Belfast Telegraph

The Gail Walker Interview - Jackie Fullerton

Jackie Fullerton on George Best, Alex Higgins, Joey Dunlop ... and himself

By Gail Walker email:

JACKIE Fullerton turns 60 next week and invitations to the big birthday bash are winging their way through the post, but the landmark occasion will be tinged with sadness.

JACKIE Fullerton turns 60 next week and invitations to the big birthday bash are winging their way through the post, but the landmark occasion will be tinged with sadness.

Over the past two years the veteran BBC sports presenter has lost mum Martha and dad Jack, and he is still bereft.

"Then, shortly before my parents died, my wife Linda's mother died so you could say we've had a grim little hat-trick," says Jackie.

Now, when you think of Jackie, you think of a certain smoothness. You imagine how one day in the early 70s after playing for Crusaders he just decided to step on over the touchline and into the TV studio. Effortlessly.

Jackie has style. He's the sort of man who's not afraid to admit he likes to regularly "replenish the old wardrobe."

Once, interviewing Alex Higgins, he tells me how he spotted the snooker ace's black silk socks and later admired them so effusively that Alex nipped out, bought him three pairs and left them at reception.

"They were from Austin Reed, they were lovely," he says.

Jackie is not a tall man but he is still in good trim and has a certain charisma. When we meet he is wearing an expensively-cut grey suit, a check shirt, a red silk tie and black and wine two-tone shoes. A thick gold bracelet hangs on his wrist.

He reminds me a bit of Julio Iglesias -another ex-footballer who can sing - except Jackie's got more hair and, perhaps, more stage presence. (Unsurprisingly Jackie likes Perry Como, Dean Martin, those kind of guys.)

He knows that people think he's dapper and good fun. "My public image is that of frivolity and light-heartedness," he agrees, "but there's a very serious side to me too."

There certainly is.

He is a brilliantly witty raconteur, telling endless self-deprecating anecdotes, but there is another rarely-glimpsed "Jeekie."

When he talks about his parents - and the importance of family generally - he is both eloquent and deeply moving.

And asked deeply personal questions, he never hides behind flippant answers. "Of course I could have been a better husband," he reveals at one point.

John Alexander Fullerton was named after his father who was named after his father before him. His father got Jack, so Jackie got Jackie - to distinguish one from the other in the house.

Jackie, who has an older brother Jimmy and a younger sister, Mareen, grew up in Harryville, Ballymena. His father, who fought with the Inniskilling Fusiliers in the Second World War, was a postman and his mother worked in the local Gallagher's cigarette factory. "We were a working class family but I only have good memories," he says. "Our home had lots of love and humour and my parents worked hard to give us a start in life."

His mother's death on June 27, 2001, was the worst day of his life.

"It cut me in two," says Jackie, his eyes glistening.

"Mum's death came out of the blue and, as everyone knows, a mother is a mother.

"She'd had a small heart attack and gone to hospital but we were all looking forward to her coming home. Then I got that call ...

"Afterwards I fell out with the world for three months. I had to keep telling myself, hey, I wasn't the first person to lose a mother.

"But growing up you take parents for granted, then as you get older, family becomes more important to you until you realise that, in fact, family is everything in life."

He sees himself in his mother: "Like her, I'm a worrier."

But his father was a tough old boy. "He saw action in North Africa, Sicily, Italy ... he won medals, but he never talked about the war. He came from a time when people were hardier.

"He played golf four times a week until he was 78. Then he took a stomach ulcer and lost a lot of weight and never really recovered from that, although he lived until he was 84.

"Shortly before he died last year he said to me, never grow old, John. He always called me John. And I knew what he meant. He wasn't mobile, he was badly failed. There was no pleasure in life anymore."

Initially Jackie was training to be an accountant but his ability on the football pitch pulled him in a different direction.

He played for Derry City, Cliftonville and Crusaders but had also been sidelining in sports journalism and after the Crues won the Irish League championship in 1973 he was offered a job by UTV. "A pal quipped that Jackie retired to go into the movies," he says, with typical laconic timing.

He moved to the Beeb in 1992 and over the years became a trusted friend of George Best, Alex Higgins and the late Joey Dunlop.

Bizarrely, he shares his birthday, May 22, with Best. "I always say to George, who'd have thought two great left-wingers would be born on the same day?" he can't resist quipping.

(No, I didn't know Jackie was such a fervent supporter of the Labour Party, either.)

"George is a great man and I know there will be many in this country who say, oh, but he has let us down at times, but George has an affliction which is well chronicled," says Jackie.

"George is actually a quiet, shy man. He'll get on a plane and start reading a paper. He doesn't parade around saying, I'm George Best."

He is defensive too of Higgins: "I'm very fond of Alex. He may have been volatile but he was also a genius."

Famously, Jackie broke down on live TV when presenting a posthumous award to Joey Dunlop's family.

"I'm sure some people phoned up and said, give Jackie Fullerton a good slap, but I was genuinely overcome," he says.

His emotion was unsurprising - Jackie had managed to forge a warm friendship with one of the sporting world's most media-shy competitors.

"I struggled with Joey for eight years. Joey did not like microphones. He'd say to me, you know what I'm like at the talking, Jackie," says Jackie, effortlessly taking his own Ballymena accent further up the country to Dunlop's Armoy.

"When he won his first TT at the Isle of Man he told me afterwards that when he saw the finishing line he nearly shut the bike off because he knew the reporters would all be standing there ... and you know what I'm like at the talking, Jackie.

"The day after Joey's death I presented the programme from outside Joey's Bar. I was so shocked I still hadn't cried and then travelling home I read a piece by Belfast Telegraph Sports Editor John Laverty and he had captured Joey so brilliantly and poignantly and I just broke down."

His most enjoyable sporting moment was when Northern Ireland beat Spain in Valencia in the 1982 World Cup. "I remember hugging Billy Bingham and Gerry Armstrong and Billy's wonderful remark that ... we have humbled Spain in their own bullring.'"

His proudest moment was commentating from Wembley: "I thought, Jackie you never played here, but the next best thing must be commentating from here."

His worst moment was undoubtedly when huge wrestler Giant Haystacks famously flung him to the ground on Good Evening Ulster, leaving him with neck and back injuries that plague him to this day. "I don't know why he did it, other than he took an instant dislike to me," he says. "I should have sued but suing wasn't in vogue then."

Jackie's wife Linda recently retired after being a primary school teacher at Ballykeel PS for 33 years. The couple still live in Ballymena and have three sons, Darren (33), Nicky (29) and Gareth (26). Darren has made him a grandfather to twins, Jack and Erin. Nicky is a sports presenter with Citybeat and Darren and Gareth are newspaper journalists. He regrets not spending more time with his family.

"Six months after I started in TV, my job caused a bit of tension in the marriage," he admits. "I was working all hours and Linda was coping with the kids on her own. We had a heart-to-heart and I offered to go back to accountancy. After that she never complained.

"Linda's wonderful. She has never been into self-promotion, and I like that about her, and now we have more time to spend together which is great."

He's self-employed, so when he retires is up to him. "I'm still enjoying it but knowing when to go is important. Mind you, the public's probably saying Fullerton should have gone 20 years ago," he jokes.

How has he remained so down to earth? "A year into my TV career I was just getting a wee bit carried away with myself and Derek Murray, a producer at UTV who taught me so much, spotted this," says Jackie, a smile spreading across his face.

"One day he casually mentioned to me, Jackie always remember 30% of viewers like you, 30% hate you and the other 40% couldn't care less one way or another. I've never forgotten that."

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