Legendary Irish broadcaster Jimmy Magee has covered every football World Cup since 1966 and every Olympic Games since 1972. From his sporting highlights and the Ronaldo-Messi debate, to personal tragedy, Shane Hannon speaks with the Memory Man
Born in New York City in 1935, Jimmy Magee is considered to be one of this country’s greatest ever sports broadcasters. Raised in Cooley, County Louth, the young Magee would run around the fields at home commentating on his own imaginary games. He notes himself that “at the age of seven I was going to be the next greatest thing ever. Although I didn’t want to be great, I just wanted to do what I was good at.”
One of the first things that hits anyone who meets Jimmy Magee is his unparalleled modesty. When asked which broadcasters in this country he would rate ahead of himself he replies, “Nearly everyone: Gay Byrne, Pat Kenny. Men who are dead and gone like Michael O’Hehir.”
The latter was of particular importance to Magee’s career, and he notes, “Only for Michael O’Hehir, none of us would be in the game, certainly in my generation anyway. O’Hehir was the bee’s knees really.”
Magee was the subject of a Late Late Show special in 1989, an indication of just how highly regarded he has always been in this country. Through the years there have been less than twenty of these special shows, and along with Magee various big names such as Micheál Mac Liammóir, Ronnie Drew and the Dubliners, Christy Moore, Johnny Giles and Westlife have been honoured for their contributions to their respective fields.
Magee secured a full-time clerical job with Dundalk, Newry and Greenore Railway, but sports broadcasting was what he always longed to do. He recalls that radio was the big entertainment provider in his younger days and “on the day of a big game, people would all congregate in the house that had radio and if there was more than the capacity of the house there they’d be outside with the window open listening. Amazing times, and it’s in my lifetime, it’s not all that long ago.”
Magee joined RTÉ in 1956, having started out as a reporter for the Radio Éireann Junior Sports Magazine, while still working for the railway. He ended up doing the very job he envisaged himself in as a kid, and Magee says, “I’m now convinced you can do anything you want to, if you put your mind to it. You have to have a modicum of talent or something to keep going, but if you really want to do something you actually can do it, there’s no doubt about that.”
Magee is very well-respected in the sporting world, both in this country and further afield, and his opinion on sporting matters is quite often taken as gospel. When speaking with current Dublin footballer Bernard Brogan, Magee was asked if the Dublin-Kerry All-Ireland semi-final of 1977, in which Brogan’s father played, was one of the greatest ever, but in his opinion “the Dublin-Kerry match last year was the best game ever played in Croke Park.”
Brogan himself told Magee that it was “an honour and a privilege to be on the same field as ‘Gooch’ Cooper.” Magee too rates the Dr Crokes clubman very highly indeed. “Cooper is sensational. If he was born in a different country he’d be an international footballer, there’s no question about that.”
One aspect of GAA commentary Magee feels needs to be re-introduced is the commentator giving the clubs of the team. He says, “It was a very good idea. The people who lived in that area would get a kick out of hearing their own parish.” It would be an excellent way for children to learn too, he claims, “I learned geography out of that without meaning to. I’ve often told that to teachers, any students who like sport can learn without realising they’re learning.”
One of the most-discussed contemporary sporting debates is that regarding Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. The two are considered the greatest footballers in the world today, but the question of who is number one is compelling.
Magee is unwavering in his opinion. “I think Ronaldo is the best player in the world without a shadow of a doubt. In a conjuring sense with the ball at his feet, I think Messi is unmatchable, but in the general flow of the game it’s Ronaldo.”
When at Manchester United, the media were too harsh on Ronaldo in Magee’s opinion. “It was said he was a waste of space, a one-trick pony. Brain-dead was said one evening. That’s outrageous.”
Magee is glad the Portuguese man has shut his doubters up with his performances for Real Madrid. “How could you be better than Ronaldo? The best markers in the world are employed to mark him and kick him if necessary and he’s still able to score 50 goals a season. I hope he has a great World Cup.”
In his years as a broadcaster, Magee has been fortunate enough to meet many of the greatest sporting legends of the twentieth century. However, he only ever asked two for their autograph; Pelé and Diego Maradona.
As manager of Argentina at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Maradona was often seen on the sideline in his lavish white suits. Magee recalls watching the Argentina goalkeeper warm-up before one of their games at the tournament when Maradona lined up a shot from outside the penalty area on the right hand side. Magee says he “hit it with the outside of his leather shoes and beat the national keeper, who applauded him.”
Although a highly controversial figure, Magee says, “It’s nothing to do with drugs, he could just play.” The 5’5” Argentinian will be forever remembered for the ‘Hand of God’ incident against England in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final, but Magee says the English should move on.
“Peter Shilton is a big man who spent all his spare time body-building. Six feet tall, huge upper body, experienced goalkeeper, and he was able to jump and handle the ball and he couldn’t beat this little fella who was 5’5”. And they’re complaining about a handball?”
Maradona’s second goal in that game when he dribbled 60 metres past five England players was voted ‘Goal of the Century’ by FIFA.com voters in 2002. Jimmy Magee’s commentary of the goal where he described Maradona as “different class” is almost as memorable as the goal itself.
Having covered eleven Olympic Games so far, Magee has many highlights which stand out for him. His greatest Olympic moment came at the Atlanta games in 1996 when legendary boxer Muhammad Ali lit the torch at the Opening Ceremony.
Magee says, “The whole story of him came to my mind. He’s from the southern United States, neighbour of Atlanta, Georgia, from the next parish. Here he was in his home place lighting the torch. That was the greatest moment in all the Olympics for me… I was as near as I’ve ever been to crying on the air.”
Although famous for covering various different sports in his career, Magee is probably best known among younger people in this country as being the voice of boxing.
In his 2012 memoir Memory Man, Magee says of Katie Taylor, “She is just unbeatable. In my opinion she is Ireland’s greatest contemporary sportsperson.” It was Taylor in fact who launched Magee’s book for him. “I asked her the day she won the semi-final [at the 2012 Olympics] to launch it. She was there and did. It was the first gig she did after the Olympics.”
Magee’s love of boxing shines through in his enthusiastic commentary, and he reveals he always knows who has won the fight after the final bell rings out. “I know who’s going to win nearly all the time and I’m nearly always right. It’s helpful to me and it’s surprising that I’m seldom wrong. I have some internal counting system that works it out.”
One of his most memorable boxing moments was when the ‘Clones Cyclone’ Barry McGuigan beat Eusebio Pedroza at Loftus Road in 1985 to win the WBA World Featherweight title. Magee somehow managed to worm his way into the ring immediately after the fight to speak to the victor and McGuigan’s first words to him, now immortalised in sporting lore. “Ah Jimmy, it’s a dream come true for me.”
Although he has, without question, had a fantastic broadcasting career, Magee’s life hasn’t been without personal tragedy. In 1989 his mother and his wife Marie died within a couple of months of each other, and in 2008 his younger sister passed away four weeks before his son Paul succumbed to motor neurone disease.
Magee is a national patron of the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association and he says he is “concerned about raising awareness of it.” The neurological disorder affects motor neurons, the cells that control voluntary muscle activity including speaking, walking, swallowing, and general movement of the body.
As Magee points out, “Nobody knows what causes it, and if you don’t know what causes it you can’t fix it.” In his son Paul’s case, the time from diagnosis to death was just one year and five months.
The disease truly can affect anyone. “It was nothing to do with lack of fitness. He was never sick a day in his life.” Paul even played League of Ireland football in his prime, winning a League Cup and an FAI Cup with Shamrock Rovers.
Magee had experienced tragedy early on in his life too when his father died of tuberculosis, when Magee was just 15-years-old. “My Dad died when he was only 43-years-old. I was the only visible means of support for the family. Not very visible, but I was the only visible means of support.”
He has more recently been working on a song that he plans to soon release into the Irish charts, titled ‘These Old Eyes Have Seen It All’. He says the song is nearly finished. “It has actually turned out well. Properly recorded with backing tracks, voice dubs, various musicians appearing in it. It’s almost ready. All proceeds, if any, will go to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association.”
Looking ahead to his future plans, Magee is hopeful of attending more international sporting events. “A lot of them are God’s plans, but my plan is, with his approval, to be in Brazil this summer [for the World Cup], then to be in Rio for the Olympic Games [in 2016], and then to be in Russia in four years’ time for the next World Cup. Maybe I’m just greedy.”
One stand-out quote from Magee’s book that says a lot about why he went into broadcasting is, “I realised that the greatest players didn’t last a lifetime, but commentators lasted forever.”
Jimmy Magee truly is a great and his contributions to sports broadcasting will last forever. There is, and will only ever be, one Memory Man.
Please visit www.imnda.ie for further details about the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association.