RTÉ’s ‘Voice of football’ George Hamilton on tomorrow’s big game
It’s a far cry from our glory days with Jack Charlton and it will be a different nation (the old enemy) holding its breath this weekend, but George Hamilton will be there, and no matter how we feel about England and their national team, we’ll be tuned in too.
Whether it’s to roar on the Germans, the Danes and, tomorrow, the Italians, or to keep a close eye on players from Premier League clubs we support, England matches are box office, according to RTÉ commentator Hamilton.
The viewing figures are there to prove it.
Towards the end of normal time on Wednesday night, more than a million people had tuned in on RTÉ 2.
As his RTÉ colleague Tony O’Donoghue put it in a montage before the Euro 2020 semi-final, our relationship with England is by no means straightforward.
The football reporter introduced the segment with: “Can you really shout for England after all they’ve done?”
O’Donoghue spoke of 800 years of oppression and “chest-beating imperialism” before pointing out the commonalities between the nations, how we support their football clubs, players Declan Rice and Jack Grealish and how these English footballers are “a team of tolerance and moral courage”.
It’s complicated. But how does Hamilton himself feel about the prospect of commentating on a first England triumph in 55 years?
“I don’t have a preference really. From my perspective, the better the game, the better it is for us. But I don’t have a preference either way,” he tells the Irish Independent.
“We do tremendous figures every time England play, it goes through the roof, so people want to see England, whether it’s to see them win or get knocked out or whether it’s to see their favourite players from the Premier League. They are box office, no question about that.”
He refers to a joke from a Twitter user about a BBC reporter using the line “a nation holds its breath” ahead of the England v Germany match.
“Somebody went on Twitter and said, ‘Ah, we’ll give you Rice and Grealish, but you can’t have our most iconic sporting quote’. I think that’s the level people look at it, it’s with kind of a tongue-in-cheek sideways glance,” Hamilton says.
“They’re not gonna get too exercised about whether England win or they don’t. They will play the part up to a point, but I don’t think it’s as big a deal as people make outs.
“You can’t support Leeds United and not want Kalvin Phillips to do half-decently, you can’t support Everton and not want Jordan Pickford to have another clean sheet, that’s just the way it is. It’s not as black and white as we’d like to make it out to be.”
Hamilton was born in Belfast in 1950, a few years after the great George Best and in the same area, the Cregagh Road.
“We were christened in the same church,” he says. “I came from the Cregagh Road and there was a team called Cregagh Boys and George, I think, played for them. He was the talk of the place because he was so good.”
For most of us, Hamilton – who entered his 70s last year – has been the soundtrack to the greatest moments in Irish football history. Think Ray Houghton in Stuttgart, David O’Leary in Romania, Robbie Brady in Lille. He was a package deal with Bill, Giles, Dunphy and Brady. But while they may have met for the odd drink after a game at Lansdowne Road, he would have really only known the guys in the studio from a distance.
“I would see Bill from time to time in Dublin, but because he was always handing over to me and I was handing over to him, there was a kind of relationship that developed, it was as if we knew each other better than we probably actually did,” he says.
“I knew John Giles quite well because he did co-commentary for a period. As for the others, I would only see them at Christmas parties or if we all had a meal together after Ireland’s first game at Croke Park.”
Many of his commentary moments live long in the memory, particularly those from Italia ’90 and the penalty shoot-out with Romania, but he insists Ireland beating England in their first major tournament in 1988 will remain his most cherished.
Asked whether he feels pressure to get the words right for a big moment, he explains that his commentary is never scripted because it wouldn’t sound spontaneous.
“Yes, I do have performance anxiety and I know I’m not the best of people to be around an hour before kick-off, not least because we never get the bloody line-ups until an hour before kick-off.
“You have to trust yourself, and that’s probably what experience does to you.”
As we remember the now iconic “the nation holds its breath” moment, he says the closing words of a broadcast must be succinct.
“I would always be aware, don’t go off on one, try to encapsulate it in a phrase or a single sentence. When I uttered that, I would have been aware what I said matched the moment and been proud to have found the words at the time.”
The broadcaster insists he has no intention of hanging up his microphone, as he balances match commentary and his weekend shows on RTÉ Lyric FM. “I’m still enjoying what I’m doing and there’s an audience for what I do and as long as the audience wants me to do it, I’ll do it,” he says.
“Never say never. I have no idea what might be in the plans at RTÉ, but if you ask the question of me, I say I don’t have any intention of leaving.
“I’ve two prongs to my RTÉ involvement and the other is Lyric, which is going very well indeed, the Saturday and Sunday show. I’ve no plans to pack that in either.”
Scrolling through Hamilton’s Twitter feed, it’s clear to see there are more tweets about music than football. There are a couple of reasons for that, he says, as he explains that it was Lyric that pushed him to set up the social media account to help with the publicity for the show. But he’s “not a great fan of social media”.
“You get all manner of lunatic comments from time to time that have no basis in fact and, basically, anybody can say what they want,” Hamilton says.
“So I’m not particularly enamoured at the concept of social media, because I don’t think the vast majority of people who use it are responsible enough to be on social media.
“If you start getting into the football comment, there are many more people with many more opinions who comment about football. I can think of two examples of friends of mine who get abuse on Twitter because they talk about football – Jim Beglin and Miguel Delaney of the Independent in England.
“Both have sizeable followings and both get dog’s abuse from time to time because of decent opinions they publicise.”
We finish our chat as we started, with the Euros. Is football coming home?
Hamilton laughs, and there’s an “Oh dear” before he explains how the stars are aligning for England (this interview was before the quarter-final).
“It’s all sitting nicely for them to smash it, so I suppose that’s a long-winded way of saying yes.”