Smyth jpg

Tommy Smyth offers a bag full of stories

Tommy Smyth

 

By Max O’Neill

Tommy Smyth is a man that has done what he loves for the last 50 plus years and doesn’t care what any of the trolls have to say about it.

Better than that, he is a man who is famous in Pakistan - purely by accident.

Not too many people from Louth, from Ireland, or just about anywhere, can lay claim that.

Smyth is also a pretty busy guy and with a new English Premier League season getting underway this weekend, things are about to get busier still.

Sign up to The Irish Echo Newsletter

Sign up today to get daily, up-to-date news and views from Irish America.

“In a year I have announced three hundred games. Often in a weekend I have announced eight games. We were doing them off the monitor.”

Smyth is referring to his job as a soccer commentator and analyst for ESPN.

Smyth started in the field of broadcasting thanks to a weekly radio show that he put on in Mount Kisco in Westchester County, New York, with his brother.

The Smyth brothers would provide scores and results from sporting events in Ireland and their sister would provide the news.

He first got a job at ESPN because of the 1994 FIFA World Cup in the United States.

Smyth called ESPN asking for a job doing something involved in the World Cup and was told they would call him when ESPN International was launched.

“But I met the woman who was the head of ESPN International and she said you sound like you would be ideal for us but we are not on the air yet.

“That was in October I think and in December I got a call from them. They said they wanted me to do a game in the Brazilian Championship in January.”

The first game he did was between Santos and Guarani and to prepare he went home and broadcast a game over Christmas break for his nieces and nephews to get their seal of approval.

Smyth explains that he came up with his famous catchphrase out of necessity because he was seeing that other commentators had catchphrases - like Marv Albert’s ‘YES!’

He explained the process of coming up with a “bulge in the auld onion bag” thus: “I had kicked around the idea of this onion bag. I got together with a friend of mine, Barry McCormack, and had a chat about it.

“We tried many versions of it and we refined it down to actually, a bulge in the auld onion bag. That was how it came around.”

According to Tommy, ESPN used to get letters ripping him for using the phrase multiple times in one match, but in actuality he would only use it once.

“I mean, some of the letters ESPN used to get about the onion bag were unbelievable. You wouldn’t imagine it could affect people’s lives as much.

Contrary to what they all say I only ever used it once in a game. People would say he said the onion bag all night long. I only said it for one goal, I never used it for a second goal.

“You can go back over all the tapes I’ve done of games and you will never find a bulge in the auld onion bag used twice. It wasn’t necessary the first goal. I might have waited for a really good goal, so that was how it came about, and it stuck.”

Smyth has broadcast every UEFA Champions League Final since 1998 - that being a 3-1 win by Borussia Dortmund over Juventus in Munich.

One of the more memorable Champions League finals that he broadcast was the 1999 final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

This was the epic in which United scored two goals in the last two minutes to win with super subs Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

“One of the proudest things I did was I did two Champions League finals at Wembley. I wanted to be an Irish guy who left Ireland as an immigrant and to go back to Wembley and say hey, I made it, I broadcast a Champions League final at Wembley.

“The last game life I did for ESPN I’m also very proud of. It’s funny how life plays you a hand. The last game was Celtic and Barcelona in Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

“I mean, could you write a better script, Celtic and Barcelona in Dublin. It was awesome.”

Smyth also looks back fondly on doing twenty minutes of the second half of the 1997 Champions League final between Borussia Dortmund and Juventus with none other than Sir Alex Ferguson.

And then there is the never to be forgotten 1994 World Cup game between Ireland and Italy at Giants Stadium in New Jersey.

Most at the time gave Ireland little or no chance to beat the 1990 World Cup 3rd place finishers.

However, thanks to an 11th minute goal by Ray Houghton, the Irish pulled the upset of the tournament and won the game.

“There’s a few of them but certainly the one that got my blood flowing was the goal against Italy at Giants Stadium.”

“Ray Houghton put it in the back of the net and Ireland win one nil. It’s just one of those things you just never believed would happen, that Ireland would beat Italy at Giants Stadium.”

Smyth’s call of the goal was “Onto it comes Houghton, Houghton with the shot, and it’s in!”

Smyth recalls the New York City being abuzz after the game and every pub filled with Irish fans.

During the 1994 World Cup, Smyth was also working as a house painter on Long Island and he tells a story concerning the Argentina versus Nigeria game in Foxboro.

This happened to be Diego Maradona’s last ever game for Argentina - before he tested positive for drugs and was forced to retire from the national team.

The day before the game, Smyth told the client whose house he was painting to watch the game the next day because he would be broadcasting it.

So the lady watched the game and…..“Monday morning I came back and I couldn’t paint the house, she wouldn’t let me paint the house. She called my boss and said he is not a house painter, he is a soccer commentator. My boss had to send somebody else to paint the house.”

Smyth today has a radio show on Sirius XM with former Tampa Bay Rowdies and Manchester City player, Rodney Marsh.

The show is called “Grumpy Pundits.”

“I love it,” Smyth says of the show.

“He’s straight forward,” he says of his co-presenter.

The sports media landscape is changing with the internet becoming an ever bigger part of the way that fans get their news.

“The world is changing,” says Smyth.

“I remember when it cost five dollars to make a phone call to Ireland, now it’s free.’

Sports, however, is always going to be with us one way or another, he adds.

And sports will always spring its surprises, soccer no less than any other game.

In the 2015-16 English Premier League season, the team that was almost relegated the year before, Leicester City, won the title and this past premier league season they finished 12th out of 20 teams.

Many have credited this to the play of central midfielder N’Golo Kanté which was followed by his departure to current champions Chelsea.

In regards to the twelve place drop by the Foxes, Smyth opines: “To me, the Leicester victory was a case of they got everything right on the year. I am in awe of what their scouting did, the fact that they could come up with somebody like Kanté, and a few other players, (such as) Mahrez. Unfortunately it generally only happens, once in life.”

When talking about the U.S. Men’s National Team and Christian Pulisic, who many have anointed as the new savior of U.S. soccer, Smyth is quick to hit the brakes when it comes anointing the teenager saying, “The U.S. has now come up with a player who could be the best young player in the world.

“He has potential to be something really great, but again the jury is still out. I’ve seen a lot of young players with a lot of attention. There was one guy who comes to my mind, Quaresma.

“This guy was to be the next Pele, the next Maradona. He didn’t turn out to be any of those things. He had a few good years so you have to be careful.”

We also discussed another U.S. wonder kid, Freddy Adu, who was drafted by DC United in the MLS in 2004, as a 14-year-old and later that year made his debut and scored a goal being the youngest player to do both of those in MLS history.

But while Adu’s career took off like a rocket at its start, he never truly soared and what followed was a career moving from one tem to another in Europe and the U.S.

Many see in Adu a classic case of fame and attention at too early an age.

That said, Smyth does have high hopes for Pulisic.

Tommy Smyth is a man who tailors his love of soccer to his own beat.

He loves the game and is always ready to tell stories and pass on the wisdom he has gained to anybody who wants to listen.

He will also deliver his trademark onion bag line if you politely ask.

But only once.

And as for being famous in Pakistan?

Tommy is accidentally famous in Pakistan by no doing of his own.

On a local Pakistan news channel, the anchor was talking about Tommy Smith, the former Liverpool FC defender.

While taking about Smith, the channel put up a graphic on the screen of Tommy Smyth, the man from Knockbridge, County Louth, which, suffice it to say, is a long, long way from Kashmir.

 

Donate