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Jimmy Smyth: I went from Protestant primary school cricket team to All Ireland gaelic football final captain and ended up in BBC commentary box

As Armagh's 1977 All Ireland final team hold a 40th anniversary reunion, the county's all-time great Jimmy Smyth on how his remarkable journey began in a completely different ball game

A few weeks ago, the 1977 Armagh senior football team held a reunion at the Carrickdale Hotel, before going on to Dundalk Races. It had been 40 years since they had played an All-Ireland final, when they lost heavily to Dublin, but the bonds forged during a time when it was practically impossible to meet and train regularly as a team were still there.

And in the middle of them all, was one of the most recognisable voices of Ulster GAA, laughing, telling tall tales and joking; their now 68 year old captain, Jimmy Smyth.

By the time of the '77 final, he was already one of the most-decorated footballers in the county with multiple Armagh titles for his club Clan na Gael of Lurgan, but he also had a second life in the GAA as the BBC NI television match commentator through an era of Ulster supremacy of the early '90s, which for him peaked when his own county won their breakthrough All-Ireland title in 2002.

And yet, Smyth's first sporting experiences will surprise you.

"My first game was cricket, because I lived in Waringstown!" he delights in telling.

"My claim to fame would be that I opened the batting with Michael Reith, who went on to play for Ireland. He and I opened the batting in a Graham Cup tie."

Because his father Francie and mother Mary had set up home in Waringstown, it seemed natural that the young Jimmy would just attend the local primary school, which happened to be a Protestant school, but Smyth insists he was far from the only Catholic there.

And although he wasn't to know it then, there were some benefits. Recently he was talking to an old classmate, and he explains: "She said she used to be very envious of me because I was excused from Religious Instruction. I was able to go out and read while they had to sit and do their Religious Instruction, while she wanted to sit with me, reading books!"

When he turned seven, he had to change schools in order to gain religious teachings before Holy Communion. In his new school, his teacher was none other than Gerry Fagan, at the time the Armagh county board secretary, and occasionally he would have to pop him a handwritten note from his mother pleading: 'Dear Mr Fagan, would you please allow Jim to leave school at 12 o'clock as he is playing for Waringstown against Armagh Royal.'

Eventually the family moved into Lurgan. Smyth went on to study at the famed Gaelic football nursery of St Colman's, where they won the Hogan Cup, beating the illustrious St Jarlath's of Tuam in the 1967 final.

In the Down school, a fellow pupil took note of his skills and invited him to come along and play with Tullylish. This was to be his 'Sliding Doors' moment.

"I was supposed to play for Tullylish. I stood with my football stuff at the side of the Gilford Road, because we had moved into Lurgan then. And I was waiting for this man, Paddy McEvoy, to bring me out to Tullylish. He never appeared," he recalls.

"The next day, Dessie Turley said to me, 'hi boy, you don't fancy playing for the Clans?' So I headed down and started playing for the Clans (Clan na Gael) in Lurgan."

The Clans went on to dominate in Armagh, routinely turning over Crossmaglen and the county board took note and selected 10 Clans players for a tournament in Casement Park featuring Armagh, Antrim, Sligo and Dublin.

But inter-county wasn't all it might have been at the time. Not for the Lurgan contingent who hoovered up nine county titles in 14 seasons, and beaten finalists on three occasions.

They won three successive Ulster club titles in that time from '72 to '74, but their loss against UCD in the '74 All-Ireland final remains a regret.

"The club Championship is the best, by a mile," states Smyth.

"It is the competition that defines the GAA. The stories that have come out of it, there is a whole mystique about it.

"So I would have loved to have won the All-Ireland club - that would have been a big, big thing. Our captain John Greene said we all came from a few streets in the Shankill estate in Lurgan and we had all grown up together."

Nowadays, Jimmy is retired from teaching, having spent decades in St Paul's School in Lurgan, but also serving his club when required and spending many years as a volunteer for the Ulster Vocational Schools GAA.

He and wife Mary, who played camogie for Armagh, have lived for 44 years in in Francis Street, Lurgan, across the street from the Clan na Gael grounds. Their four children - Anne-Marie, Paula, Maretta and Ciara - keep them busy with their 11 grandchildren. One day in the lead-in to Christmas, he made 17 stuffing loaves from his mother's recipe. Life is good.

When he was younger though, he was a young man in a hurry with an Armagh side that limped along. Over decades, the idea of the team training together was implausible due to the security situation, at the time so Smyth used to take training in Lurgan for players in the north of the county, while their trainer Gerry O'Neill, brother of Northern Ireland World Cup captain Martin, trained the players in the south of the county.

"It was shocking. Really shocking. We were stopped every night without fail going to training," he recalls.

While a student at St Mary's, he witnessed what good standards were.

"You were used to a certain quality and application at training," he explains.

"I was coming down from Belfast on the train to Lurgan, whereas other boys wouldn't turn up. Nobody turning up! Just getting back on the train and coming back up again."

Despite it all, they made it to the 1977 final. Smyth is preserved forever in a memorable photograph before the game, looking into the camera for the pre-game handshake with his counterpart, Dublin's Tony Hanahoe, who keeps his gaze directly on Smyth.

That game came and went. More county titles followed but then Smyth took a phone call to the school where he taught PE, St Paul's Lurgan.

The late, revered BBC Sports Editor Joy Williams was on the line, asking if he would do co-commentary for the 1983 Ulster final. That led to commentating on the 1983 All-Ireland semi-final replay between Cork and Dublin, held, unusually, down in Cork.

He tells the yarn: "On a Tuesday I was in the garden at home and the phone rang. I ran in and lifted the phone and it was Joy. She asked how I fancied going to Cork on Sunday. I said that would be very nice and I was to meet them at Aldergrove at 9 o'clock.

"She said it was a six-seater plane! So we flew down to Cork. The most surreal experience. Unreal. A six-seater plane floating down to Cork, wasn't a cloud in the sky."

In 1989, he took on the mic himself, encouraged by Jim Neilly.

"I was given two instructions. One was: Talk, and the second one was: Don't Talk," he says.

Alongside Peter McGinnity as co-commentator, Smyth enjoyed a ringside seat in the most illustrious period of Ulster football in the early '90s.

"I am not saying we were the best commentary duo in the world, but I thought people got the impression we knew what we were talking about," he modestly suggests now.

"We just hit a golden era for Ulster football. And Jim Neilly deserves an awful lot of credit for that. He pushed the boat out and got us covering matches.

"Eir Sport showed the Down-Derry match in 1994 there recently, and we will never see the likes of that again. It was a classic."

His favourite memory is, of course, the 2002 All-Ireland final, when Armagh finally landed the big one. And he also managed something few have mastered when he got a smile from Kieran McGeeney captured in a photograph.

"This was after the 2002 semi-final," he recalls. I had gone into the changing rooms before the match and said to McGeeney, I wanted him to do me two favours; number one, to make sure I am not ever going to be referred to as Armagh's last All-Ireland final captain. And to make sure he was Armagh's first All-Ireland winning captain.

"So I was walking past him after the game and I tapped him on the shoulder, said, 'one down, one to go', and that's why he was laughing."

Making others laugh. That's Jimmy.

Belfast Telegraph


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