the time the 1986 World Cup finals in Mexico came around he was working for RTE full-time.
He remembers vividly staring up at the imposing Azteca stadium in Mexico City ready to commentate on his first-ever World Cup final.
“We had a boss at the time, Tim O’Connor – he was responsible for bringing me back to Dublin in ’84 – and at the final it was just Jimmy [Magee], me and Tim.
“So, we’re approaching the Azteca and Tim is driving the hired car. He wasn’t a man who suffered fools gladly, nor was he a man who would take instructions from minions. So we arrived with our car passes and we were being directed to some far-away field. Tim blithely ignored the gun-toting Mexican police and stewards and just kept driving. And it worked. We ended up in a car park that was meant for VIPs. We’re now looking up at this vast bulk of the Azteca and I remember exactly what I said: ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’
“In three hours’ time, everybody in the world will be watching TV, they’ll be looking at what’s going on in that stadium and I’ll be in there commentating on the final.
APPROACHING three score and 10 and going on 31, Italia ’90 is close if not top of the pile of the 20-plus major championships Hamilton has covered.
He fell in love with Argentina in ’78 because it was his first World Cup; ’82 and ’86 were special too while the 2006 finals, supremely hosted by Germany, would be in his top two if he was ever forced to rank them.
Hamilton knew Jack Charlton long before Euro ’88 and Italia ’90 as the pair had commentated together on a couple of games during the Belfast man’s Radio Two days in the early 80’s.
After Euro ’88, Charlton was seen as the saviour of the Irish national team. Ireland’s performances at their debut finals in West Germany may have been viewed through a soft lens, but the focus two years later in Italy had an altogether sharper edge to it.
“In the early days, I went to press conferences because we stayed in the same hotel as the team. It was always like we were part of the party – it would be rude not to go. If you’re in the bar and Jack Charlton is buying you a drink, but you won’t come and listen to him in his press conference… so it was kind of part of the deal.
“And you would have stopped to talk to the players and got to know them as people. There was an access then that there isn’t now.”
After the Irish had grabbed a 1-1 draw with England in their group opener in Cagliari, courtesy of a sweetly struck Kevin Sheedy equaliser, the side laboured to a desperate scoreless draw with minnows Egypt in neighbouring Palermo.
In the immediate aftermath, Irish journalist Eamonn Dunphy said he was ‘ashamed to be Irish’ and became an unyielding critic of Charlton and the team’s direct style of play.
When Dunphy attempted to ask a question at Charlton’s pre-match press conference ahead of the make-or-break showdown with Holland, the Ireland manager accused Dunphy of not being a ‘proper journalist’ and walked out of the room.
“The press conferences became quite fractious,” Hamilton recalls.
From an Irish perspective, Italia ’90 sorely lacked the drama and excitement of Euro ’88 - up until beanpole striker Niall Quinn pounced on a shoddy piece of goalkeeping from Hans van Breukelen to cancel out Ruud Gullit’s earlier strike.
A 1-1 draw guaranteed both the Irish and Dutch a rite of passage to the knock-out stages with neither side threatening the other’s goal in the final 20 minutes.
The Irish camp could breathe out again having gone one step further than Euro ’88.
Gheorge Hagi and Romania awaited the Irish in Genoa on Monday June 25 1990.
FOR every editor, producer and journalist, big sporting events can be logistical nightmares. Everyone tentatively assumed the Green Army would suffer another glorious failure and be back on home soil as soon the group stages had concluded in Italy.
Hamilton and his RTE crew were up in Milan before making a 100-mile detour south to Genoa for the Ireland-Romania game.
“As we drove down, one of us said we should get a bottle of champagne if everything goes well, so we stopped and bought a bottle of cheap plonk.
“I remember the drive down to Genoa was a very jovial journey because we were a couple of lads enjoying the World Cup on a beautiful sunny day.
“Against regulations, the bottle of plonk sat in my bag beside me in the commentary area.”
Romania experienced a bit of turbulence during the group stages down in Naples and Bari but qualified in second spot behind Cameroon while Argentina claimed the third qualifying berth.
Hagi (25) was at the peak of his powers during Italia ’90 and even outshone the great Diego Maradona in their 1-1 draw in Naples.
The hugely under-rated Romanians had quality in most areas of the field.
Ioan Sabau was proving a skilled midfield partner of Hagi’s while not much got past Georghe Popescu and Ioan Lupescu at the back.
The Luigi Ferraris Stadium, home of Italian clubs Genoa and Sampdoria, was one of the smaller venues used during Italia ’90. Immediately recognisable for its orange brick pillars in each corner, they resembled holiday apartment blocks with Irish tricolours draped all around them.
In the opening 20 minutes, Hagi was uncontainable, popping up on the right and left-hand channels, with the elusive Sabau scuffing one great chance wide of Packie Bonner’s upright.
Striker Gavril Ballint also tested the Donegal man’s reflexes, but soon Mick McCarthy brought some order to the defence, Chris Morris and Steve Staunton sensed when to push forward from their full-back positions and Paul McGrath was the midfield protector.
Kevin Sheedy threatened a couple of times down Romania’s right hand side and Niall Quinn and Tony Cascarino – the latter a first half substitute for John Aldridge who got injured after trying to take a lump out of Hagi – were resourceful and trusted outlets up front.
Romania’s early adventure was soon strangled and the game degenerated into a dire spectacle.
“It was 120 pretty awful minutes of football,” Hamilton recalls. “You just sensed Hagi was going to do something, they’d get a goal – a bit like Schillaci did in the resultant quarter-final - and that would be that.
“There was never a feeling Ireland were in control, never a feeling that they might actually win this. But then it got into extra-time and penalties…”
Hagi and Sheedy confidently blasted their spot-kicks to the roof of the net. Lupu and Houghton also converted with aplomb.
Each time, though, Bonner guessed the right way but Rotariu’s – and Romania’s third penalty – was just too good.
As the tension mounted, Townsend, Lupescu and Cascarino held their nerve before Daniel Timofte – an extra-time substitute – was denied by Bonner.
The Luigi Ferraris Stadium erupted. It had come down to this – one fateful kick from David O’Leary and the greatest chapter in Irish football history was about to be written.
“We were on Network Two, which was RTE2. It’s now just after six o’clock Irish time and we’re heading towards the shoot-out and somebody says in my ear that the Six One News is going to be with you for the shoot-out...
“There is nothing else on the TV only this because there only are two stations in Ireland. So the whole country has to be watching. During the shoot-out, I had this image of people in sitting rooms and bars in God knows where watching this because it’s all that matters.
“So when the moment arrives and O’Leary puts the ball down to take the penalty, I just said those words: ‘The nation holds its breath.’
“He scores the penalty and then there is silence from the commentary box because at that moment Tom Flanagan and I were doing a little jig.
“Any commentator will tell you at that moment you shouldn’t be talking because the crowd will carry the emotion and the audience will be reacting in their own way, so anything that you say won’t be heard anyway.
“In that moment of heightened delight, you just step away… and then your experience will tell you when to come back in.”
The smuggled bottle of champagne didn’t go to waste either. Or maybe it did.
Hamilton remembers walking in an underground tunnel to reach the other side of the stadium to get reaction from the Irish camp.
“The request was made for the two boys – Packie Bonner and David O’Leary. I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt – very fashionable for the time and for high summer!
“We did the interview and of course this bottle of fizz that was sitting in the boot of the car in the height of an Italian summer – three or four hours in the heat – so it wasn’t chilled! It might actually have gone off. (laughing).
“During the interview we poured the drinks and we toasted David and Packie. Then, one looked at the other and they proceeded to pour some of the fizz over my head.”
Beneath a scorching Italian sun, the Green Army were in heaven.
The endless delights of Rome awaited the travelling Irish in their first-ever World Cup quarter-final against hosts Italy.
But, deep down, everyone knew Genoa would take some beating.
Thirty years on, memories of Italia ’90 and Ireland’s amazing odyssey remain pristine as ever.
And the timeless George Hamilton - the consummate voice - sure he only added to the magic…