Still far from out of breath: George Hamilton


THERE was little about Rochester Avenue that suggested it would play home to the voice that would attach itself to the good days and bad of Irish soccer.

The enclave of 75-odd semi-detached, two storey houses built on the last fringe of World War II was not a place where Republic of Ireland matches were a matter of great public interest.

Just off the Upper Cregagh Road, this was the heart of east Belfast.

When the influx of new families arrived in the late 1940s, the war was just ended and people no longer lived by ration.

Jim and Gretta Hamilton bought a house there in 1948, their only son George would arrive two years later.

There was one Catholic family on the street, the Devlins. The rest were largely Methodists.

The Hamiltons were Presbyterians.

George Hamilton has never shied away from what or who he is. Rightly, he’s never felt it to be an issue.

His new book, The Nation Holds Its Breath, is not four pages old when he delves into his family’s background.

“The reason it’s so heavy on the autobiographical aspect at the outset is the reason you’ve outlined – it’s not a script somebody would have come up with,” he says of the idea of becoming the voice of RTÉ’s coverage of the Republic’s soccer team.

His paternal grandmother hailed from Tempo in county Fermanagh, while his mother was a native of what would become the notoriously loyalist Shankill Road.

“She was the product of a mixed marriage, where her parents had to elope to Glasgow to be able to live in any sort of peace.”

George’s upbringing was a contented one, with the traditional childhood misunderstanding of why doing anything on Sundays was strictly forbidden.

“Sunday was when we went to church, the three of us, and then there was Sunday School, a group of similarly-aged kids with a lay preacher who took a class.

“We sat around the church hall in our groups as we were being taught cataclysm and Biblical stories. The only thing about a Sunday that was like any other day in our house was that we got a Sunday newspaper.

“You didn’t do anything on a Sunday other than maybe go for a walk. That was the Sabbath day. It wasn’t down-your-throat religion, just observance.

“Real life was for six days, and on Sundays you put on your best clothes, went to church, maybe a walk in the afternoon but you didn’t cut the grass, you didn’t wash the car, you didn’t do any housework of any description, and you didn’t go out to buy anything – not that there were any shops open! There was a very different flavour to a Sunday in east Belfast. Nothing happened.

“Nobody was out playing on a Sunday in the street because that wasn’t done.”

His parents settled into urban living and in what he describes as “Ulster-Scots pragmatism, I suppose”, they were like a lot of families around them in having only one child.

In his own recently-published autobiography, Hamilton’s RTE colleague Marty Morrissey delves into life as an only child.

His parents had no siblings just as he had none, and he talks of the coping mechanisms he developed.

“When you live in an apartment on your own, you live in your own imaginary world. I was a bus driver. I had a plate and a cap which the bus drivers in New York wore. So, I would drive around the apartment in my head and physically. I had a Superman outfit and I would drive off the bed and I pretended to be Superman. I kept myself entertained,” Morrissey said in a recent Sunday Independent interview.

Hamilton’s childhood was different but the same.

“There were a lot of only children around me. There were probably half-a-dozen on the street alone that I knew, and it was the best part of 100 houses so you didn’t know every family.

“But my best friend on the street, Peter Blaikie, was an only child. One across the road from him, Ronnie Warwick, was an only child. Ronnie Millican across the street was an only child. Arlene Thompson down the road… yeah, there were a lot of them.

“I wouldn’t say the fact I was an only child meant I was stuck alone all the time. I was out a lot, out on the street. I’d half-a-dozen close friends and we knocked about together. I didn’t really feel like an only child.”

His cousin Stuart McMurray, Fred’s son, felt like a brother. He was six years older and the pair spent most afternoons together at their grandmother’s house as they waited for their parents to collect them after work.

Aside from Saturday’s in her father’s home bakery, George’s mother did book-keeping for Arthur Morrow’s timber agency at the bottom of the Albert Bridge Road, run by “a lovely man” Willie John Harper, with whom Hamilton would spend a late teenage year travelling to all Glentoran’s away games.

He was also responsible for giving life to the dream.

The company was upgrading its typewriter and he gave the outgoing model to George’s mother. That became his Christmas present and allowed him to explore his fascination with print journalism.

His father had a variety of jobs that ended up with a Civil Service role. He started working at just “13 or 14” when his own father died very young, taking a job as a packer in a linen company along the Dublin Road.

“For the rest of his life, if you wanted a parcel wrapped, he was the man. When I was in Germany for the year, he would send me two specific newspapers – the Thursday night Belfast Telegraph, which had a column by Barry White, a political writer I admired at the time, and The Sunday News, a now defunct paper.

“They had John D Stewart, a liberal, left-wing political commentator, and Patrick Riddle, an eracible old geezer who wrote angry columns. I liked reading them.

“My father would send me the papers on a Monday and they came packed up in the neatest parcel, and they’d arrived every Thursday or Friday.”

Yet as a boy, it would be to Cliftonville he would go for his formative footballing experience.

There, his father was a former player. They’re still hunting for the front-page picture from the Belfast Telegraph’s sport section on the Monday morning after he scored a hat-trick for the club.

“A trip to Solitude…was a small boy’s heaven,” he writes in the book.

His uncle Fred McMurray was a renowned cricketer, while Tom McMurray – “he was like my uncle, but he wasn’t my actual uncle” – played full-time football for Millwall, Tranmere Rovers and Rochdale who once played cricket for England.

George’s own playing days didn’t extend much beyond playing rugby at Methody College and a bit of soccer for Queen’s when he was studying there.

It was as a young teenager that his subconscious left him to move away from supporting Cliftonville and swap them for Glentoran.

“It was only when I was at Methody and teenage angst set in, I couldn’t expose myself to the potential ridicule of following a team that never won.

“Guys around me supported Linfield and Crusaders and teams that won the odd trophy.

“There was a period of fundamental reassessment that had to go on to satisfy my street cred, and I ended up a Glentoran fan, which made absolute sense for me because of where we lived.”

Yet he retained “a soft spot” for Cliftonville and fondly recalls the last minute of the 1979 Irish Cup final, a game he’d been asked by BBC to commentate on despite having departed for RTÉ by then.

“And here’s Tony Bell, I wonder can he fix it? Yes!” exclaimed the young commentator as the Reds hit the last-gasp winner to secure a first Irish Cup in 70 years, and just the second in their history.

“That was one of my proudest moments, to commentate on Cliftonville winning the cup after all my happy days at Solitude in my childhood.”

* * * * *

WHEN he signed up to write a book, the publishers were unequivocal on the starting point.

“They gave me the title. That was the first thing decided. They said ‘there can only be one title for this book’.

“Given that was before I’d written a single word, I thought the book had to be about my journey to ending up in Genoa that Monday afternoon.”

That Monday afternoon in Genoa, when football took over the national consciousness.

The 120 minutes weren’t untypical of Republic of Ireland games in the Jack Charlton era (or, come to think of it, to this day). That penalty shootout is shrouded in the camouflage of the highlight reel.

“Timofte against Bonner… Yes!.... The big man from Donegal has set it up!”

“This kick can decide it all… The nation holds its breath… Yes, we’re there!”

George Hamilton adds barely 100 words to the 90 seconds of pandemonium.

In saying so little, he won half the battle. The noise and the colour of the stadium, the anticipation and the glorious release were all given their oxygen.

And when he did speak, he got it right.

“It’s like the golfer with the sweet drive or Marco van Basten’s volley in ’88 – all you can do is try to bring to bear the skills you’ve practiced and the experience you have, and hope it’s as good as it can be.

“Yes, I’m very proud of that moment.

“I didn’t go into that match ever thinking I’d come out with one of the great lines that they’d still be talking about in 30 years’ time.

“It came, it was a moment in time and I was the lucky guy to have the opportunity to do what I did. I’m proud that what I said fitted the bill.”

His words have echoed through the last 30 years but the sepia is starting to wear on Italia ’90. Just as with Ray Houghton’s header in Stuttgart two years earlier and his lob over Gianluca Pagliuca four years later, these were moments that seemed set to define Ireland as a fledgling soccer nation.

They’ve only been at one World Cup and two European Championships since and won’t be in Qatar next year either.

“It’s very disappointing. But someone asked me do I think Ireland will get to another World Cup, and it’s very hard to see.

“The way the thing is structured now with coefficients and one thing and another, the lower you finish, the harder it is to get up the table. It becomes ever more difficult to get back once you’ve slipped that bit.

“I hate being pessimistic, my glass is always half-full, but I think it will be very hard for an Irish team ever to get to the finals of the World Cup because of all that.”

He will be 72 by the time of the controversial winter tournament in the Middle East next year.

While he was on the mic again for last night’s Aviva Stadium qualifier with Portugal, the duties have been shared around in this campaign, with Darragh Maloney and Des Curran both given opportunities.

Nothing lasts forever. Hamilton is still expected to be RTÉ’s lead commentator at the World Cup but concedes that the station has to start looking to the future.

“I don’t feel like I’m being phased out. I still have a contract that takes me to the World Cup in Qatar, which is what I would have expected, it runs in two-year cycles.

“I wouldn’t use the phrase ‘phased out’, I don’t feel like that is the case.

“There is obviously going to be a time when I’m not doing it any more and it would be very foolish if the station was to run up to that date and say ‘what do we do now?’

“If I was going to retire, I’d have been retired, if you know what I mean? I’m reluctant to put a timeframe on it because the older you get, the less certain things become. I’m still plugging away and I haven’t stopped yet.”

Just as in life, there are peaks and troughs. The way it fell, he missed out commentating on Ireland’s quarter-final against the hosts at Italia ’90.

Yet he’s had the recent joy of being the voice of his first Irish Olympic gold medal at his 11th game, bringing home rowers Paul O’Donovan and Fintan McCarthy in the lightweight men’s double sculls.

“I had commentated on Irish gold medals before – Sonia O’Sullivan in the World Championships, boys in the European indoors in ’87, different gold medals that I’d commentated on. But not an Olympic gold medal.

“This was the first time, after 11 Olympics Games, to hear Amhran na bhFiann played at the end of my commentary was quite something else. A sensational moment.”

Equally, rugby fans would have expected Fred Cogley on the mic for the World Cup quarter-final against Australia in Lansdowne Road the following year, but it was Hamilton calling that.

He’d started out in rugby, using his bit of playing experience from Methody to earn a foot in the door at the BBC. The week of his very first live commentary, he was lucky to avoid serious injury in a car crash.

A drunk driver came charging through a red light and into the side of the family Renault that George had taken into town.

“With singular good fortune, I had been slow off the mark and the oncoming car had smashed into the side of the Renault’s engine compartment,” he recalls in the book.

“Had I been a split second earlier, I’d have taken the full impact through the driver’s door. My car spun and, in the impact, my head smashed off the seatbelt mounting on the door pillar. I emerged from the wrecked vehicle in a daze. The two cars were write-offs.”

He’d carry four stitches to his temple on the night of his commentary debut, but it could have been a lot worse.

Health scares of far greater significance, leaving far greater marks than a scratch on the forehead, have been well-documented in recent years.

A lot of Hamilton’s career highlights have been pored over time and again, as you’d expect in a goldfish bowl with as few inhabitants as Ireland’s football history.

It could be a while before the next Robbie Keane in Ibaraki, Houghton in New York or Stuttgart, or O’Leary in Genoa.

The success of The Nation Holds Its Breath is that we learn more of the unique story behind the man who has painted the sporting pictures for several generations of Irish sporting fans.

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