Friday, 5 April 2013

Time For An Ad Break

You have to say Rory McIlroy's "performance" in those Santander ads is painful to watch. He looks as comfortable as George Osborne in a Poundland store. But there's nothing new about sportsmen and women taking the advertiser's pieces of silver.
George Best more than most. Here's a sixties ad for an aftershave called Fore. Which is surely the wrong sport. He's not even using his feet.

The one I remember growing up, though, is his ads for Cookstown Family Sausages. I think that might even be his mother giving him said sausages here.

For a proper Ulster fry-up you'd need some eggs to go along with those sausages. So here's another Best appearance. He gets lines in this one and it's quickly evident that he's clearly more a natural than Rory. All together now: E for B and Georgie Best

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Magnifico, magnifico, magnifico

I can't pretend that I read everything that Malcolm Brodie ever wrote - we were never Belfast Telegraph readers in our house - but it's difficult to imagine a journalist with a greater association with Northern Irish sport and the Northern Ireland international team than Malcolm.
It was only on reading of his death at the age of 86 yesterday that I realised he was originally from Glasgow. But he was evacuated during the Second World War and, astonishingly, he started work at the Tele as far back as 1943. My dad would have been six then.
Malcolm covered 14 World Cups in his career. Northern Ireland took part in three of them. And he continued working well into his ninth decade. I remember seeing him in the press room at Windsor Park just before Northern Ireland's disappointing World Cup qualifier against Slovakia in 2009, ready as ever to go to work.
Thinking about it, his career encompassed the entire span covered in Whose Side Are You On? From the end of Belfast Celtic to the rise of Rory McIlroy.
He makes only a passing appearance in the book. I talk of him writing about the start of the 1969 football season as if it was just another season. Within days Irish League matches were being postponed because of rioting. He saw the best and worst of Northern Irish sport then. And he never lost his appetite for it.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

In another place

In today's Herald Magazine I've written a piece about Derry-Londonderry becoming City of Culture. There is a passing mention of the city's  two football teams - Derry City and Institute - but it's not about sport. Still, if you're reading this you might be interested in some of the issues it talks about.
It's also reasonably positive, which may seem a bit perverse given the current Flag protests, but it seems worth talking about how things have changed in Northern Ireland just to remind ourselves that we're not in the same place we were in 20, 30, 40 years ago.
You can  read it here.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Calling the shots

I've been ignoring this blog of late. I've been thinking of other things and so this venue is taking a bit of a back seat. I'm only going to post on designated days. 
But just to keep it ticking over I thought I'd let you read this piece that was published a few weeks ago in the Sunday Herald. It's an interview I did with the doyen of snooker writers Clive Everton, about the sport he's been covering for decades. Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor turn up in it. If you like snooker, Everton's book is well worth a read.

The story of snooker is also the story of Clive Everton.
Anyone who knows the sport knows that. Everton is 75 now. He has edited Snooker Scene magazine for 41 years ("man and beast"). He has seen the sport rise from little more than nothing to briefly become one of the biggest sports in Britain three decades ago before falling away again through incompetence and corruption. He has written about snooker, commentated on snooker, played snooker, been sued by snooker (or the sport's governing body, the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association, the WPBSA, at any rate). He has seen the good, the bad and Bill Werbeniuk.
Five years ago he wrote a book about it all. Now he has updated it. In that time the world of snooker has changed dramatically. And for the better, he feels.
"There is a case for saying that the snooker circuit is in the best position that it's ever been, with 10 full ranking tournaments, 13 player tour champions events, plus the Masters," he says. "That's 24 events. So it is actually the busiest and most lucrative the circuit has ever been. There's a better chance for more people to earn a good living from it than ever before."
Since 2009 snooker has been under the control of Barry Hearn, famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for his in-your-face management style when he was representing Steve Davis in the 1980s. As a result a sport that was on its uppers is now up on its toes again. Earlier this year Hearn even promised that he would make every player a millionaire. Even if this sounds like a typically Hearnian slice of hyperbole the fact that he is able to say it is confirmation of the turnaround the sport has seen. Because, as Everton's book, Black Farce & Cue Ball Wizards, makes clear, the sport has been repeatedly going in off the black for the best part of 30 years.
But first let's rewind a little. Snooker has always been a sport that has veered between feast and famine. More than 1000 people attended the Royal Horticultural Hall in London to watch Joe Davis win the first post-war championship. Yet between 1957 and 1964 no promoter could be persuaded to put on the world championship because there was no interest. The introduction of colour television, and the BBC's consequent low-budget hit programme, Pot Black, first aired in July 1969 "established the potential popularity of snooker," Everton says, adding: "The exposure the game received and the reaction to it was far-reaching in its influence."
But it took the emergence of Alex Higgins to cement the transformation in the sport's standing. Higgins beat John Spencer to win the 1972 World Championship and in doing so he gave snooker an electric shock to its heart. The doyen of sports writers, Hugh McIlvanney, once said of Higgins that he brought "the raw sense of the streets" to the game.
"Definitely, definitely," agrees Everton. "He wasn't like anybody else, to put it mildly. All the other professionals aspired to respectability; Higgins never did. He brought the Stretford End into watching snooker matches. He was their man and they were going to support him."
Higgins also carried the game from the back pages to the front thanks to his chaotic approach to his personal and professional life. Chaos and confrontation were his default setting. How do you pick one example? In the book Everton reports an exchange between Stephen Hendry and Higgins after a match in 1991. Higgins reported that he said "Well done Stephen, you were a wee bit lucky". Hendry's recall of the event is slightly different. As far as he remembers, Higgins' words were more like "Up your arse, you ****".
Indirectly, Higgins' volatility was good for snooker in terms of recognition, but it did set the template for how the game would be reported by the press. "A lot of newspapers don't seem to be able to write about snooker except in terms of colourful off-table lives," Everton says.
No matter. Snooker was about to take over. In 1978 the BBC started to cover the World Championship from first ball to last. A year later, Terry Griffiths won the title, a victory that Everton believes was just as important as Higgins' seven years before. "It was a great story because in not much more than a year he went from selling insurance to winning the world championship." And selling insurance had been one of his better jobs.
Suddenly the media were given a whole new world to report, explains Everton, "an entirely new dramatis personae" and the newspapers made the most of it. "There was Ray Reardon the policeman, Spencer who has basically been a bookie's runner, and Cliff Thorburn who had played for money all over Canada and northern America. When Tony Knowles was shagging everything that moved, he was doing a ghosted column and so was John Parrott, who was set up as the polar opposite, the squeaky clean boy from Liverpool. These players suddenly became television personalities.
" I once said about Terry Griffiths' wife that she married a bus conductor and found out that she was sleeping with a superstar."
This all culminated with Dennis Taylor's victory over Steve Davis on the black ball in the World Championship in 1985, a game that kept more than 18 million people up well after midnight. At that point, Jonathan Martin, then head of BBC Sport, told Everton that snooker was bigger than football.
And that is when everything started to go awry. Everton's book is a litany of public relations disasters, events organised by the WPBSA that somehow lost money, expense abuses and court cases taken out against anyone who dared criticise the board. What went wrong?
"The players tried to run it themselves. They weren't competent enough to run a pretty large business and worse still they weren't that great at bringing people in from outside," Everton says. That pattern continued, he believes, for the best part of three decades: "In those 30 years they tried players who knew nothing about business, or not enough anyway, and they tried businessmen who knew nothing about snooker and who in some ways were even worse."
There is something blackly comic about Everton's revelations. At one point John Spencer was chairman of the WPBSA when he was, as he himself has admitted, clinically insane. And when Everton continually pointed out the many motes in the governing body's eye they tended to sue him, especially when it was under Rex Williams. To do so they used the players' money, he points out.
Meanwhile, the game got dogged by match-fixing claims, and sponsors and tournaments began to fall away.
By the time Hearn put himself forward three years ago to run the sport it was a shadow of where it had been 30 years before. Thankfully, though, the 21st-century Hearn is an altered beast to the 1980s wide boy of his Matchroom days.
"A different character," Everton agrees. "I think Barry used to be the king of the playground in the eighties and now he's the headmaster. To think he would one day be the establishment ... in the eighties he wouldn't have been ready for that because he thought in exclusively commercial terms."
That is not to say he doesn't now, but Hearn has begun to tackle the sport's failings and improve its health. He is also embracing the booming interest in the Far East, as well as encouraging interest in continental Europe. The game that for so long was dismissed as a British pub game (not that Everton can ever remember it being played in pubs) is now becoming a genuine world sport. What hasn't changed, Everton says, is its essential appeal – the way it becomes hushed theatre of the mind.
"At the top level you kind of take the skill for granted. The top 100 are very good players. So you watch for the psychological aspects of it. I find that endlessly fascinating. Watching other people suffer is fascinating."
o Black Farce & Cue Ball Wizards by Clive Everton, £12.99, is published by Mainstream

copyright Sunday Herald

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Warning - I'm in this

I was asked to take part in an episode of the BBC Northern Ireland current affairs series Spotlight You can catch it on the BBC i-Player for the next few days.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Football, racism, Hillsborough

Not strictly relevant to proceedings here, but this week in my day job I took a break from writing about books and pop and art and photography and architecture to write about football. Thought you might be interested:

You do wonder if John Terry winced just a little when he heard the Prime Minister's reactions to events in Serbia on Tuesday.
After a post-match brawl and accusations by the England Under 21 players and officials that the team's black players were subject to racist abuse, David Cameron said it was time for UEFA to take tough sanctions: "If we are going to stamp out racism from football, then it is no good giving derisory fines, as have been handed out in the past."
Could he have been talking about Terry? Only last month the Chelsea and one-time England captain was given a four-week ban and fined £220,000 (just over a week's wages) when he was found guilty of racist abuse against QPR defender Anton Ferdinand by the FA. Curious definition of tough, that.
Read one way the recent upsurge of racism marring the beautiful game could be seen as something of a step backwards. After all when Ron Atkinson made a racist comment about the then-Chelsea player Marcel Desailly back in 2004, he was forced to resign from his job as an ITV commentator and it effectively ended his career in the game. Today, Terry is still Chelsea captain and the club's fans still chant his name.
The truth is, though, that in the UK (unlike Eastern Europe) we have come a long way from the days when John Barnes and, north of the Border, Mark Walters were backheeling bananas off the pitch in the 1980s. You'd like to think that Britain in those days was another country.
What the John Terry saga and this week in Serbia show is that the war on racism hasn't ended. But it's also worth remembering that in the same season as Terry's verbal assault on Anton Ferdinand the game came together in support of the Bolton Wanderers player Fabrice Muamba after his heart stopped during a game at White Hart Lane. Football may be a theatre for racist abuse but it has also been one of the vehicles for the acceptance and adulation of young black men in British society. Football and pop music remain the areas most welcoming to ethnic minorities.
And yet it's been common in the last few months to use the success of this summer's Olympics as a weapon to beat football with. Look at these players, commentators say, who are paid millions; a reward that comes for their time-wasting cynicism, their lack of Olympian spirit and their petty tribalism that leads – at worst – to the crass, baleful ugliness of Terry's comments.
But it's a false dichotomy, one that overlooks the motes in the international Olympic Committe's eye – the claims of corruption and the ongoing battle against drug users – and, more importantly divorces both sporting events from the cultures they belong to.
There was another big football story this week. If you wanted to quantify them, I suspect it's the more important one; the announcement by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve on Tuesday that he would apply to have the original inquest verdicts of accidental death recorded for the 96 Liverpool fans who died at Hillsborough in April 1989.
The disgrace of Hillsborough is not football's disgrace. It's the nation's. It's the disgrace of the South Yorkshire Police who were not up to the job that day and then tried to cover up their inadequacies, it's the disgrace of the emergency services, the football authorities and, yes, the Government of the time and those that followed (until David Cameron's). It's the disgrace of Kelvin McKenzie for the lies he told in the Sun newspaper and for the two-decade long defence he made of those lies. It's the disgrace of a country that preferred to believe the worst of people for far too long.
Racism comes from a ludicrous, ill-educated and frankly nasty belief in other peoples' inferiority. The story of Hillsborough is not so very different.
This week's racist abuse is ugly and nasty and needs to be tackled. But, thankfully, no-one died. And no-one's reputation was then traduced and dragged through the dirt for more than 20 years.
Football has questions to answer. But not as many as some others.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Almost 365 Days Later ...

It is now almost a year (to the day) since Whose Side Are You On? was published and as I'm in anniversary mode it feels appropriate to look back on what I spent a couple of years of my life putting together and trying to sum things up 12 months on.
The book was an attempt to tell the story of sport in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and to ask how the sporting stories of that time were impacted by the political story that was going on around them. The result isn't perfect. There are mistakes in its pages (all the result of my own stupidity, for which I apologise), but I hope it managed to shine a light on a small corner of Northern Ireland's recent history.
What most intrigued the book's non-Northern Irish readers is the at times tragic story of the GAA during the Troubles. Closer to home Northern Irish readers told me about their own experiences at football games or in snooker halls. Some were merely prompted to recall their own passing brushes with sporting heroes mentioned in the book. Every comment has been welcome.
In some ways I now think I may have intended the book as a sort of exorcism. For the best part of 30 years my Northern Irishness was problematic to me. Since my teens I felt alienated from the politics and culture of my homeland. Sport was always one of the few connecting threads so no wonder it became a part of my identity, something I explore at length in the book.
I suppose in some way when I started writing the book I thought I might be able to write myself out of Northern Ireland, put that bit of me between two covers and leave it there. That's not quite what happened and by the end of the process I felt more connected than before. Even after another miserable summer of marches and riots in the province I still feel that.
But one of the points I try to get across in the book is that no one totally defines him or herself through the culture he or she was born into. We are a product of that, yes, but we're more than that too and one of the recurring sporting narratives is how the desire and hunger for achievement can sometimes remove you from your environment, not just physically but emotionally. And so a proud Ulsterman like Willie John McBride could lead Ireland onto the rugby pitch and stand to attention during the Irish national anthem.
Those were the stories I was keenest to find; stories of transcendence. And there were a few of them - from George Best to Joey Dunlop. But I'd be lying if I said they were typical. Just as common, maybe more common, were those stories where sporting lives were constrained or, worse, ended, by the politics of place.
By the end of the book, though, I was suggesting that it was possible to imagine we were in a different place. That Northern Ireland had moved on and that in someone like Rory McIlroy we could see the first post-Troubles sporting story.
Is that true or was I just trying to convince myself? You could be forgiven for being doubtful given this summer's coverage of McIlroy's upcoming choice over who he will represent in the 2016 Olympics.
Of course, golf shouldn't even be in the Olympics, but it is and McIlroy has a choice to make. Will he play for Ireland or the UK? The frustration about this story is that it's a choice that will narrow McIlroy's story in some ways. What's been thrilling about the young golfer's rise to the top of the game is how many aspects it has encompassed. In the last few years his has been a Northern Irish story, an Irish story, a British story, a European story (as will be shown again over the next few days in the Ryder Cup) and ultimately a world story as he has proven himself as good as anyone in golf.
The pleasure of sport -a  pleasure you can find in art and literature too - is the way it can allow for a sense of fellow feeling; can open us up to people whose backgrounds may be far removed from our own but whose joy - or sorrow - we can recognise. It widens the possibilities of who we might be. All too often, the politics of Northern Ireland doesn't share that openness. That's the pity.