How do I love thee, Jimmy Magee? Let me count the ways.
Jimmy was loved. As a soundtrack for iconic moments that summoned a nation — Treacy, McGuigan, Taylor — he gathered us close, voice crackling with pride.
“Lord, she’s terrific.”
That voice had the power of transportation. To run a nostalgia bath. Roll a ‘Giresse’ or a ‘Socrates’ and you were there at a childhood World Cup, or “championship of the globe”, as Jimmy often called it. We must get in touch with Horst Hrubesch and let him know the cult hero Jimmy made him, and we should probably find out if he was ever really called ‘the monster’.
He could keep another drifting Late Late on the rails with a few stories about Pele.
And he was a rock of sense on the GAA too, accepting John Fenton scored the hurling goal of the year in ‘87, but insisting Nicky English should get the football, for that sacred sidefoot against Cork.
As a dad, husband, colleague, and friend, the testimonies make it clear he was treasured.
I enjoyed all the Jimmys. But loved him most as a nuts and bolts football commentator. In many ways, the gantry’s Denis Irwin; among the most chorused of all the unsung heroes, yet still somehow underrated by many.
By the Premier Soccer Saturday years, he was taken for granted. Or given out about. As the best commentators are. Maybe he had lost a yard. And yet, his commentaries were still a treat. There was always a line you’d never heard before.
Who else in the business greeted a Shefki Kuqi strike with “Kuqi-Kuqi-coo”?
His friend and colleague and fellow colossus George Hamilton this week nailed Jimmy’s greatness.
“Jimmy was a different kind of commentator than so many who just described the action. Jimmy lived it and he loved it.”
In a chat I had with him in 2003, when he was as patient as you’d expect with malfunctioning recording contraptions, he discussed retirement, but only as a hostile force he felt would never invade.
“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.”
In the same interview, Jimmy anointed John Giles the greatest analyst, another man who takes each game on its merits.
For all the facts in his head, Jimmy’s commentaries never became a roll-call, an information dump. The moments looked after themselves because he was living in them and loving them.
So it wasn’t a Frenchman with a dozen caps or a €15m pricetag cutting inside, it was “Nasri, with the body of the dancer.”
He generously shared the joy a goal brought him. A “crackeroo” maybe or a shot that “roasted the cobwebs”.
I loved his weakness for the pun.
“Fowler, living up to his name.”
“Chased by Hunt, aptly named.”
And the way heroics might earn a goalkeeper an impromptu nickname. “Peter ‘Superglue’ Rufai.”
How some names got inexplicably shortened — and seemed to fit better that way. “A crackeroo from Pete Beardsley.”
Or how his favourites got the full treatment, even if it caused a move to break down.
“Kuffour to Essien to Johnnnn Mensa.”
“De Rossi. Pirlo. Lllluuucaaa Toni.”
Though a spell in his bad books might see you stripped of naming rights entirely. “He should book this man for diving.”
He wasn’t a fan of the diving but didn’t mount a high horse over it either. “A little bit of the stagework from Muller.”
I loved the turns of phrase, the little touches of pure Jimmy.
“That was inviting but there was nobody to reply to the invitation card.”
“The Canaries against the Magpies in the ornithology derby.”
“The ball staggered like a leather drunk over the line.”
“This referee certainly isn’t fond of the whistle. James Galway he ain’t.”
The way the box became “the land of the penalty” or how great goals were invariably “one for his video wall.”
Goalkeepers, especially, brought out fluent Mageese.
“He got a two-fist to it.”
“Beautiful ball-kill by Given.”
“Strong volleyball hand from Sorensen.”
“Body save by Jennings.”
“No spill, no jam down the side of the pot.”
There was a time and place for health and safety. “They cannot take a chance with head knocks and they won’t. Certainly not until after half-time.”
And it perplexed him when folk found something more pressing to attend to while a game was on.
“Dozens of people coming in with hot-dogs, burgers, and trays of beer. I thought that was just an American thing. Maybe they were Americans.”
I loved when Jimmy got mad. A righteous anger without the hectoring of some of his peers.
“If you look up the laws of the game, you may not hold and you may not push.”
“Why is he kicking the perimeter fence? That didn’t deny him the chance.”
I loved the musical flights of fancy, the way a packed goalmouth struck Jimmy to resemble “a crowd in a tube station waiting on the last train to Clarksville.”
Or those magical mystery tours he sent you on, after something as innocuous as a mistimed tackle.
“They have a few of those buildings around Ireland, way up on hills. There’s one outside Kells, you often wonder what it is if you are passing by. And it’s called a folly. Well that was folly there.”
Just last year, at the Olympics, he dispatched the Swedish women’s football team on one. “It’s an uphill battle now. It’s as high as the Sugar Loaf and they’ve no intention of climbing that tonight. The Sugar Loaf, not the match.”
Every game still a new game.
I loved the gaffes. The famous pigeons of peace. Portsmouth going off “to the joyous roars of the Pompey bells.” Ardiles “stroking the ball like it was part of his anatomy”. He took it all in good part. “Only a shady mind would make anything of that,” he chuckled.
His memorable take on Italia ‘90 will be recited as long as they hold World Cups.
“They said it was the group of death but in the end it was very much the group of survival, particularly for those who survived.”
And of course ‘Different Class’ was his virtuoso performance. A perfect blend of wonder and restraint. Living and loving the moment. The moment taking care of itself. Jimmy taking care of the moment.
In the end, I never got around to dubbing the audio over Austin Gleeson’s goal from the All-Ireland semi-final. For clickbait purposes. Maybe somebody should do it for all the great individual moments, in every sport.
He took grief for the Michelle Smith stuff but what was it only a man wanting to see the good in people? You’d have to love him for that too.
Mounting his defence on the Late Late, there was a recitation of his own litany of saints, marking out the breadth of his musical and sporting and life interests.
“Say you find that all your heroes, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Emile Zatopek, Enrico Caruso, Beniamino Gili, and even back as far as Jesus Christ, that they were all on something, do you just cancel them all?”
Now, as for many of those, it will become true of Jimmy: We shall but love thee better after death.
First published by the Irish Examiner