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'Everybody was having a laugh. Those were indeed the days when you could enjoy yourself with the players'

George Hamilton recalls a trip to Bulgaria in his early days as a commentator.

George Hamilton (file pic).
George Hamilton (file pic).
Image: James Crombie/INPHO

THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE is an extract from ‘The Nation Holds its Breath’ by George Hamilton.

Fresh from my first World Cup, where I’d actually met Pelé and got his autograph in a check-in queue at Mendoza Airport, I was offered a contract by RTÉ.

I would soon be on my way to a new career and indeed a new life in Dublin, but there was one more trip on the schedule before I made that move. The combination of compulsive curiosity and overwhelming wanderlust meant that ever since my student year in West Germany, when I’d had the chance to make my first tentative forays beyond the Iron Curtain, I’d been itching for the opportunity to investigate further. Now I had it. Northern Ireland were playing in Bulgaria.

This was in the qualifying round for the European Championship of 1980, which involved a group of five teams battling for the one place available at the Finals in Italy. There was huge significance in the line-up, for Northern Ireland and the Republic had been drawn together, meaning they would meet for the very first time in September 1978.

England were hot favourites. Ron Greenwood’s England featured Kevin Keegan, the captain Emlyn Hughes, Phil Neal, Ray Clemence, Terry McDermott – all European Cup winners with Liverpool the previous year – Trevor Brooking, Ray Wilkins and Peter Shilton.

As well as Bulgaria, World Cup participants as recently as 1974, Denmark were in there too, at a time when their team was still managed by a selection committee. It would be 1979 before the Danish FA appointed a full-time professional coach, a German by the name of Sepp Piontek.

The Republic had already posted a 3–3 draw in Copenhagen when the two shades of green squared off at Lansdowne Road. It was a three o’clock kick-off that Wednesday afternoon.

I felt extremely fortunate and honoured to be BBC Northern Ireland’s man with the mic on this historic occasion. Sadly, the match didn’t live up to it.

‘A game conceived in tumult died with a whimper,’ wrote Peter Byrne in The Irish Times, opening his account of the scoreless draw. Much ado about nothing-nothing.

My commentary also made it onto RTÉ, which was fortuitous after my involvement with their World Cup coverage in Argentina. A strike by riggers at the station meant there was no commentary position for Jimmy Magee.

Northern Ireland followed that with a 2–1 home win over Denmark.

Next up was the trip to Sofia. The small BBC party joined officials from the Irish Football Association for the shuttle to Heathrow, where we hooked up with Danny Blanchflower’s squad for the journey on to the Bulgarian capital, onboard a scheduled British Airways flight. Charters, private aircraft? That wasn’t part of the deal.

Thanks to my own compulsive curiosity and the sheer uniqueness of it all, it’s firmly etched in my memory. The clear skies of a fine November afternoon. The routing that took us over Stuttgart and the thought struck me that down there, 35,000 feet below, was a friend of mine, Winfried Roesner, the South German Radio journalist who’d sought me out as a guide when he’d come to Belfast to report on the Peace People. Landing in Bulgaria at a spartan aerodrome. The long walk from the aircraft to the arrivals hall.

Pat Jennings remarking, as we left the chill and entered the building, ‘Can’t you just smell it?’ – the distinctive mustiness of air untroubled by the fragrance of Flash, the persistent reek of the rough tobacco that would never have made it onto Western shelves. We were behind the Iron Curtain.

We didn’t go in for co-commentators back then. I had just the one travelling companion – Nevin McGhee, the man who had cajoled BBC Northern Ireland into live coverage of George Best’s return in Rotterdam two years previously.

There was plenty of time over our three-day stay, once our pre-match obligations had been fulfilled, to venture forth from our hotel in the centre of Sofia, directly opposite the Bulgarian parliament building, to check out the Orthodox cathedral, to walk the streets where the distinctive exhaust fumes of the limited traffic still lingered on the chilly air, past the windows of the department store with boxes of washing powder on display.

Up to the church of St Sophia, where there was the Monument to the Unknown Soldier with its eternal flame. And back down again, to what’s known as the Largo – three huge buildings in the Stalinist style where government was based in the communist era – and the Presidency, with sentries outside, just like Buckingham Palace in London.

And, as we were to discover, we’d happened upon the location at precisely the right moment – just like at Buckingham Palace, there is a changing of the guard, on the hour, every hour.

It rained on the night of the match. Rained throughout the game. We were in the dry, but conditions were miserable. Cold and wet. For the 11,000 or so spectators scattered across the vast open acres of the Vasil Levski stadium, there wasn’t even the consolation of a performance to lift the gloom.

Gerry Armstrong struck early. Billy Caskey scored in the second half to make it 2–0 at the finish. Danny Blanchflower had worked his magic again. Three games in and Northern Ireland were top of the group. It would not be the only happy night I’d experience in that old Soviet-era stadium.

We all made our way back to the hotel. Our work was done.

The written press still had its copy to file. In 1978, communications with the West weren’t the most efficient or straightforward (though I would soon discover that Irish telecommunications at the time could also leave a lot to be desired!).

For the hacks, it now became a waiting game. Book a call with the hotel switchboard, then repair to your room and await their pleasure. One of those was the Belfast News Letter’s correspondent, Jimmy Dubois.

The News Letter, based in Donegall Street, just the other side of St Anne’s Cathedral from The Irish News and around the corner from the Belfast Telegraph in Royal Avenue, in what would count as the northern capital’s equivalent of Fleet Street, remains the longest-surviving continuously published English language newspaper, having frst appeared in 1737.

It boasts a proud history. Among its scoops, it was the first paper in Europe to report the American Declaration of Independence. Its sports section retains a cutting edge, but that night, not many know how close it came to losing its back page lead.

The Northern Ireland team was back now too, fed and ready to relax, and a couple of those who’d played their part in this significant victory had made their way to the ever-hospitable Jimmy’s room. He was the most charming of men, with a cherubic air that always seemed oddly out of place among the hard chaws of the press pack. Somehow Nevin and I ended up there too.

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The crack was mighty. This was a ‘vintage victory’ as the Belfast Telegraph put it on its back page – a first away win in four years. It was cold outside. The hotel had boosted the central heating.

And with a few celebratory beers being chugged and the obligatory Benson & Hedges being puffed – who wasn’t a smoker in those days? – the air in Jimmy’s compact apartment became a little on the stuffy side.

The solitary window was pushed wide open. The flimsy tulle of the Bulgarian net curtain began to waft as the warmth being generated by our celebratory beano met the plummeting temperature of the Balkan night. The rain had turned to snow.

Of course, everybody was having a laugh. Those were indeed the days when you could enjoy yourself with the players and they would be happy that you were there, all part of the party.

The principal joker was Allan Hunter, then with Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town, who were big in England’s top tier at the time. Allan had won the FA Cup with Ipswich the previous May, centre back alongside Kevin Beattie as they beat Arsenal, managed by a Northern Irishman, Terry Neill, 1–0.

The Arsenal team was captained by Pat Rice and included Pat Jennings and Sammy Nelson. Jennings, who’d observed the olfactory oddities on arrival in the airport, was in goal that night in Sofia, with Nelson at left-back.

Hunter, who should have been captaining the side, had been ruled out because of a knee injury but had been brought on the trip nonetheless. Those were the good old days.

The snapshot is as vivid now as it was when the moment froze all those years ago. Allan’s eye lit upon Jimmy’s notepad, nestled beside the telephone, the ready reference for when the connection was finally made to the copy-taker in Donegall Street. He picked up the spiral-bound pad and scanned the handwritten notes on the top page.

‘Is this your match report, Jimmy?’

You could tell what was coming next. ‘This is all crap,’ he laughed. ‘You cannot be serious!’

And, no doubt still pumping the adrenaline that should have seen him through the evening on the pitch but had, on this occasion, been fuelled still further by copious refreshment, big Allan fired the notepad at the window.

It was caught by the flimsy net curtain, hung tantalisingly inches beyond the sill, then floated away, down into the winter darkness.

Jimmy’s face fell, but not being a man to make a fuss, he contained himself admirably. Inside his whole being must have been crumbling. The gasps that had filled the room subsided.

Well lubricated by now, nobody else there knew quite where to look or what to say, caught between peals of laughter at the sheer comic madness of what had just transpired and gasps of horror at the thought that the phone would ring any minute now and poor Jimmy would have to make the whole thing up as he went along.

The big brick shithouse of a defender instantly realised that this particular tackle had gone completely over the top. He rose purposefully, saying nothing and strode from the room. We were several storeys up, at the back of a hotel in downtown Soviet Sofia.

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Goodness only knew what lay below. The mental image was of a sodden notebook lodged between hotel-sized wheelie bins and crates of empty beer bottles.

In no time at all, the hotel room door opened and with a fourish big Allan presented Jimmy with his match report, none the worse for its late-night flight through the Balkan air.

When the phone eventually rang, we left Jimmy to it and repaired to the bar in the hotel basement.

I got talking to some locals – in German, which surprised me. It turns out that learning German as well as the obligatory Russian was quite common, because all the principal scientific textbooks in the Eastern bloc came from East Germany. It all made sense.

It was getting late and we’d an early enough start the following morning, flying Balkan Airlines to Zürich in Switzerland on the first of the three legs of our journey home.

I was reminded of the story told of a former sportswriter with the Daily Mirror in Belfast, Jack Milligan, who’d found himself in a similar situation after a match in a far-flung location and had decided to amuse himself by calling one of his more abstemious colleagues who’d had an early night.

When the phone was answered by a voice belonging to somebody who’d been roused from a deep sleep, Jack announced himself.

‘What the hell are you ringing me for?’ the unfortunate wanted to know. ‘Have you any idea what time it is?’ Jack replied in song. ‘It’s a quarter to three/ There’s no one in the place/ Except you and me … one for my baby/ And one more for the road’ was Jack’s party piece!

I was with John Roberts when I made my exit. John was the tennis correspondent for The Independent for 20 years, but back then he was the north of England football reporter for the Daily Express, a beat that included the Northern Ireland football team.

Much like myself, John was vertically challenged and he also wore glasses, which gave him the appearance of Don Estelle’s character Lofty Sugden in the BBC sitcom It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, set in India during the British Raj.

northern-irelands-allan-hunter-l-tries-to-clear-from-englands-trevor-francis-r Northern Ireland's Allan Hunter (l) tries to clear from England's Trevor Francis (r). Source: Alamy Stock Photo

When we emerged from the basement, the snow was still falling and it was, believe it or not, a quarter to three. Nothing stirred. The empty, dimly lit streets were blanketed white.

I remembered the hourly changing of the guard outside the Presidency. I wondered aloud if they might do it through the night. ‘There’s only one way of finding out,’ said John, so off we marched, our footprints the only imprints on the virgin snow.

Up past the department store with its window display of washing powder, on past the few parked cars up Tsar Osvoboditel Boulevard, crunching through the snow that was still falling and lodging itself on the round frames of John’s spectacles. Halfway there, it seemed we were on a mad mission but, suitably lubricated, there was no way we were turning back.

As we finally approached the Largo, we stopped in disbelief. In the darkness in the distance, we could see them. The two sentries. Standing to attention. It was five to the hour. We edged closer, wondering now would our presence draw undue attention that might interfere with a return to our beds in the Grand Hotel, a 10-minute walk away.

The silence was broken by a bell tolling. Through the arch behind the two sentries, out marched their relief, in greatcoats, knee-high boots and Russian army-style fur ushanka hats, both bearing a bayonet.

The handover was completed with formal military ceremonial, concluding with the two newcomers standing to attention as their counterparts marched back into what must have been welcome respite beyond the Presidency doors.

We couldn’t quite believe what we’d just witnessed, but our question had been answered. The changing of the guard in Sofia was a 24/7 operation.

‘The Nation Holds its Breath’ by George Hamilton is published by Merrion Press. More info here.

– First published 7.30am, 31 December

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