Thursday 14 November 2019

The first voice of football on RTE

Damian Corless

Moments before his first broadcast from Wembley Stadium in 1957, Philip Greene was so overcome with pre-match nerves that the home of football began swirling around him and he had to dash to the loo to throw up. He reasoned afterwards: "If you don't have nerves, you don't care enough."

Greene, who died this week at the age of 90, commentated on athletics, cricket and the Olympic Games, but the sport he cared about above all others was football.

He cared especially for his beloved Shamrock Rovers, earning the tease that he was Philip Greene-and-White. He confessed that while he always took pains to be objective, "my heart may betray that I love a particular team".

He took a roundabout route to becoming the voice of Irish football. In the 1940s he achieved modest success with a clutch of Billy Bunter-type public-school novels under the banner Purple and Gold.

He then penned some children's plays for Radio Éireann, which earned £4 each and gave him a foot in the broadcasting door.

When he learned that a short sports report paid a hefty 30 shillings, he decided that he'd found his true vocation.

Not that it was ever about the money. Looking back on a life well spent, he reflected: "If I'd been born a rich man I would have been doing what I was lucky enough to get my job to be."

He began commentating in an era when huge crowds watched League of Ireland games played by hard men with girls' names like Drumcondra's 'Rosie' Henderson and Rovers' 'Sheila' D'Arcy.

Those huge crowds couldn't afford to travel to away games, and Greene would sometimes cut a very isolated figure on foreign expeditions.

In Seville for a game against Spain, he found himself at the mercy of a local technical crew who were "half-cut" on brandy and determined to get fully cut.

In a supreme show of professionalism, he delivered 90 minutes of coherent commentary while giving the listeners no clue that his hosts were good-naturedly trying to force bottles of cognac down his throat.

With the Cold War reaching sub-zero, he found himself in Communist East Berlin for a European Cup match involving Drumcondra.

He recalled: "One of their forwards missed an opener. I said on air, jocosely, that he'd probably be sent to Siberia for that. At that crucial moment the commentary went off the air. A 'line failure'.

"The Evening Press phoned my wife and asked if she thought she'd ever see me again. They ran it as a front page story, which upset her a bit."

There was another Red scare in 1955 when communist Yugoslavia came to play Ireland at Dalymount. Dublin's bossy Archbishop John Charles McQuaid instructed his flock to stay home.

Greene, a devout Catholic, announced he was withdrawing his services and Radio Éireann followed. The FAI pressed ahead and 22,000 turned up in defiance.

The incident soured relations between Greene and the FAI, who demanded and received an apology before they'd let him back in the commentary box.

He may have wished he'd never mended his fences with the FAI when, in 1979, he watched as his commentary box was torn down about him.

Linfield were in Dundalk's Oriel Park for a European tie. With not much happening on the field of play, the visiting supporters entertained themselves by demolishing Greene's enclosure, which seemed to be constructed from cardboard and lollipop sticks.

As he prepared to make a Custer-like last stand, he was rescued by a large force of gardai.

Greene retired from RTÉ in 1985, just a year before the dawn of the Charlton era, which would transform Irish football. For much of his time there, soccer was sidelined as the un-Irish Cinderella of Irish sport.

Shortly after his retirement he revealed his belief that the politics of Montrose had prevented him establishing a bigger TV presence.

The head of sport, a staunch GAA man, "preferred that I didn't appear that frequently".

With the advent of TV in 1962, he observed: "Suddenly there were 600 people where there had been 30 or 40 in Radio Éireann. You had this huge influx, and suddenly it wasn't what you knew, it was who you knew that got you the job in television."

He admitted: "I've been embittered by some of the treatment that was meted out to me inside, but we won't go into that."

You spend a lifetime waiting for a World Cup Finals, and then three come along as soon as you've retired. Greene was gone from the commentary box, but not forgotten.

Hailed by his successors as the first and best of his breed, he stuck around to receive the kudos that perhaps should have come his way earlier.

His own reflections on life, death and his personal universe gave a measure of the man.

"Everybody has their alloted lifespan. Everybody has to go sometime or other. Wouldn't you like to go having done something really good that would stay there behind you, rather than leave dirty 'oul money."

That he did.

Philip Greene, born Broadstone, Dublin, 1921, died St Colmcille's Hospital, Dublin 15, May 2011. He is survived by his wife Patricia and his children Eoin, Philip, Rhona and Edeana, his sister Carmel and his grandchildren.

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