Belfast Telegraph

Jackie's always been a good sport

By Jim Gracye and Kevin Connolly

JACKIE Fullerton at 60 . . . hard to believe, isn't it?

JACKIE Fullerton at 60 . . . hard to believe, isn't it?

It seems no time at all since the Ballymena boyo was a fresh-faced cub sports presenter, just starting out on the great adventure, that has taken him a long way from what he calls his "average" Irish League football career, with Crusaders.

Then, he was UTV's housewives' favourite. Today, he is the BBC's elder statesman of sports broadcasting.

And, in the business, they will tell you he has no peers, on Northern Ireland TV.

Fortunately, Fullerton was, and is, a telly natural.

Having trained as an accountant, and with no TV or journalistic experience, he was given a break out of the blue, at 30 - old by today's standards.

To his own surprise, he quickly became a ratings winner, as one half of local television's first truly popular, homespun double act, with Gloria Hunniford.

Until Jackie and Gloria lightened up our living rooms, with their nudge and wink humour-laced handovers, TV news here had been a 'stuffed shirt' affair.

But, they brightened the doom and gloom bulletins of dark 70s evenings, and the viewing public took them to their hearts.

It's a format that has been shamelessly copied to this day, though not always as successsfully.

Thirty years on, our Jackie remains the same bashful, unaffected guy.

Many a so-called local TV 'celeb' would shy away from sharing the onset of their seventh decade.

But, those who know him best, say one of Jackie's greatest qualities, is his complete absence of the archetypal, over-inflated TV ego.

Work colleagues of the Beeb's top man, and even cynical print reporters, who regularly travel with him on assignment, relate how he takes his work seriously - but not himself.

They tell how he laughingly sends himself up, and brightens up many a dull trip to far-flung Armenia or Azerbaijan, with his singing talent.

To his pals in the business, he is known as Smiler.

He even enjoyed the last laugh in the most infamous moment of his career - when wrestler, Giant Haystacks, painfully and repeatedly, slammed him to the UTV studio floor, in a demonstration of the art.

The incident later featured on telly's Alright On The Night, and for years afterwards, royalty cheques dropped through his Ballymena letterbox, from as far away as Australia!

"The incident with Giant Haystacks introduced me to people all around the world," Jackie laughs.

"It happened in 1980, but, to this day, when I go to football matches, or on holiday to Majorca, Ulster folk shout: 'Jackie, where's Giant Haystacks?'

"I've done documentaries with George Best, Alex Higgins, and Joey Dunlop, and I've commentated all over the world, but I'm remembered for a wrestler flinging me to the floor!

"He was only supposed to lift me, and scare me a bit, then set me down easy, on the judo mat. I've had shoulder trouble ever since. But, we met a couple of times over the years, and we ended up as pals."

Fullerton is, indeed, on first name terms with some of the world's best-known sports stars, among them the notoriously difficult Sir Alex Ferguson. They first met on the end of a microphone, and, in a tribute to his easy style, formed a lasting friendship.

And, to think it all started with a televised penalty kick competition, as he neared the end of his Crusaders days?

"It was 1973, and I took part in a penalty prize competition, on the UTV programme, Sportscast," says Jackie.

"I played cricket as well, and got chatting to UTV's controller, Sidney Perry, who was a cricket buff.

"He must have been impressed, because a couple of months later, he asked would I be interested in TV.

"I did accountancy for a living, and was a three-quarters-qualified cost accountant, but I had always thought about going into the media, after I quit playing football.

"I've often said to young broadcasters, coming into the business, that it's one thing to get the chance, but you have to toil very hard to make it work. I was very fortunate."

Then, typically, he jokes again: "My real claim to fame, is that I share a birthday with Bestie - I'll be 60 on May 22, and George will be 57. Isn't it amazing that two great wingers were born on the same day!"

Of all the sporting triumphs he has described down the years, Jackie, not surprisingly, picks out Northern Ireland's 1982 World Cup fairytale, in Spain.

"To be in Valencia, when we beat Spain 1-0, was the most emotional sporting moment of my career," he insists.

"Thirty seconds after the final whistle, I was in the centre circle, with Billy Bingham, as he greeted the goalscorer, Gerry Armstrong, in front of 48,000 people.

"Billy had tears in his eyes, Gerry was the same, and I had a lump in my throat! It was a special moment the whole country will always remember, and I was fortunate to be part of it.

"Growing up as a football-daft Ballymena boy, I dreamt about playing for Northern Ireland, at Wembley, and if you can't play there, the next best thing is to commentate."

Jackie still loves it when BBC's Football Focus features his commentaries on Northern Ireland matches.

"It's nice for me to be featured," he says, "but it's always nice when Northern Ireland are featured. England tend to hog the limelight on national television, so it's nice to see the smaller countries get an occasional mention."

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