Belfast Telegraph

Good to be Jack

12 weeks after heart op, Beeb's Mr Football is back on the box

By Grant Cameron

Live TV is not something Jackie Fullerton would usually find intimidating. After all, Northern Ireland's most experienced football commentator has been doing it for more than three decades!

Live TV is not something Jackie Fullerton would usually find intimidating. After all, Northern Ireland's most experienced football commentator has been doing it for more than three decades!



But as he made his comeback at the Oval last weekend following triple heart bypass surgery, the BBC veteran admits he did intermittently pose himself the question: "Can I still do this?"



Looking back on it this week in his Ballymena home, the doyen of local sports broadcasters admits it was a strange feeling and normally one which would be alien to a man who has broadcast football to the Province more often than the rest of us have engaged the buttons on the TV remote control at home to tune in.



But, of course, he had no cause to be apprehensive because, old pro that he is, Jackie automatically purred into gear when the cue came and delivered with all the polish and professionalism we have come to expect.

He explains: "It wasn't my commentary on Glentoran's Irish Cup tie against Lisburn Rangers that made me worry - that was recorded as the game went on. It was the challenge of the live draw for the next round that followed the match. I kept finding myself thinking ahead to it and wondering if I could do it.



"It was a tremendous high going back and being involved again. It was incredible to be working only 12 weeks after my surgery but as I sat in the stand on commentary, I kept thinking about the end of the game and asking myself would I have the right words to say?



"Thankfully, when the time came I was completely relaxed and felt really good. I did get all the words in the right order and my ad lib interview with Glentoran manager Roy Coyle went well. I suppose it is like riding a bicycle¿ once you get started again!"



And this wouldn't be Jackie Fullerton talking if he didn't poke a little fun at himself: "I even managed to get all the goals on the commentary, didn't I do well!"



By Saturday night, happy but exhausted, Jackie knew he had come a long way on his journey of recovery from a seven-week wait in hospital for his operation, on along the road to his return from lifesaving surgery on October 25.



"People asked me how I could get excited about covering a one-sided cup tie but they were missing the point," he says. "Going back to the Oval was a big step towards normality as far as I was concerned.



"It was a big thing for me to be there and be doing it two months ahead of the target time for my return.



"I received so much support from people it was tremendous. Roy Coyle and many of the directors were very good to me during my illness and were looking forward to seeing me. They gave me a great reception, so did the players. It was amazing.



"I had been back to games but not to work. I had met Kenny Shiels, Marty Quinn and Liam Beckett at Ballymena matches and that was fantastic. It meant so much to be back among football people but on Saturday I was returning to serious work and that had a different edge to it.

Astonished

"I was astonished because I was greeted with hugs from Coyler and the players. That was so special, a really nice feeling.



"People in the media paid a lot of attention to my return and I said to my wife Linda how flattering that was – now I've got to go and do it!"



He adds: "I've had wonderful support, particularly from my work colleagues at the BBC and in the sports department in particular, from all over the world, from near and far.



"I was so touched when my sister Mareen and little my god son Shann came all the way from Portstewart to Ballymena to wish me well on Saturday morning. They didn't have to go to all that trouble but they did.



"Arriving at the Oval, the stewards and supporters were shaking my hand and telling me that it was nice to see me back. I was very humbled by that and how much football people think of me."



Jackie admits that he has come through some rough periods during his convalescence but says he learned how to adapt to his situation: "I have been between a rock and a hard place.

Grateful

"There were different phases in my hospitalisation when I was emotional and tearful but that was par for the course. I went through a selfish phase wondering why it had happened to me and wanting to get back to normal the next day.

"Back then, the seven-week wait for surgery seemed like an eternity, despite the very good care and attention I received and for which I will always be grateful. Now, however, I think it just seems like seven days.



"But in the middle of it then it was hard because I felt relatively well with the medication I was on.

"I wanted to get on with things and I remember being able to see Windsor Park from one of the windows of my hospital ward. One night the lights were on and I just wished I was there watching Linfield play."



The man who has commentated on almost every Northern Ireland international since he joined the BBC 15 years ago and covered the Billy Bingham glory era in the Eighties while with UTV, had to make do with watching Lawrie Sanchez's men slug out a memorable 3-3 draw with Austria in mid-October from a bedside television.



"I'll never forget it. It was a tiny set but I was gripped watching the game and listening to my colleague, young Joel Taggart, on commentary. But I thought to myself, what a match to miss. I should be there."



The secret to his speedy recovery was the power of positive thinking.

"You have to feel positive about it all or else you just wouldn't cope very well," he explains, revealing that all through his ordeal he took inspiration from present Newcastle United manager Graeme Souness, the former Scotland international and Rangers and Liverpool midfielder who underwent triple bypass surgery in 1992.



"He is my role model. Souness still plays five-a-sides and stands in the dug out doing a pretty stressful job.



"I don't want to play five-a-sides but I do want to play a lot of golf in the summer and play it well!"



So, the only tackling we'll see the former Crusaders title winner attempting is his "lowly 18 handicap!"



Yesterday he was back in front of the camera again covering Linfield and Newry City in the Irish League, well ahead of his scheduled return which had been to warm up for the England v Northern Ireland World Cup qualifier at Old Trafford in March by getting in a couple of local matches earlier in the month.



"I still can't believe it," he smiles. "I got clearance from the hospital last week to work at the Oval and now I'm looking forward to commentating on Northern Ireland's friendly against Canada on February 9."



And we wouldn't want it any other way. Good to have you back where you belong, Jackie!

MARTIN O'NEILL: opening £1m clinic

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