Monday 19 March 2018

Football's most famous commentator cut his teeth at Croke Park decider

Waterford's last hurling All-Ireland saw Kenneth Wolstenholme come to Dublin for the BBC

Kenneth Wolstenholme: ‘I hate to see it being trivialised . . . not least because I suspect it doesn’t mean anything to the people involved’. Photo: Michael WebbGetty Images
Kenneth Wolstenholme: ‘I hate to see it being trivialised . . . not least because I suspect it doesn’t mean anything to the people involved’. Photo: Michael WebbGetty Images

Dermot Gilleece

We can imagine countless broadcasters having lent their voices to GAA commentary over the years. Some enthused us, others irritated and others still simply bored us. Only a select few have remained in the memory as experts of their craft.

Among that group was Kenneth Wolstenholme. Yes, the same man who claimed a unique place in broadcasting history through a never-to-be-forgotten finale to his commentary on England's triumph over West Germany in the 1966 soccer World Cup final.

That was when he captured the sporting dreams of a generation in the iconic phrase: "They think it's all over . . . it is now." Indeed, we may describe those words as immortal, given that Wolstenholme passed from us in March 2002.

I caught up with him some time prior to that when, as a 75-year-old, he could still be heard on the Italian soccer segment on RTÉ and Channel 4's Gazzetta Football Italia. The splendid voice had softened appealingly with the years and a sharp memory allowed him to reflect on visits to Croke Park for BBC commentaries on All-Ireland finals.

"I have fond memories of the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden, where Northern Ireland made such a wonderful impact," he said. "You probably know that Sweden is a very Protestant country: religion seems to be very important there. Anyway, they concluded that the reason Northern Ireland were doing so well was because they were playing for the Pope.

"That raised a great laugh because, as I remember it, Peter Docherty, the manager of the side, was their only Catholic. But with a view to taking a rise out of their hosts, the entire Northern Ireland party went to church the following Sunday. Eventually, the Swedes learned the truth and they loved it."

By 1959, when I was learning my craft as a copy-boy at the Evening Press, Wolstenholme was considered a sufficiently experienced broadcaster to attempt his first All-Ireland final. In fact, he did both finals that year, including a replay in the hurling in which Waterford ultimately triumphed.

Smiling warmly at the memory, he said: "The football [between Kerry and Galway] was straightforward enough, but the hurling was a different matter. Michael O'Hehir, who was commentating of course for Radió Éireann at the time, was a great help, acquainting me with established clichés of the game, such as 'the clash of the ash'."

He further recalled that as a gesture to their visitor from the BBC, Croke Park officials presented him with a hurley. In fact, it was the one used by Waterford's great midfielder, Seamus Power, in scoring the equalising goal. And, of course, Waterford went on to win the replay.

"I enjoyed my visits to Dublin, particularly my meetings with Pádraig Ó Chaoimh, the secretary of the GAA," added the man from the Beeb. "His liberal attitude to sport surprised me at a time when I was aware of the GAA ban against 'foreign games'.

"But there were a few embarrassing moments. Like when I was offered a drink and replied "scotch and water", which brought the gentle reproach that the only whiskey they had was Irish. Another was the occasion when my report on one of the matches was edited for Sportsview and the director devoted quite a bit of time to players fighting. I know the Irish blamed me for that, but in fact the matter was outside my control."

When I discussed my Wolstenholme interview with a venerable colleague, David Guiney, he recalled "a great buzz at Croke Park over the fact that the BBC had sent an outside broadcast unit to cover the All-lrelands". Soon, with the establishment of Telefís Éireann and O'Hehir's appointment as its first head of sport, the country was in a position to provide its own service in televised sport. Yet, Wolstenholme remained a highly influential figure.

Dramatically, at the height of his powers, he parted company with the BBC. His last broadcast for them was the 1971 European Cup final. "My contract had expired and there was a disagreement over its renewal," he explained. "Of course I was disappointed. In those days everyone wanted to work for the BBC."

He later achieved renewed popularity through that phrase, however, particularly its use as the title of a BBC sports-comedy quiz show, headed by Nick Hancock, which offended him. "I hate to see it being trivialised in this way, not least because I suspect it doesn't mean anything to the people involved," he said.

Then, one imagined for the umpteenth time, he brought himself back to those fateful moments in extra-time at Wembley, where England were leading 3-2. "There was only a short time remaining and I can remember a lot of whistling around the ground," he recalled. "Then I noticed some spectators coming on to the pitch and I said on the air, 'they think it's all over'.

"As I spoke those words, I could see Bobby Moore passing the ball to Geoff Hurst and as Hurst shot for goal, I finished the phrase, 'it is now'. Instinctively, I knew he was going to score. In fact, there's a marvellous picture of that shot, taken by a photographer from behind the goal."

Apart from the crushing disappointment of his break with the BBC, there was the tragedy of losing one of his two daughters to leukaemia. On the credit side, however, he could reflect on the enormous personal satisfaction of becoming virtually a household name to successive generations, even in GAA circles in this country.

"Of course I'm glad I said it," he acknowledged of a phrase that is quite correctly regarded as the most famous in the history of sports broadcasting. "The BBC have been very good in allowing the particular segment to be shown in all sorts of circumstances. Which means that through royalties, I have made a lot of money out of it."

Then came a gentle chuckle as he mused: "I've often wondered why some newspaper has never bothered to track down and interview one of those people who encroached on the Wembley pitch. Without them you know, I would never have said it."

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