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Jim Neilly: 'I enjoyed doing the games on a Friday and going home to watch it back. Now there's a gap there'

Our Sporting Lives and Times: Voice of rugby Jim Neilly on his big break, BBC losing the Ulster rights, and having no regrets

What a journey: Jim Neilly
What a journey: Jim Neilly
Jim Neilly commentating
Posing with a BBC camera
Ulster's David Humphreys on his way to scoring a try against Stade Francais in 1999
Wayne McCullough at the Olympic Games in 1992
Jonathan Bradley

By Jonathan Bradley

Close your eyes and picture David Humphreys' unforgettable try against Stade Francais in the 1999 European Cup semi-final. As the Ulster skipper streaks away from the chasing Parisians, chances are the pictures in your mind's eye are narrated by Jim Neilly.

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Just as you can still see the glee etched across Humphreys' face as he crosses the whitewash, you can hear the excitement in Neilly's voice.

"The try of this or any other season at Ravenhill..."

Tommy Bowe's try in Ireland's Grand Slam clincher 10 years later brings a similar response. Picture the Monaghan man collecting the bouncing ball in the Millennium Stadium and it feels almost impossible not to hear Neilly.

For a generation of Ulster fans, Neilly (68) is the voice of rugby, an institution who has ensured the most memorable of moments are forever entwined with his colourful descriptions. For the man himself, it's a journey that began in November 1978 - 40 years ago this month.

"I was a chemistry teacher at the Boys Model, but I'd got the chance to try a bit of broadcasting through my good friend George Hamilton who left the BBC to go to RTE in '78," he recalled.

"I was offered a one-year contract then by the BBC and it was made very clear that if they didn't like me at the end of that year then I'd be out.

"But I had to go for it. I felt like the most fortunate person in the world, getting to turn my passion, my hobby and what was all of my social life into a way to make a living."

Having played at school in RBAI and then for Kings Scholars and Instonians, his first commentaries were on players he'd played with, against or both.

"My first commentary was Ireland v France in January of 1979, it was Fergus Slattery's first game as captain. I'd played for Instonians not long before against the Blackrock of Fergus and Willie Duggan," he said.

"Just about everyone on the team I knew well. It made it easier for doing interviews and things."

There were still, of course, plenty of nerves even for one so meticulous in his preparation.

"In those days you'd be doing games for BBC Radio Ulster, the World Service, Radio 2, everybody. The other commentator was the brilliant Peter West, who I'd grown up listening to doing cricket and doing Wimbledon and all sorts, even the old Come Dancing," he said.

"He was very kind and put me at ease but when you're sitting there, beside Peter West of all people, you still have that lump in your throat and just have to take a deep breath and get on with it.

"Peter turned to me later and said, 'You know Jimbo, it's not a bad old life. We've got the best seats in the house, talking about the game we love, we'll go have a nice gin and tonic afterwards and, can you believe, someone is even paying us to be here'.

"I've never forgotten that, how much of a privilege it is."

Games were few and far between then compared to now, sometimes fewer than 10 commentaries a year. His passion for boxing, however, kept his schedule full.

It was a sport he'd come to love through his father, fondly remembering late nights spent listening to the fights of Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston crackling over the radio. He even became a qualified judge before his first commentary on a bill that included Barry McGuigan.

And it was boxing that brought him one of the most cherished moments of his career - the 1992 Olympics. In all he's covered eight Games, and nine Commonwealth Games too, but nothing can compare to Barcelona.

"After the boxing semi-finals, the last British guy had gone out, and Michael Carruth and Belfast's Wayne McCullough were through. We had a day off before the finals and myself, Harry Carpenter and our producer went for lunch. Harry had done every Olympic final since 1964 so I'd no expectation to be doing one but he said to our producer, 'Jimbo will have to do the two Irish guys'," he said.

"A lot of broadcasters would have seized on the Irish just for the self-aggrandisement but not Harry. I got to commentate on a piece of history. I was a very happy boy that day."

The landscape has changed significantly over the course of his four decades as one of the country's most recognisable voices, the biggest change of late coming with the BBC losing the rights to broadcast Ulster's league games this season.

"Its quite sad," he said.

"I really enjoyed doing the games on a Friday night, catching up with a few people afterwards and then going home and watching it all from start to finish again. It helped me wind down. Now I go home and there's a gap there.

"Probably the only game I'll do on TV this year will be the Schools' Cup final!"

Does he ever wonder what might have been had he opted instead to remain a teacher?

"The older you get, the more you can get away with saying, 'I used to be'," he added.

"'I used to be young. I used to be good looking. I used to be this, that and the other'.

"But one thing you never want to hear yourself say is, 'I could have been'.

"I could be sat here listening to someone else doing my job and saying, 'That could have been me'.

"You should always try and I've certainly no regrets."

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