A chat with the great Jimmy Magee from 2003, when he had just launched a video featuring his top 25 Greatest Sporting Memories. Part of the proceeds went to The 3TS (Turning The Tide Of Suicide).
Which was your first World Cup?
I commentated on 1966 for RTE Radio. I did 1970 on radio as well and then 1974 was the first World Cup to be televised on RTE. I’ve done every one since so that makes ten World Cups and with the help of God I’ll make Germany as well. After that there might be a trip to Africa, who knows?
Who was the greatest player?
Without a doubt, Pele. Who’s to say really which was the greatest? Maradona, Cruyff, Beckenbauer, Best, van Basten, Zidane were all great great players. But I think Pele was the greatest of them all. And a lovely man as well. I first met him in 1970 and when I met him again in 1974, he didn’t remember the name, but he remembered the face. I don’t collect autographs but I got Pele’s. And do you know what, the only other autograph I have is Diego Maradona. And do you know something else, I have them both on the same sheet of paper. And do you think I can find that sheet of paper?
What about Maradona? A different kettle of fish?
Oh yes. Surrounded by minders. Big burly fellows. But sure you wouldn’t blame him for that. Look at the rock stars that are out there today. A different man to Pele, but sure they were different times. What a player though. A genius.
His second goal against England. The greatest goal and possibly your greatest commentary?
Different Class eh? Ah, it’s not for me to say. I suppose it summed the moment up alright.
You’d have Zinedine Zidane up there with the greats?
Ah, you’ve got to. For a man of six foot two, what balance and grace he has. He’s got the lot. What a beautiful footballer.
Any other current players up there?
You know, I thought van Basten was a fantastic centre forward. Could do everything. Shoot, head the ball, dribble everything. And I think Ruud van Nistelrooy is very similar to van Basten in style. I think he can become a really great centre forward. Henry too is a brilliant player. The way he’s playing, get your money on France for Euro 2004.
The greatest Irish player, in your eyes?
Definitely John Giles. Brady, Whelan, McGrath, Keane are all super players, but Giles was the best.
The Charlton era? Golden age or crude one-dimensional embarrassment?
Definitely the golden age. Look, the style of football wouldn’t exactly be what I’d like to watch, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do exactly the same if I was a coach. In fairness, he had some great great players.
Would you ever think of retiring?
Ah, it’s been a honour, to see all the great teams and great players. To see John Giles when he started out for Ireland in Dalymount. If it ever became a chore, I’d throw my hat at it straight away, but I doubt if it will at this stage. Every game of football is a new game.
What about drugs in sport? You caused a bit of controversy by defending Michelle Smith lately. Do you stand by that?
I do. Ireland have won 20 Olympic medals and she has won four of them. And the thing is, she never tested positive in competition.
You’re not in favour of a free-for-all, with the drugs?
No way. Of course I condemn it. I’ve never taken a pill or taken a drug that wasn’t prescribed for me in my life. I’d be the last person to want drugs in any sport.
What about Rio Ferdinand? What punishment should he get?
I think they’ll throw the book at him. If you miss a test, it’s the same as not blowing into the bag. You’ve no excuse. The thing is, will Manchester United even miss him? I wonder. I think they’ll move young John O’Shea in there and he’ll do the job every bit as well.
You like O’Shea?
Yes, I think he’ll captain Ireland some day. He’s a nice lad and has his head screwed on. A sensible lad and a very good player.
So, what about this Memory Man reputation? Do you have a photographic memory?
No I don’t. My memory was no use to me in school. But I do remember anything I’m interested in. Not just football or sport either. Jazz singers, the line-ups of bands, capital cities, that kind of thing.
I hate research. It’s like homework. I don’t practise it or anything and occasionally, I have to look things up but I prefer to use the memory of life. Sometimes, when I’m driving home from somewhere late at night, just to keep myself awake, I’ll try to remember all the line-ups from the 1966 World Cup or something. Just to keep me on my toes.
Who was your commentating hero?
They say to have aspiration, you must have inspiration and Micheal O’Hehir (legendary GAA commentator) was mine. Listening to him, I said to myself, I’d love to do that someday. Little did I know that it was my destiny.
Who’s your favourite current football commentator?
Look, let’s leave our own guys out of it. That wouldn’t be fair. Across the water, I’ve always admired Martin Tyler. A very professional commentator, with a great and unique style about him.
What about the best analyst?
If you’re talking about analysts, I think John Giles is marvellous. If you ask Giles about a player, you can take it that his answer is gospel. I remember a game I did with Johnny a few years back, where he told me before the game “Jimmy, watch out for so-and-so. He always closes his eyes when he goes up to head the ball.” And do you know what, we just happened to get a close up shot of your man later in the game. Going up for a header he was and, sure enough, the eyes were closed. The thing about Gilesy too is that he is never biased. He always calls it as he sees it. You don’t always get that.
As a matter of interest, Jimmy, do you use the Internet?
I don’t use the Internet. I can answer a big zero to that.
What about the gaffes? Any favourites?
Go on remind me…
Well, what about the pigeons of peace?
Heh heh. Yes, I’ve heard enough about that over the years. It was the opening ceremony of the 1980 Olympics of course. I tell you, four months work preparing for that Olympics and it all goes down the pan over one small four letter word. D-O-V-E. I just couldn’t think of the word. In fairness, I was technically right anyway. Aren’t doves a type of pigeon? Yes, I was technically right.
Fair enough. Do you remember Horst Hrubesh? The man they called the monster. Was he really called “The monster” Jimmy? Or did you make that up?
Ah yes. Penalty shoot out in 1982. Germany versus France in the semi-final. Sure who knows? That’s the beauty of live sport isn’t it. Who really knows?
Finally Jimmy. “Ardiles strokes the ball like it was part of his anatomy.” Ah here!
Heh heh heh. I suppose I might have said that alright. Still, only people with a shady mind would make anything of that.
Point taken, Jimmy.
And rest in peace Memory Man…