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Darragh Maloney Tells Story Which Sums Up The Class Of Jimmy Magee

Darragh Maloney Tells Story Which Sums Up The Class Of Jimmy Magee
By Gavin Cooney Updated

If you walk into the RTE sports department, you'll see emblazoned on the walls a few phrases that will strike a chord. "Okie Doke", "Drop at goal...Grand Slam at stake" and"A nation holds its breath" are all there, in varying fonts and sizes. Two words are as large as any others: "Different Class".

It evokes Jimmy Magee's famous commentary of Diego Maradona's second goal against England at the 1986 World Cup. On this poignant day in Irish sport, those words take on a fitting duality.

"Jimmy's first priority was always how you were and how you were doing, it wasn't about him" recalls his RTE colleague Darragh Maloney. "It didn't matter where you were in your career or your life, he always had a positive word to say, always encouraging. He would have seen and heard everything that you'd done, that was Jimmy. Whether you were on RTE, Newstalk, Sky or the Beeb, he would consume everything".

In 1999, Magee suffered a heart attack, and the subsequent triple bypass meant some time off work. It was while Magee was recuperating that RTE expanded their Champions League coverage from one night to two, leaving the broadcaster short of a TV commentator while Magee was ill. Maloney was working with RTE Radio at the time, but jumped ship, navigated the audition and interview processes, and got the job.

He ultimately found himself in the gantry at Villa Park for RTE's Premiership highlights show, nerves jangling ahead of his first commentary.

We'll let Darragh take it from here...

Jimmy got in touch with me beforehand to say 'this is what to do, and what you don't do' etc. Then I'm at the match at Villa Park. I was terribly nervous, absolutely terrified, asking myself 'can I actually do this? Is this going to blow up in my face?' as I'd left the radio to join the TV. So I was full of these doubts.

I got there very early and was sitting in the gantry looking through all of my notes. While sitting there, I look down the gantry, and I see Martin Tyler walking towards me. I was a massive fan of Martin Tyler but had never met him before.

I can see him walking toward me. The gantry at Villa Park was this big long thing, it stretched across the stand. But Martin Tyler is walking toward me, and I'm thinking, 'No, he can't be coming near me'. Then he comes up to me and says, 'Oh, are you Darragh? Jimmy told me you were coming'.

That moment relaxed me. Martin had a few bits of advice, as Jimmy had told him that this was my first commentary. I was blown away first at meeting Martin Tyler, and then also that Jimmy took the time to pick up the phone to ring Martin Tyler while he was recovering from illness. He was always very conscious of people starting out, and what help he could be to them.

It did relax me, and Jimmy rang me afterward to ask how it went. He would always help you, and he had this gift of saying the right thing at the right time if you were doubting yourself or struggling in any way.

As that story suggests, Magee's fame extended far beyond Ireland. Match of the Day commentator Conor McNamara agrees: "Over the years I met Jimmy in press rooms at events in far-flung corners of the world. Boxing Halls at Olympics and Commonwealth games, media centres at World Cups. Jimmy would perch on a seat and other journalists and broadcasters would gravitate towards him. His fame definitely stretched beyond Ireland’s shores".

McNamara recalls one memory from a Premier League game at Elland Road which spoke to the Memory Man's powers of forecast:

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One time at Elland Road in the early noughties I remember sitting next to Jimmy while eating lunch in their press room.

Leeds were coming down off the high of reaching the Champions League semi-finals under David O'Leary a few years before and their flamboyant spending on players and wages was starting to catch up with them.

For several years previously Leeds had been one of the best clubs for media catering. In the days of Peter Ridsdale’s exotic goldfish the quality of the pre-match meal was head and shoulders above what you would get at other clubs at the time.

On this visit the normally delicious meat and two veg had been replaced by a bog standard pie. I remember Jimmy looking down at the plate with exaggerated disappointment. “Ah, shure I only came here for the roast potatoes…” and going on about how this was a sure sign Leeds' cash was running out.

Magee was most famous for reaching into the past. Maloney's first meeting with Magee came in either 1989 or 1990 (not all RTE commentators are blessed with Magee's powers) in the studio of Beaumont Hospital Radio. Maloney was volunteering and producing a sports show, procured the great man's phone number, and asked him if he would come on air to talk sport for a few minutes.

He was there with us for hours! My late father was from County Offaly, and the previous day Offaly had been playing in Croke Park.

There was a guy playing from the Shannonbridge club, and he was the first guy from that club to play senior for Offaly in quite a while. I just happened to mention Offaly on air, and Jimmy was able to tell me who the last two or three guys from Shannonbridge were, totally unprompted!

I can't even remember their names, but he just had this stuff off the top of his head.

Few had Magee's knowledge, but fewer still had the ability to use it so effectively. McNamara says that it is right to hail the depths of Magee's memory banks, but this was merely part of a larger talent:  "Jimmy’s real mastery as a commentator was how he could so naturally make it sound like these thoughts were just occurring to him. The truth of commentating is that it is all about the preparation homework you do in advance. Too many slip into the trap of simply regurgitating reams of statistics, but Jimmy knew how to weave the titbits naturally into the broadcast". 

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There's no need to solely take McNamara's word for it. Listen to Magee's commentary on John Treacy's Olympic medal in Los Angeles. When asked about it, Maloney highlights the ability to weave the names of Ireland's past medalists to a crescendo as Treacy crossed the lines, arms aloft:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=watch

It's not the only piece of his commentary which is in, to borrow a phrase, a different class.

The awe is still striking in Maloney's voice:

With TV commentary - and I fall into this trap - you are an aide to the people watching at home. They can see it, and the trick with TV commentary is knowing when to talk. Jimmy had this gift.

Those two words he used were the perfect aide to that moment.

Everyone knows the goal, and you think back with your commentary hat on, 'What would I have done in that moment?' and what I would do would not come remotely near what Jimmy did! But what Jimmy did was perfect.

If you look at it, there's this shock: 'hang on, he can't keep going here' and he's beaten the first fella, and the second guy, and the third guy and the fourth guy and so on; you're watching a genius at work.

And you're listening to a genius at work. What he said was just absolutely perfect, nobody could have summed up that forty-second piece of magic of Maradona better than Jimmy did.

Magee's talent as a commentator was astonishing. Few, if any, broadcasters could switch so easily between sports. Maloney says that Magee could commentate on two flies going up a wall and make it sound like it was something worth watching, "something that would change your day".

"I massively admire his ability to convey genuine excitement in his commentaries", says McNamara. "Nowadays there is much hyperbole in sports broadcasting. People over-egg the most banal moments. But with Jimmy, you knew that if he was getting upbeat about a sporting event then something legitimately exciting must be happening. That would draw in the viewer.

Jimmy Magee’s voice could ride the wave of the tempo of a match or a fight. A little growl would creep in to his words at a particularly crucial moment. His words complimented what you were watching. He would add to the contest, but not detract from it. And there is no greater praise for a commentator than that". 

Jimmy Magee lived a life we all wanted and enriched countless others while doing so.

There is no better life than one which bestows qualities upon others, and the Memory Man has left virtually everybody in Ireland with a few of our own. 

Different class.

 See Also: Des Cahill Pays Emotional Radio Tribute To 'Pure Rogue' Jimmy Magee

 

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