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Jackie Fullerton: I'd a ticking time bomb inside and didn't know it, but as long as I'm wanted I won't hang up my boots

Voice of football Jackie Fullerton on his battle with a heart condition that could have killed him in minutes and how he convinced Stephen Nolan to join the BBC

By Ivan Little

BBC NI football commentator Jackie Fullerton has revealed that his life was probably saved by a routine scan on his back that led to the discovery of a ticking time bomb in another part of his body.

"I'm a very lucky man," says the 73-year-old broadcaster, who was told he could have died within minutes if the problems with his main artery, the aorta, hadn't been tackled by medics at the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast last month.

It was only after the operation that the Ballymena man, who is still regarded as the voice of football in Northern Ireland, realised just how major the surgery had been.

"I thought I was going in for a minor procedure and I was out of hospital inside a couple of days," says the ex-Irish League footballer.

"But I was later told I had come through major surgery, life-threatening surgery. I smiled and said to the doctor 'Thank you for telling me that now'."

Jackie acknowledges that he probably owed his life to the MRI scan four years ago. He says: "I'd been having excruciating pain in my back, probably thanks to the wear and tear of my football career, and the scan was designed to pinpoint what was wrong.

"However, after studying the results, the doctors said they'd better keep an eye on my aorta because they thought it looked distended.

"The dangerous thing is that you have no pain with it, so I'd been walking about in blissful ignorance.

"The doctors monitored it every six months for three-and-a-half years before the time came when they thought they would have to do something quickly with what they called an abdominal aortic aneurysm.

"I now know that if it bursts, you're a goner. The medics took me in last month for keyhole surgery through the groin. They told me the operation was a great success."

"I am so relieved that the difficulties were uncovered," adds Jackie, for whom the aortic operation was a hat-trick, so to speak, of major procedures.

The first was a triple heart bypass in October 2004, which left Jackie feeling like a new man.

Then, a year ago, he received a hip replacement, which he considered paying for himself to cut down on the waiting time. But, he says: "I decided against that on a point of principle, not because I'm a Ballymena man, but because I had worked all my life from the age of 16 and couldn't see why I should have to pay."

"I can't praise the NHS enough. They have been fantastic to me. I've been falling apart, but they've been re-building me - I'm a bit like a Meccano man," laughs the popular sports presenter, who will be back in the commentary box later today for a match between two of his old clubs, Crusaders and Ballymena United, at Seaview.

An added bonus for Jackie is that his back pain has disappeared, though no one has been able to give him a definitive explanation.

He says: "The pain could have come from the aneurysm pressing something towards the nerves in my back, but I am taking nothing for granted.

"I am assuming that I will always have back trouble, so it's not a magical cure, but for the moment I am pain-free, which is a blessing."

Jackie insists he has no desire to scale back on his weekly commentaries for the BBC in the Irish League, even though last year's Irish Cup showdown between Linfield and Glenavon was his last final. He says: "I can't take easily to retirement, and my weekly routine keeps a discipline to my life and keeps my mind working.

"Besides, I love being around sportspeople, especially football people. I enjoy the banter as they joke about my hair and my singing, but I don't take myself too seriously. If you give it out, you have to take it.

"I relish being able to go into dressing rooms, where the smell of the wintergreen takes me back to when I was playing. I'm privileged to be still part of that inner sanctum."

Jackie has no contract with the BBC for his Saturday work, but he says they've been good to him in using him to commentate on games.

There was controversy in 2015 when the Beeb announced he would not be commentating on Northern Ireland's games in the European Championship finals in France after 37 years behind the mic for the Corporation and UTV.

Jackie insists, however, that he has no hard feelings. "I didn't have a problem because I'd had my day in the big games with the BBC who had to bring new blood through," he says.

In any case, he wasn't side-lined completely from the Euros. He watched Northern Ireland's games while on holiday in Croatia, and phoned in his analysis to the Stephen Nolan show the following day.

"It was funny watching the matches on the TV in the former Yugoslavia and still making notes of the times of the incidents," says Jackie, who was partially responsible for Nolan joining the BBC in the first place.

"I met him (Nolan) when he was a radio presenter with Citybeat and I remember telling him he should forget any reservations he had and go to the BBC," he explains.

Eamonn Holmes has also acknowledged his debt to Jackie for the guidance he gave him when he joined UTV as a rookie reporter.

Some observers have said Holmes' style of delivery owes much to that of his mentor, who spent 19 years at Havelock House, UTV's home, before his high-profile transfer to the BBC.

Jackie covered Northern Ireland's exploits at the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain, and he also reported on their games at the finals in Mexico four years later.

The 2014 movie Shooting for Socrates was centred on those Mexican finals, and award-winning Ballycastle actor Conleth Hill, who stars in the HBO series Game of Thrones, brought Jackie to life on the silver screen, saying that he was privileged to portray one of his boyhood heroes.

Jackie's only tongue-in-cheek quibble with Conleth's depiction of him was about his trademark hair: "They gave Conleth a grey wig, but I didn't have grey hair in 1986!"

His three sons, Darren, Nicky and Gareth, have all followed their dad into sports journalism, but Jackie says: "They all did what they did with no pressure from me and with no help from me, but I tell them that they're in the media while I'm in showbiz."

On a serious note, while Jackie concedes that this season could be his last commentating on Irish League games, he adds: "If I'm still active and healthy and they want me, I may go on just so long as I am enjoying it. I would never say never."

Another friend adds: "Jackie has talked about quitting before and he's still on air, which is hardly surprising because he is the best in the business despite his advancing years."

Even if Jackie does hang up his microphone, he is still unlikely to be a stranger in football grounds, particularly the Ballymena Showgrounds. He says he was thrilled and proud recently to be made an honorary life member of Ballymena United, the team he has supported since he was five years old.

"I still go to see the Sky Blues if I am not working," he explains.

"But last Saturday, after my aorta operation, I had to stay at home. The doctors told me not to get excited, so I watched the Ireland rugby game instead."

Even if Jackie does opt to stop broadcasting, there's no doubt he'll still be in demand as a host at corporate events where his quick-witted ad-libs and spontaneity have made him a class act.

He is also president of the Northern Ireland Football Writers' Association and he says he'd be proud to take up the reins from the late Belfast Telegraph sports editor, Malcolm Brodie.

"He'd been a massive part of my life since I was a young boy reading his reports," Jackie adds. "And then I got a few good write-ups from him for my performances on the pitch.

"He was the main man and to get praise from him was extra special because he had that aura about him.

"I used to think he had a fantastic job travelling the world to report on football, little thinking I would get the chance to do it too in later years.

"I was deeply honoured to be asked to do a eulogy for him at his funeral. He was a dear friend and I still miss him."

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