Sunday, 18 December 2011

Bullets and birdies - 2011, a year in review

During the first few months of 2011 as I frantically worked on rewrites of Whose Side Are You On? it sometimes seemed as if I was never going to get to the end of the book as new twists and turns in the story of Northern Irish sport seemed to be happening, at times, on a daily basis.

Not all of them were positive. In January Celtic manager Neil Lennon was sent bullets in the post. A few months later it emerged that he has also been sent not one but two parcel bombs. Lennon’s crime was that he was a Northern Irish Catholic managing a Glasgow team that makes much of its Irish tradition and history.
The long and often ignoble history of the Old Firm proves that the divisions that marked Northern Irish history in recent decades has also marked other countries and cultures. This week the Scottish government has passed a law to tackle sectarian singing at football matches. Like Northern Irish football, Scottish football has long been an ampitheatre for the performance of sectarian divisions. Some of it is just banter, some of it bitter.
Whether a law can address the latter is a matter of some debate. In the past – in the eighties when racism was a problem in British football, or when Neil Lennon was a Celtic and Northern Ireland player and was the target of sectarian abuse and a death threat – it has required fans themselves to play a part in changing the culture.
But cultures do change. The most symbolic event in Irish sport this year was the Queen’s visit to Croke Park, the home of the GAA, in Dublin, the prime symbol of Britishness visiting the prime symbol of Irishness. As I said in a postscript in the book it was a reminder that old hatreds can fade.
This stuff can’t be ignored but the story of Northern Irish sport in 2011 has been played out on the greens of America and England and on the baize in York.

For a while there I thought Mark Allen’s final flourish in the UK snooker championship this month might be a replay of Dennis Taylor’s famous 1985 World Championship victory in 1985. Taylor came from behind to take the title from Steve Davis that year. It wasn’t quite to be in 2011 and Judd Trump managed to claim the one frame he needed to win after Allen seemed to be closing in. Still, Allen had made it to his first final, and made a name for himself (picking a fight with Barry Hearn helped a little there). Certainly his dream of emulating Taylor and Alex Higgins and becoming a world champion is a lot more believable after his performance this month.
He wasn’t the only nearly man this year. The thrill of Ireland’s victory over Australia in the Rugby World Cup faded rather quickly when the last hurrah of the golden generation (Driscoll, O’Hara etc) sputtered out in the quarter final against a young Welsh side. In football Northern Ireland could only dream of such levels of success. The departure of Nigel Worthington marked another managerial story that fleetingly held promise but ended in failure (some stories bore from repetition).
Michael O’Neill currently seems to be the favourite to replace  him. If he is, hopefully Jim Magilton will join him. Together their presence may go some way to persuading young players from the nationalist community that they have a place in the Northern Ireland international set-up. Then again, when the Republic of Ireland take the field against Croatia next June the appeal of playing in Dublin rather than playing in Belfast will be self-evident to some (footballers are footballers first and foremost; they want to play at the highest level they can).
At least we can console ourselves with our memories next summer. It will be 30 years since Northern Ireland beat Spain in the 1982 World Cup. Gerry Armstrong’s goal that night remains one of my most vivid sporting memories. Fortunately, 2011, offered a couple more.
Most of them happened on the golf course. The fact that in the last couple of years  Northern Irish golfers have won three major titles is frankly astonishing. It’s difficult to say which of this year’s major winners has the better story. Sentiment might go with Darren Clarke. The 42-year-old playing in his twentieth Open became only the second Northern Irish player to win the Open after Fred Daly in 1947 and the oldest winner since Roberto Di Vicenzo in 1967. In his thank you speech he spoke of his children and his late wife Heather. “There’s obviously somebody watching from up there and I know she’d be very proud. But I think she’d be more proud of my two boys.”
Clarke’s victory at Royal St Georges was a wonderful late flowering of an undoubted yet often underachieving talent. Rory McIlroy’s success in the US Open was the long-expected coronation of a remarkable talent. But I think McIlroy’s success may just be the greater achievement, if only because of his failure a couple of months before at the US Masters when he’d thrown away a major title during a nightmare final round.
That he was able to come back from that and play some peerless golf in Maryland was a mark of his talent and a mark of his mental strength. His story is perhaps the most exciting of a great year because it comes with the promise of much more to come.

That both the US and British Open titles currently reside in Northern Ireland is one of those almost stupidly wonderful sporting boasts we can make at the moment.  I work in Glasgow where Martin Boyce’s victory in this year’s Turner Prize has led to calls for the artworld’s premiere prize to come to Glasgow in the near future (it’s in Stroke City – London/derry – in 2013). One hopes that McIlroy and Clarke’s successes this year might prompt the Royal and Ancient to think about Royal Portrush as a venue for the Open in the near future.
But that’s for tomorrow. Today is for remembering this year’s yesterdays. And for all the bad news stories we’ve been subjected to there have been enough good ones to make us look forward to the year ahead with real hope. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even get to see Spurs win the Premier League. Oh come on, let me dream.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Boxing clever

Sorry, been too busy to blog of late. But I thought you might like a piece I wrote a couple of years back for the Herald Magazine about a Glasgow boxing club.

24 Aug 2009

And then the bell rings.
It’s more of a rattle, really, a dry, asthmatic reverberation that cuts through the noise of the gym and for one rare moment brings everything to a stop. Chests still rise and fall, beads of sweat are wiped from brows and eyes, or gather in the smalls of backs, and punchbags swing in a diminishing arc, but a silence falls on the room. Men stand motionless, like a freeze frame in a Scorsese or Tarantino movie. A suspended moment, a drawing of breath, a gathering of energy. It lasts just a few seconds before the bell rattles again and everyone comes to life, swinging punches, skipping, sparring, pulling weights, joking, bantering.
Wednesday evening in Kelvin Amateur Boxing Club, Glasgow, and all (male) human life is here. Businessmen, bouncers, teenagers with the bloom of acne still on their faces, pensioners who’ve seen their three score and are working on the 10, ex-drug addicts who – you can tell from the broad, muscular shoulders – have found a new fix, salesmen, minor pop stars, the unemployed, former amateurs and pros with noses buckled and splayed by nights in the ring, newbies who’ve never set foot in the place before tonight. Asians, Africans, eastern Europeans, Glaswegians. All finding something in this scuff-marked space that keeps them coming back, all with stories to tell.
Here’s one. Tommy Fairfield is 54 years old and dressed in a sweat-soaked jacket and hoodie. He wanders over to show me his leg, hiking up his shorts to reveal burn marks on his upper thigh. "That leg’s the same," he says, indicating the other. "It was 25,000 volts, third-degree burns." A few years ago he was out running along a railway track when he got hit by an iron bar thrown by some kids. "It came over the main wire so I’ve walked into it. Or I’ve run into it." He ended up on the track. And that’s where the colossal voltage comes in. "It blew me away. I was lucky it wasn’t raining, because the next night the rain apparently was bouncing off the ground."
In the burns unit he would try to do pull-ups using the triangular pulley above his bed as soon as he was off the danger list. He spent three months and underwent four operations in hospital. The first night he returned to the boxing club his legs were still bandaged. "When I started coming here I thought, ‘Good, that’s me on the road to recovery.’ And most of the boys here were very helpful. Then three or four months down the line I was out running very lightly." A different route, presumably? "Aye," he says, laughing mordantly.
Behind him Jools Gizzi is pedalling hard on a stationary bike. He comes to the Kelvin two or three times a week. "There’s no hiding in here," he says as he cycles. "You come here to train. They’ll put you through your paces and you train like mad." Once upon a time Gizzi was in a Glaswegian rock band called Gun. They were almost famous 20 years ago and even had a couple of minor hits. These days he’s writing songs and planning a Gun reunion for the autumn. A year and a half ago he was some 35 pounds heavier than he is now. "That’s just eating properly and coming in training. The sweat pours off you hitting those pads. And the skipping alone … When I first came here I skipped like a big girl." He cycles on.
Over at the punchbags John Gilbert and Frank McGuinness introduce themselves. "I own a wee establishment called The Fish Plaice at Glasgow Cross," says Gilbert. "That’s where they had the gallows and in the olden days everyone would come to watch the hangings." "John is the sole proprietor of The Fish Plaice," chips in McGuinness, a 63-year-old retired bookie who still runs the odd half-marathon. "We smell him before we see him." He makes sure I’ve spelled "sole" correctly.
All these people, all these stories. David Stone is 39, with shoulders the size of an American footballer’s (though his are not padded) and a face that on one side is tender with swollen tissue and bone. Soon he will be getting reconstructive surgery, but he’s already done much to rebuild his life. "I’m an ex-user," he says. "I used to do a lot of drugs, used to drink, a smoker all my life. I felt my life was going nowhere." And then, encouraged by his friend James Docherty, he started coming to the Kelvin. "At first I was terrified to come along, but just coming and watching him," he says, pointing to Docherty who is sitting beside him, "kind of motivated me. I’ve not looked back since. The amount of respect you get in here … I love the place. I feel so confident, I feel great." Now Docherty and Stone have encouraged their friend David Degnan to join them. "I saw them going and getting in good shape," says Degnan. "I used to do it years ago and fell away from it. I got caught up in other things – drinking, taking drugs and that."
"None of us drink or do anything else," adds Docherty. "It’s replacing that stuff with positive stuff. Come in here and you get a bit of self-esteem and self-confidence. You can feel good about yourself."
The bell rattles. Time to go back to training. Punch, spar, skip, pull, push, laugh.
Despite the name, the Kelvin ABC is in the south side district of Govanhill. Charlie Kerr, a former pro boxer and Scottish champion, moved it from the west end to Belleisle Street in 1979. It now sits snug in a corner behind the looming weight of the Holy Cross Chapel. Once upon a time the building was a police station. It has also served as a stable for fire station horses and a day-care centre for the elderly. Actually it still was a day-care centre in 1979. "We used to have to lift carpets and tables," recalls Jimmy Reilly, a 54-year-old oil rig worker who’s been coming to the Kelvin for all of those 30 years. In the early days in Govanhill the place smelled, the walls were damp and those training skipped or shadow-boxed around buckets. Things are a little better these days – there’s decent equipment and a roof that doesn’t leak – but in winter it’s cold and in summer it’s a hotbox. "An old gritty boxing gym," is how James McCosh, a club regular, sums it up. "If you go to a modern gym you’ve got plasma screens, running machines, rowing machines, heat in the building. It makes you soft in the way you train," says David Cardwell, the club’s (voluntary) manager. "If you’re not down here to train there’s nothing else to do."
Cardwell started coming to the Kelvin in 1982. He was 12. "My uncle Michael brought me because I was getting bullied a bit in primary seven, and I never looked back. I stopped coming when I was about 22, 23, and went travelling a bit. I came back about four years ago and I’ve been involved in the club as a sort of club manager cum dogsbody/cleaner."
The club had been struggling at the time. Kerr’s death in 2004 had plunged it into a period of uncertainty. Even as far back as 2001 it had been closed by the city council over fears about the safety of its electrical wiring. It was in need of someone to give it a bit of direction. Cardwell and club coach Mark Gillan have helped provide that. The club opens four evenings a week, with another night just for kids. Everyone pays £2 a session. If there’s a shelf needing fixed Cardwell will ask a member who’s a joiner to help. Now and then there’ll be a donation from one of the club’s better-off members.
Football tops are not allowed, and there’s no football talk either. The Kelvin majors in boxing lessons. Life lessons too. "You find out about training, about what things not to do if you’re outside and you get in a fight," suggests Cardwell. "The best thing to do is run away. So I learned a lot of lessons from the guys who were older than me and had maybe made a lot of mistakes on the streets."
"It’s a life-changing experience when you come to one of these places as a Glaswegian," agrees Frank McDade, who has just completed an impressive set of pull-ups, his sweatshirt wet from the effort. McDade, 38, who works for Arnold Clark, first came here in 1984, when Charlie Kerr was running the place. "Every guy’s a tough guy in Glasgow growing up," he says. "Coming here puts you in your little place. You come in here as a big guy. Your granda says, ‘I’ll take you to the boxing,’ and you look at your granda and say, ‘You’re an old man, what do you know about fighting? I’m a tough guy.’ You come through those doors and there’s a wee guy standing there and he’s a cheery wee guy, and it’s still not sunk in you’re in here with hard cases. Then after a couple of sessions you’re in the ring; you get a couple of biffs in the face and you realise, ‘I’m just a pup.’ That alone gets you on track in life."
The Kelvin is a gritty, old-fashioned club that provides a gritty, old-fashioned vision of life, then. For some that’s the problem. Boxing is a sport that trails baggage in its wake; a notion of machismo, a vision of violence, an inheritance of damage. But that’s not baggage anyone here recognises. "Obviously in the past few years there’s been a bit of a stigma around boxing," admits Cardwell, "maybe because of injuries or a death that’s been highlighted." Boxing though is nowhere near top of the charts for fatalities in sport, he points out. Hillwalking, motor-racing, horse-racing and rugby are more dangerous, he reckons. And anyway, he says, "I wouldnae like someone’s son coming in here and going in sparring and the next minute they go up the road with a burst lip or maybe worse. The sparring needs to be supervised by an adult or the people who are sparring against novices have to have a bit of experience to hold back."
"Boxing’s an art," says Jimmy Reilly forcefully. "If it was just savagery the bigger guy would win all the time. There’s an art to it. There’s a lot of brainwork as well. Boxing gets a bad name but if you look at all these boys, if they’re in here they’re not breaking into your house or scratching your motor. It gives them a goal in life. It gives them a bit of discipline."
Everyone I speak to at the Kelvin uses the D word. Respect, too, is something of a mantra. Almost everyone says or alludes to the idea that training conditions the mind as well as the body. "When I first started boxing I learned to keep fit, eat the right things, drink the right things," recalls Cardwell. "I don’t smoke, I don’t take drugs and I’ve never really done that. I’ve never smoked and I’ve been drunk maybe six times, and I’m glad I’m not a typical working-class Glaswegian where a lot of my money and my time and my energy would be spent in bookies or pubs."
While the Kelvin is a male environment (they’ve had women come to train, but not often), it’s not a macho environment. It’s also, these days, a club for fitness training. Sparring is optional. The Kelvin does not organise bouts for anyone, although it has in the past. It has even bred a champion.
Donnie Hood is a wee, wirey man with a Catweazle beard. His grandfather boxed with Charlie Kerr in the old boxing booths. Everything he learned about boxing he says he learned from Kerr and his grandfather. "They knew how to parry, duck, dive, weave, box. All the ringcraft you needed." It made Hood a Scottish champion. In 1987 he won the Scottish bantamweight title, beating Brian Holmes after 10 rounds, despite having only one good eye. And, he points out, only one good hand. "I broke my hand in the second round. I shifted that knuckle up to there …" He indicates somewhere halfway up his wrist. "I couldn’t feel anything until the sixth. That’s how I couldnae finish wee Brian. Wee Brian was a hard man to finish anyway. And we had a lot of respect for each other."
Hood was living rough at the time of his victory. Boxing was his life. It still is. He comes to the Kelvin with his 17-year-old son, Colin, and helps him train. He talks about the great fighters he remembers watching when he was growing up. Sugar Ray, Roberto Duran, Ali of course, Willie Pepp. There’s a freight of sadness in there too. He has just been reading about Alexis Arguello, the great Nicaraguan boxer, a three-times world champion who entered politics and was found dead at his home in Managua last month with a gunshot wound to the chest. A possible suicide.
Hood mentions Kerr too. "I’ve got a big hole missing since Charlie [died]," he says. "My world dropped. I don’t know what to do with myself."
Kerr’s ghost hovers benignly over the Kelvin. All those old enough to remember him talk about him fondly. "His whole life revolved around boxing," recalls Reilly. "He used to work for the [Glasgow] corporation and as soon as he finished he was down here. He never missed a night, no matter what."
"On the day of his funeral there was a funeral Mass for him in the Holy Cross," says Frank McGuinness, "and after the Mass we all stood at the end of Belleisle Street, and as the cortege passed the hearse there was spontaneous applause."
Next to Hood, McDade is perhaps the most effusive. "Charlie Kerr was a friend of my grandfather’s from the Gorbals," he says. "Boxing was very much a way of life for a lot of people. There wasnae Playstations in they days. Charlie instilled in us a lot of his ways and his philosophies – about how to train and carry yourself as a person in Glasgow."
There are Playstations today, of course. Maybe that’s one reason why boxing clubs in Glasgow have been closing in recent years. It’s not the only reason, Cardwell reckons. He points to rising insurance costs, the fact there are more and more forms to fill in (council disclosure forms for a start) and more and more health and safety requirements to be met. It demands a commitment to run a boxing club. And maybe boxing has become a bit marginalised. "There’s been a lot of funding for swimming and tennis and squash and golf," says Cardwell, "but there’s not a lot of working-class kids running around saying, ‘I’d like to pick up a squash racket or a tennis racket.’"
They still come to the boxing club though. In the ring Rehman Mehmood is sparring while Iain Patterson is just back from a run. Patterson is from Cathcart. He’s 15 and has just sat his Standard Grades. He comes three or four times a week. "There’s not much do around here," he says. He always wanted to do something physical. "This way it’s controlled and I can learn to do it properly." He’s ambitious too. Ask him what he wants to become and he says: "A pro, without doubt. I’m no’ gonnae start something and not finish it. I’m going as far as I can, defin-ately."
His mate Kami Afzal, a year older, is a little more restrained. "My dream when I’m older is to be a personal trainer," he says. His first client is himself. "I’m asthmatic. I was really fat three years ago. My health and weight and everything was terrible." That’s changed. Everything is in flux when you’re a teenager, of course. "At primary school we had a group of guys who worked out together and when I got to first year [because of] all the bad things they do – getting drunk, smoking and all that – I split up from the group because I didn’t want to be in that place. Most of them will probably have criminal records [by now]. Usually people think teenagers take a long time to grow up but for us time flies, so I came here and changed a bit."
Four nights a week the bell rattles, constantly urging everyone in the Kelvin to train more, to do better. And the doing of it changes things. Changes people.
"The fitness level you get in here and the way it makes you feel are tremendous," says McDade, wiping the sweat from his brow. "No jacket or car’ll gie you that."
It’s 8pm now and the room is a blur of motion. Punch, spar, skip, pull, push, laugh. Paul Weir, another former world champion, is in the club now. He’s hoping to open a club of his own at some point. Boxing has had a hard few years but he’s optimistic. "You’ve got the Commonwealth Games coming up in five years’ time and no doubt there will be guys wanting to get back involved with boxing because there’ll be a lot of stuff on TV and in the newspapers," he says. "When you get young guys who are fighting and being successful it encourages young kids to go to the gym. These are young kids aspiring to be something when they grow up."
David Stone stops to speak to me again, telling me he’s hoping to play in the Homeless World Cup in 2010. In Brazil. "By next year all my reconstructive surgery will be done," he says. "I’ll be fitter. I’ll have stopped smoking and I’ll be representing my country in a Homeless World Cup."
Watching all this I realise the Scorsese and Tarantino comparisons are wide of the mark. There’s no movie machismo here. There is no posing or showing off. This is about work and the dignity of work. The bell rattles. No-one stops. Everyone is moving forward.
Kelvin Amateur Boxing Club, 21 Belleisle Street, Glasgow, is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 4.45-9pm, and Sunday, 10.30am-2pm. Children’s night is Thursday, 5.30-8.30pm.

Friday, 18 November 2011

It was 30 Years Ago Today ...

I wasn't even going to the match. We'd talked about it at school in the weeks before the game but nothing had come to anything. But about 4.30 in the afternoon I got a call from the father of one of my schoolmates who said they'd decided they were going to go anyway and did I want to come along.
We must have set off soon after to drive the 60 odd miles to Belfast, and then crawl along roads filled with buses and cars all heading, like us, for Windsor Park. The streets around the ground were already full by the time we arrived and squeezed in. There were thousands in the rickety old ground that night, more than 40,000 it's said. I'd never been in a crowd that size before. It's hard to imagine now in a ground that struggles to contain just over a quarter of that number. My memories of the game are little more than flash images, the glimmering green of the Northern Ireland shirts, the roar that went up when Gerry Armstrong scored the only goal of the game - the goal that confirmed Northern Ireland would be in Spain the following summer - driving the ball in from a Billy Hamilton knockdown. The thought of Billy Hamilton conjures up my teenage years just as effectively as old pop songs.
Most of all I recall being in that crowd, the sense of being part of a huge breathing animal moving as one, shouting as one, reacting as one.
I think we left before the lap of honour, edging our way out of the ground and through tight back lanes back to the car. I can't remember the journey home at all. My memories stop with the game, the thrill of it, the savour of success.
On Snow Patrol's new album Fallen Empires Gary Lightbody sings at one points: "This is all I ever wanted from life: Ireland in the World Cup, either north or south." Northern Ireland playing Spain in the summer of 1982 is, he told me the other year, his first real sporting memory. At the moment memories are all we have. The Republic have qualified for next summer's Euro finals and good luck to them. I hope Robbie Keane grabs a bagful. But I'd rather it was Kyle Lafferty.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

What, no My Defence by Ashley Cole?

I've been talking in recent blogs about the rise of good sports writing over the last 20 years and suggesting it might be good to compile a list. So, time I made some suggestions. But I'm open to others too.
I'm going to do it sport by sport starting with football. I've chosen the books that made the biggest impression on me, with the caveat that there will be many good books sitting on my shelf to be read. I also wanted to suggest one or two that you might not have come across so there might be the odd left-field choice. So what follows is part obvious, part willful. You're all invited to offer me suggestions in the same vein.

1: Brilliant Orange, David Winner (2001)

The success of Winner's book led to the publication of a raft of books looking at footballing national histories (Tor!, for example, covered German football and Calcio the game in Italy), but Winner's remains the most intellectually ambitious. It also has a great story to tell - the story of football's nearly men, the Dutch. That Winner is able to marshal Dutch geography, the paintings of Mondrian and Johan Cryuff into a coherent and convincing narrative is a mark of its power.

2: Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby (1992)

Someone was always going to write Fever Pitch or something like it. The fanzine culture of the 1980s had seeded the ground and it was just a matter of which fan was going to be quickest through the gate. Certainly many followed in its wake. But football was lucky that Hornby got there first. It's a fine book, probably a better read then because it felt like something that hadn't been said before. What's striking now is how much of its time it is. Hooliganism is a real concern of the book and that's partly because Hornby is attempting a refutation of a particular football cliche. It's important to remember in the era of Heysel and Hillsborough football fans were often conflated with hooligans - as if there was no difference between them. Hornby's book was proof that this was not the case. It probably also helped that Hornby's hangdog miserabilism was matched by the Arsenal team he is writing about. The George Graham era was successful enough eventually but unlike the later Wenger model neutrals were never in danger of actually liking them. Remember it's Willie Young's cynical foul on West Ham's Paul Allen that Hornby dubs "Arsenalesque" in the book.

3: All Played Out, Pete Davies (1990)

Another book about a team I enjoy hating. Davies's account of England's 1990 World Cup campaign was the book that alerted British publishers to the idea that there was a market for well written, intelligent football books. And what's striking about it now is the amazing access Davies got to the England camp - access that would be impossible now. The 1990 World Cup is seen as one of the poorer finals (though I still remember it as hugely more enjoyable than what would follow four years later), culminating in a repeat of the 1986 final between Argentina and West Germany but without the thrills and without Maradona's genius (he played but he was a shadow of the man who had won the cup almost on his own for years before in Mexico). It was a tournament scarred by hooliganism (at the time it was par for the course when England were involved) and England fluked their way to the semi-final where they were the better team against the eventual winners but still lost in  penalty shoot-out - possibly the only time I felt sorry for England because for once they were the better team. Gazza cried and football was about to be transformed into the juggernaut that it is today.
Davies's book captured all of this with flair and insight.

4: Full Time - The Secret Life Of Tony Cascarino, Paul Kimmage (2005); More Than A Match, Lee Chapman (1992)

A couple of football biographies. Cascarino's stands for all those biographies (Tony Adams, Paul Merson etc) that offer a vision of heavily flawed men whom football gave a licence for excess. Cascarino's ghost writer Kimmage makes the most of Cascarino's story. But Full Time has had plenty of coverage. Lee Chapman's autobiography, by contrast, is one I've not heard many talking about. Chapman's flaws were revealed after his book appeared and if memory serves the book gets off to the worst possible beginning with a dreary account of Leeds United's league title winning season. But the rest of the book is full of great stories about Clough and Robert Maxell among others. What I remember about it most is the way it illustrates how in the pre-Premier League era football managers and clubs actually encouraged footballers to be juvenile because it made them much easier to control.

5: The Last Game, Jason Cowley, 2009

Bloody hell, Arsenal again. I've chosen this ahead of books by Simon Kuper, David Goldblatt, Gordon Burn, Stuart Cosgrove's hugely entertaining Hampden Babylon and even Hunter Davies's The Glory Game - the great Tottenham Hotspur book - because I think it catches a moment in the game's history that was pivotal. Cowley's account of the 1988-1989 season which saw Arsenal win the league title with the last kick of the game at Anfield now seems like ancient history. A time when football was despised by the powers that be culminating in the horror of Hillsborough. It's a lovely memoir about family and football and how they are so much part of each other. It's also in passing a reminder of how central Liverpool was to Britain's cultural life in the eighties - and not just on the football pitch.  

Monday, 14 November 2011

Radio Ulster on the ball ... and other bits of business

Quick note before the next proper posting. Whose Side Are You On? was reviewed extremely positively on Radio Ulster's Book Programme yesterday. You can hear what was said via the iplayer function. Just visit The book gets reviewed alongside a new biography of Rory McIlroy at around the 16-minute point. "It's a beautiful memoir", according to presenter William Crawley.

I'm also still looking for suggestions for your favourite ever sports books. I'm going to suggest my first five titles later this week. But by coincidence I've just been reading Jonathan Wilson's The Anatomy Of England - a wonderful dissection of the country's international football team full of incisive writing - which could easily merit inclusion, if only for the following fantastic line: "The terror of thought had been a constant in the history of English football, but in Gascoigne it reached extreme levels". Ouch! Harsh but true (and as a Spurs fan I loved Gazza for a time).

By the way, Wilson's book also gets bonus points for its passing reference to one of my favourite Northern Ireland players, the late Noel Brotherston who played for his country and Blackburn Rovers in the early 1980s. Wilson notes that Ron Greenwood noted how he turned the French defender Bossis inside out in a game ahead of the 1982 World Cup finals. Northern Ireland still lost 4-0 though.
My memories are all of him playing for his country. Any Blackburn fans recall his days at their club?

Finally, my mum texted me last week to say she'd spotted Whose Side Are You On? on display in Easons in Coleraine sandwiched between a book on Theo Walcott and a book on Alex Ferguson. Between a gooner and United's manager. I'm keeping bad company these days.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The reviews trickle in

Almost missed this but there was another review of the book published at the weekend. Douglas Osler reviewed it in The Scotsman, describing it as a "talented intertwining of sport with the politics of Northern Ireland". You can read the whole review here:
It also got a mention in the Irish Independent, in relation to the longlist of the William Hill Irish Sports Book Of The Year and the omission of Tony Francis's new book on Alex Higgins (even though pretty much every other Irish sports book is). The paper mentions Whose Side Is It On? and suggests it's a part-memoir of George Best, which is a tad awry (though to be fair Best is there at the beginning of the book and near the end and he is on the cover). You can read the story here:
By the way, Francis's book sounds a good one by all accounts. And if so it's another example of the current strength of sports publishing which I was talking about last time around. Anyone read it yet? And is it worth a mention in the best ever sports books? I fancy getting a list of 50 together. Suggestions welcome please.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Fully booked

I'm naturally thrilled to see that Whose Side Are You On is on the longlist for the William Hill Irish Sports Book of the Year. Given the strength and size of the longlist - 30 books in all - I'm not holding my breath. But it's that strength and depth that deserves mention here, I think. When I worked in bookshops back in the late 1980s and first half of the 1990s sports books were only just beginning to be recognised as an area in publishing that could offer literary as well as commercial rewards. I remember the shock of reading Dave Hill's Out Of His Skin in 1989, a book about John Barnes which looked critically and intelligently at the subject of racism in English football. And the shock of recognition in reading Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch three years later (even if Hornby's a Gooner, his account of being a fan in the eighties was all too true)
Of course there had been good sports books before - the obvious example is Arthur Hopcraft's The Football Man* which was published back in 1968. But too often sport was seen by publishers back then as the subject of Christmas cash-ins - anodyne biographies or statto-obsessed cheap lash-ups.
This is not based on much beyond fuzzy memory, but I reckon that the success of football fanzines like When Saturday Comes and in Scotland the wonderful The Absolute Game recalibrated the image of sports writing. Publishers suddenly seemed to wake up to the possibility that there was a market for intelligent,committed sports writing.

It probably helped, too, that UK editions of men's lifestyle magazines such as Esquire and GQ were launched in the eighties and began to commission writers to look at sport at length in the same way as the likes of George Plimpton and Gay Talese had been doing in the US for years and decades before. Colm Toibin, I recall, wrote a particularly fine piece for Esquire about Diego Maradona.
The result has transformed sports publishing. My own publisher Random House launched its sport imprint Yellow Jersey in 1989.
And so we arrive, 20 years later, with 30 books on a longlist about Irish sport, a list that is full of really intriguing titles - Nicolas Roche's Inside The Peleton (an Irish example of the current boom in cycling books), autobiographies from jockeys Paul Carberry and AP McCoy and boxer Barry McGuigan (the latter two both turn up in Whose Side Are You On?), the latest book from Paul Kimmage, a whole host of books about the GAA, including Malachy Clerkin's account of Dublin's All-Ireland success. And that's just to scratch the surface. Impressive company for Whose Side Are You On?
Whoever wins the fact that William Hill realises that there are enough books worthy of being considered to be named as sports book of the year - one in Britain and one in Ireland - is a reflection of sporting titles these days. At some point in the next few days I'll try and come up with a list of my own five favourite sports books. You're welcome to suggest your own.

* Hopcraft, I learn from his obituary in The Guardian, also adapted Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the small screen.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Whose Side - the media blitz

After appearing on Radio 4's Today programme on Friday morning I thought it might be worth bringing all the links to the coverage of Whose Side Are You On? together in one place. So here are all the links I can find.


You can listen to the Radio 4 Today package here:
(you can here me some 10 minutes before the end).

There's a much longer interview (one hour plus) at Bruce Berglund's excellent podcast New Books in Sport. Great for hearing all my umms and aahs:

And for those who prefer to read a former colleague Kirsty Paterson interviewed me for my local paper, the Falkirk Herald which appears online under the headline Ready Teddy Go (ouch):

You can still read an extract/introduction to the book that appeared in Glasgow's The Herald Magazine:
(nb - if you haven't been on the website before you will have to register, but they only want your email address)

Not many it has to be said. Two in fact. A four-star review in Metro - This book positively sparkles with intelligence, humanity and, most importantly, real hope for the future.' - from Paul Connolly. And John Preston's review in the Daily Mail which is slightly less positive (John is not so keen on my writing style), but does recognise the importance of the subject:

Hopefully reading/listening to these will encourage you to buy the book (if you haven't already done so). Alternatively you could always talk to my mum and she'll tell you all of the mistakes I've made (quite how I mixed up Greenisland with Coalisland in one throwaway line I can't begin to tell you. Stupidity, I guess).

Monday, 17 October 2011

Whose Side Are You On? - The Interview

At the end of last month Bruce Berglund, historian, little league coach and podcaster, interviewed me down the line from Michegan for his excellent audio blog New Books in Sport. The result - an hour plus conversation about sport and Northern Ireland and the Troubles - has now been posted here:
For anyone who wants to get a flavour of Whose Side Are You On? it's a perfect starting place. It touches on my reasons for writing the book, growing up in Northern Ireland, questions of national identity, Wayne McCullough, Shergar, and George Best.
A word of warning though, Bruce's site is seriously distracting. You may find yourself spending hour upon hour listening to Bruce's interviews with academics and writers about all kinds of sports, from American football to cricket and from baseball to rugby union.
It's a genuinely vibrant and intelligent project and I'm proud to have been asked to get involved.

Surplus to requirements - free books for Man Utd fans

While researching Whose Side Are You On? I picked up a few books that proved in the end marginal to my requirements, but may be of interest to others - mostly Man United fans as it happens.
I've got three books on my shelves that United fans might like. And I'm happy to give them away.

Iain McCartney's Irish Reds was picked up in a bookshop sale. It's a 2002 publication and covers all Manchester United players who crossed the Irish Sea to Old Trafford, starting with John Peden (from Linfield Athletic in 1887) and ending with Roy Carroll (from Enniskillen).
Flicking through it again it reminded me just how deep and tenacious has been the link between the club and the country. From a Northern Irish perspective you have the likes of Harry Gregg, Sammy McIlroy, Norman Whiteside (all three of whom I interviewed for Whose Side?), and George Best of course. It continues to the present day with Jonny Evans
Compare that to Liverpool FC. The Anfield side, while having some very successful players from Ireland in their ranks - Ronnie Whelan, Steve Staunton and Steve Heighway, always seemed much more geared towards Scottish players than Irish players.
Not that United has not looked north for players. One of the best - the best, according to Sir Alex - was Denis Law and I have a surplus copy of his very recent book My Life in Football (though United fans should note, it's the one with Denis playing for Scotland on the cover.

And finally I've got a copy of Bobby Charlton's autobiography My England Years (Headline, 2008), which clearly concentrates on his international career.

So, as I said, I'm keen to pass all three on to deserving homes. All you have to do is send me an email to express your interest. It's first come, first served.
Send me an email at if you are interested.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

In stock

Spotted in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London, Friday, 12.35pm.

Would love to see any pictures of Whose Side Are You On? in bookshops, on coffee tables, on bookshelves. Send to

Monday, 10 October 2011

We've stopped making plans with Nigel

On the back page of the Guardian's sports section today there was a picture of Gerry Armstrong scoring his most famous goal - the one against Spain in the 1982 World Cup. It appeared under the headline "What We Miss About Football ..." followed by the strapline " Northern Ireland being good. Ouch.
That it was printed on the same day as the much anticipated (by Northern Ireland fans at any rate) news that Nigel Worthington was to leave his post as the international manager after the latest failure - a 2-1 home defeat at the feet of Estonia - doesn't seem particularly prescient in the circumstances. There has been an end-of-era feel around the international side of late, most notably with the retirement of Aaron Hughes - fast-forwarded by injury. The game against Italy tomorrow night - Worthington's last game - will just cement that mood.
Before we start getting wrapped up with who should take over (though I have one Herald colleague who's touting for Jim Magilton to get the job), it's worth maybe making a quick assessment of  the Worthington era.  How quick? Two wins in the last 23 games. Enough said perhaps. Certainly he had lost the support of the fans some time ago. Not even the odd Paddy McCourt wonder goal (albeit against the Faroes) is compensation for that.
In his defence you could talk about the paucity of his resources (or "squeezing blood from a stone" as Worthington had it) and point to the fact that in the current European campaign and in the World Cup qualifiers for 2010 Northern Ireland were at least in with a chance (however slim) until the peneultimate games in the groups.
And of course there are players born in the north who have chosen to pursue (or at least try to pursue) an international career with the Republic of Ireland side - most notably  Manchester United's Darron Gibson, Stoke's Marc Wilson and Preston North End's Daniel Devine.
In a Radio Ulster documentary on Sunday 
Gerry Armstrong even claimed there is a measure of "tapping up" involved - though I'd imagine that such choices are mostly down to politics and/or the fact that the Republic are more likely to qualify for the Euros or a World Cup than Northern Ireland any time soon.
The realist in me knows all this. Knows, too, that even when George Best played for Northern Ireland we got humped more than a few times. But the fan in me remembers that the 1982 and 86 squads had few players from the big English clubs of the time. There were talented players there - Jennings, Whiteside, O'Neill most obviously - but the success came because Billy Bingham organised them well as a team.
When I was interviewed by both Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle about Whose Side Are You On? both interviews were preceded by John Motson's commentary of Armstong's goal against Spain. I never get tired of hearing it, but it would be nice to hear something newer. Over to you  Jim Magilton ... or Iain Dowie ...or whoever gets the job. Isn't Martin O'Neill at a loose end at at the moment?

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Just so you know ...

In a mad burst of promotion I will be appearing on both Radio Ulster and Radio Foyle tomorrow morning (between 8.30am and 9am if you're really desperate to hear me) talking about Northern Irish sport and my new book Whose Side Are You On?
 But if you can't wait until then you could always visit my former colleague Gordon Darroch's fine blog Gordon Darroch's Unreal Domain: where I can be found talking about George Best, the Old Firm, Irish rugby and Stirling Albion.

Monday, 3 October 2011

In another place ...

Not strictly relevant to most of what goes on here but I thought I'd let you know I did an interview with Man United and Scotland football legend Denis Law which appears in today's Herald. If you can't get hold of a copy of the paper you can also find it online at  Herald Scotland (although you'll have to register to see it - they just want an email address though - it won't cost you anything). Check it out here (you'll never look at Maltesers in quite the same way again) ...

And while you're over at Herald Scotland you could also read the extract/intro from Whose Side Are You On? as seen in last week's Herald Magazine. You can find it here ...

Wednesday, 28 September 2011


I've just spent an hour and a quarter on Skype with Bruce Berglund in the States who podcasts interviews about sports books. We talked about being a sports fan, Shergar, George Best, Mary Peters and Rory McIlroy and it was - despite the fact that I'm sure I waffled my way through most of it - good fun.
The result should be up in a few weeks but in the meantime it would be well worth checking out some of the other interviews Bruce has done for New Books in Sport 
It is full of really interesting, in-depth lengthy interviews with authors. I spent this morning listening to a fine podcast about German politics and the Munich Olympics in 1972.

Monday, 26 September 2011

If Only ...

Four days to publication

Whose Side Are You On? is published on Thursday and there's still time to win a free copy. Just answer one or both of the questions below:

1: Which famous English footballer made his only European Cup appearance for an Irish League side?

2: Rather more complex. Below is a list of chapter titles from Whose Side Are You On? Can you tell which sports feature in each chapter?

Chapter titles are

Belfast Boy
Golden Girl
Shades of Green
Another Green World
'Six Catholics and Five Protestants'
'Belfast Doesn't Like Us and Dublin Doesn't Like Us'
Flag Days
Leave the City
'Legitimate Targets'
How Low Can You Go?
Good Friday, Same Old Saturdays

A word of warning. Some chapters may have more than one sport in them. Nearest to correct gets the prize.

Deadline for both competitions is September 29 - publication date. Email your answers to

Saturday, 24 September 2011

I Was So Much Younger Then ...

There's an extract from the book in today's Herald Magazine. It looks great, I think.

And yes, I was once this young.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Gaelic-flavoured Football

Last weekend Dublin beat Kerry (just) in the All-Ireland final at Croke Park. Ahead of the game I'd written the following piece for The Herald tying in with my book. The GAA story is, outside Ireland, the least-known sporting story of The Troubles but one of the most politicised and tragic. It's also a story that I didn't know much about growing up as I did a Northern Irish Protestant. All of these things are reflected in what follows:

Everything Hunky Dory in GAA as sport emerges from turbulent past
Published in The Herald on 17 September, 2011

Earlier this month an Irish snack company earned itself a lot of complaints and a lot of publicity with its latest advertising campaign for Hunky Dory crisps.
The ads feature two teams of scantily clad young women (from the looks of it none of whom are big crisp eaters) dressed in crop tops and bikini bottoms playing Gaelic football.
The heat and noise the ads have generated (they started airing just before the women’s camogie final earlier this month; perfectly timed for maximum outrage) shows that some things are eternal. That sex sells. And that in Ireland so do Gaelic sports.
This weekend there are a couple of sporting events that might catch the Irish eye. The Old Firm meeting should attract some attention and there will no doubt be a few who will be getting up early to watch Ireland take on Australia in the Rugby World Cup. But come tomorrow afternoon all eyes will be on Croke Park where Dublin take on Kerry in Gaelic football’s All-Ireland final.
More than 80,000 people will be at the game. It’s said the Gaelic Athletic Association could have sold three times that number and tickets are on sale on eBay for bids in the region of €800. It helps of course that this year Dublin are in their first final for 15 years (though Kerry are favourites). Unlike the Celtic Tiger, the GAA remains on the up.
This, it should be remembered, is still an amateur sport. Imagine today’s Camanachd Cup final was being played in front of a sell-out crowd at Hampden and subject to the same amount of hot air as the Old Firm game and you’ll have some idea as to the centrality of the All-Ireland final across the Irish Sea.
For a long time, of course, that centrality was a problem for some of us. I went to my first Gaelic football game, Donegal against Down, some 16 months ago in Ballybofey as part of my research for a book I’ve been working on about sport and the Troubles.
Growing up in a Northern Irish protestant family in the 1970s and 1980s, Gaelic games effectively didn’t exist for me. It wasn’t reported or broadcast in the north and so it only registered with us when it made the news pages – if an IRA arms cache was found at a Gaelic ground or, in the wake of the Republican Hunger Strikes at the start of the 1980s, when black flag parades and messages of sympathy for hunger strikers were placed by GAA clubs in the north.
No wonder then that Unionist MPs and, tragically, loyalist terrorists, were of the opinion that Gaelic football and hurling were just "the IRA at play". No sport suffered more during the Troubles. Grounds were attacked. Clubs were burnt down. One, Crossmaglen Rangers, was largely occupied by the British army. The sport suffered as a result. More than that, people suffered.
It is estimated that some 40 people with associations to the GAA were killed in that time (although the greatest number of casualties occurred not at the hands of the UVF or the UDA but because of the Omagh bombing carried out by the Real IRA).
The fact is the GAA struggled to square its avowedly nationalist self-identity with its rules on non-sectarianism and in the north a fight raged for the heart and soul of the game.
What is striking now is how far distant that time now seems. The GAA has, despite some foolish trip-ups and wrongfooted clumsiness, largely embraced the post-Good Friday Agreement political landscape. It has done away with rules banning the playing of "foreign games" and the ban on members of the security forces playing the game. (That has had its own consequences. Earlier this year Ronan Kerr, a PSNI officer and a GAA man was killed by IRA dissidents).
More than that, the game is ubiquitous north and south of the border. It’s in the papers and on TV. There’s even a ground just a few miles from where I grew up – something I could never have imagined as a child.
That’s not to say that the GAA has been embraced by Northern Irish Protestants. It remains a target of pointscoring by unionist politicians (although at least one Democratic Unionist minister for sport, Edwin Poots, did attend a game – although he made sure to delay his entrance until after the playing of the Irish National Anthem) and when Down got to the final last year it’s unlikely too many Protestant fans wearing red and black headed to Dublin to see them lose by a single point.
Tomorrow’s game is a huge event. But not everyone will be paying attention. Sport on the island remains both a uniting and a dividing force. And not even scantily clad girls in cutdown Gaelic shirts are likely to change that any time soon.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

First review in

Fantastic review of Whose Side Are You On? by Paul Connolly in today's Metro. "Has bracing new perspectives tumbling from the page" it says. That's good. This is better -  "this book positively sparkles with intelligence, humanity and, most importantly, real hope for the future".
Clearly I'm made up.
Oh and look out for an extract in Saturday's Herald Magazine

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Take a Chance, Win a Prize

So with less than 10 days to publication day I thought it's about time to offer eager readers (I'm hoping there will be one or two of you) the chance to win a copy of Whose Side Are You On? I'll even autograph it if you really want.
In fact let's make it two. How do you win? Well, below there are two questions - of differing levels of difficulty - and you can answer either. The first might be a bit easier but that means there will be more of you who can get it right. If you get it right I'll put your name in a hat with all the other correct answers and pull out a winner.
The second is a little tougher and I'll choose the entry that gets closest. If you want to enter both go ahead.

1: Which famous English footballer made his only European Cup appearance for an Irish League side?

2: Rather more complex. Below is a list of chapter titles from Whose Side Are You On? Can you tell which sports feature in each chapter?

Chapter titles are

Belfast Boy
Golden Girl
Shades of Green
Another Green World
'Six Catholics and Five Protestants'
'Belfast Doesn't Like Us and Dublin Doesn't Like Us'
Flag Days
Leave the City
'Legitimate Targets'
How Low Can You Go?
Good Friday, Same Old Saturdays

A word of warning. Some chapters may have more than one sport in them. Nearest to correct gets the prize.

Deadline for both competitions is September 29 - publication date. Email your answers to

Best of luck.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Spurs home and away

Spurs came to Coleraine four days too late for me. September 15, 1982. Just a few months after winning the FA Cup (for the second time in a row) the team I'd supported since the early seventies arrived in my home town. Unfortunately I'd left for Scotland and university on September 11. (On this day of anniveraries I've just realised that it's 29 years today since I left home - the  beginning of the cutting of my ties with Northern Ireland.)
So I was in another country when the tie, a European Cup-Winners' Cup game (first round, first leg) kicked off at the Coleraine Showgrounds at 4pm (due to a lack of floodlights I guess). Maybe I saw the highlights presented by Harry Carpenter on Sportsnight that Wednesday evening, although if I'm honest I can't remember now. I've just watched the goals again online. Spurs won the game 3-0. Steve Archibald got one, Garth Crooks two. Some 12,000 filled the Showgrounds that afternoon (quite a few shifts must have finished early that day).

Although I still look for Coleraine's results I was and am first and foremost a Spurs fan. It was my Uncle Tommy's fault. Him and one of my best mates John Millar. Both were Spurs fans and eventually peer pressure and the fact that I always looked up to my uncle meant I switched allegiances from Wolves (who I'd supported because Northern Ireland's Derek Dougan played in gold and black) to Spurs some time in the early seventies - the days of Chivers and Peters, Gilzean, Cyril Knowles, a Welshman called England and Pat Jennings of course.
But really it was the Spurs of the early eighties that were my team. Villa and Ardilles, Tony Galvin on the wing and Glenn Hoddle, who's still, if you pushed me, my favourite footballer. Even now, in these post Eileen Drury days the shine is still just about there for me.

I'd even got to see him in the flesh just over a year before. August 8, 1981 at the Oval in Belfast. A friendly against Glentoran. Another uncle, my uncle Bob, who'd grown up in that part of Belfast, took me up and left me at the ground with my ticket for the pre-season friendly.  This was the team that had had me jumping round the living room a couple of months before during that memorable FA Cup final replay with Man City. There was no mazy Ricky Villa winner in Belfast though. The game ended a 3-3 draw which at the time felt hugely frustrating, though if I'm honest the real memory of that day was not the football but driving past an abandoned car in the middle of the road in Belfast, its body already consumed in flame - for me a rare first-hand sighting of the Troubles.

Thinking back now I wonder if my Uncle Tommy would have accompanied me to that game if he'd had the chance. I'd like to think so. He'd drowned in the River Bann a few years before. Growing up he encouraged my interest in pop music and American comic books but his real legacy is the football team I support. He gave me Tottenham. There may have been some days when I wouldn't thank him for that. But not many.
Spurs won the second leg 4-0 by the way, but Aberdeen won the Cup that year. Fergie was in charge. Nothing changes.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Come on you Shrimps

One of the curious side-effects of writing Whose Side Are You On? has been the fact that I have developed a whole host of new sporting affiliations. Growing up, for example, I knew nothing about Gaelic sports (I came from the wrong side of the religious divide for that). Now I know it's the All-Ireland final next weekend with Dublin taking on Kerry. I might have been a bit more interested if Donegal had made it through the semi-final (if only for its geographical proximity to the north).

I've also found myself a new football team to take a passing interest in. Late summer 2009 I travelled to Cheshire to interview Sammy McIlroy about playing for and managing Northern Ireland. McIlroy was a welcoming, candid interviewee and in the weeks and months that followed I found myself listening out for Morecambe's results. I even took my wife to Morecambe at the start of last year for her birthday - although not to Christie Park but the refurbished Midland Hotel.

The 2009-2010 season was a good one for Morecambe, finishing fourth before losing in the promotion play-offs to Dagenham & Redbridge. McIlroy couldn't repeat that feat in the following season and left in May.
And yet I still find myself listening out for Morecambe's results. And today they beat Crawley Town 6-0. Come on you Shrimps.
Actually it was a good day all round for my football favourites. My big team Spurs finally got a win at Wolves. In Northern Ireland Coleraine put four past Carrick Rangers and only my Scottish team, Stirling Albion slightly let me down, only managing a 2-2 draw with Stenhousemuir.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Bod help us

The rugby World Cup starts tomorrow and Ireland travel more in hope than expectation. Actually, after four defeats in four warm-up games hope is maybe a generous description. There is still quality in the squad but the consensus seems to be that the quality is ageing. I've just heard Declan Kidney effectively say "Don't panic!" on Radio Five.
The Ireland team should have peaked in the last World Cup of course, but we know how that turned out. And so the real peak came two years later in 2009 with the first Grand Slam for 61 years. Or maybe that was just the first peak and Brian O'Driscoll et al will climb another mountain in New Zealand.
That's the great thing about sport. It allows you to dream. At least up until kick-off.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Talk about the Passion

Towards the end of last season The Sunday Herald published an essay I'd written about football. It appeared in the wake of a miserable time for Scottish football - largely down to threats being made against Celtic manager Neil Lennon. My piece was an attempt to challenge the notion of football fans as bigots and to suggest that talking about football was a forum for men to talk about all the stuff we're not supposed to be comfortable talking about. I thought it might be worth reprinting here. The context is a Scottish one but I hope the points I make are universal.

Essay of the week by Teddy Jamieson
Published on 22 May 2011
IT’S almost over. Next Saturday either Barcelona or Manchester United will be crowned champions of Europe and we can forget about football for a couple of weeks. Truth be told, there’s a lot to forget. This has not been a good season for the game. Superinjunctions, greedy players, allegations of corruption against Fifa, accusations of racism against the French FA and, closer to home, bullets in the post, a bomb in the mail, assaults on the pitch; in short an ugly eruption of sectarianism that has disfigured football in Scotland. In the last few months the game has been anything but beautiful.
It’s difficult, in the circumstances, to speak up for the sport. Difficult, too, to speak up for those who follow it – some of whom sing songs of hate, or jump over barriers and try to assault managers (or to be exact, one manager, Neil Lennon, who has become something of a lightning post for the worst excesses of the game). There’s nothing new in the argument that those of us in love with the sport are guilty of some kind of failing. As if our obsession makes us less mature, less grown-up. Big kids if you like. But in recent weeks a more baleful, ugly accusation has been emerging, that men’s – and in particular, Scottish men’s – relationship with football is toxic: poisoned and poisonous. That men who love football are not just emotionally undeveloped, they are frankly dysfunctional.
Pat Nevin, football-player-turned-commentator, argues that instead of discussing emotions, feelings and relationships, “men find it much easier just to talk about football and relate how they feel about things to football”. The danger, he says, is that the game becomes a substitute for real life, a way for men to swerve round the reality of their emotional lives. This also speaks to a more general criticism of the working-class Scottish male. The Glasgow academic Dr Ewan Gillon has argued that Scottish men too often use alcohol and violence as a means to numb feelings, and that emotional detachment – a stoic invulnerability if you like – is almost a mark of honour.
I can’t say that there is no truth in all of this. But it’s not the only truth. I would like to argue, quietly, modestly, in the sport’s defence, and in defence of those who love the game. To do so I’d like to tell you a story.
My wife’s cousin George died suddenly last June. A teacher, a mountaineer and, in later years, a political activist, George was not, by all accounts, much of a footballer. My late father-in-law, who could play a bit and was once offered a trial with Celtic, only for his Rangers-supporting mother to ban him from attending, loved to tell the story of a school game in which George was playing in goal. His side lost 16-0. “But it would have been much worse if I hadn’t been there,” the teenage George was reputed to have said at the time.
However, if he couldn’t play football, he knew the game. At one point he was a scout for Dundee United and could claim to have discovered the likes of Duncan Ferguson and Calum Davidson. And he loved to talk about it.
The last day I spent with George was at the football. Not a match actually, but some satellite telly Football X Factor event near Hampden at the start of last year. Even now, when I think of him, I can see him hirpling up and down the stone steps of the indoor sports arena that day aided by his walking stick, before sitting down beside me to talk about England’s chances in the World Cup (I think we disagreed on that) or the genius of Lionel Messi (no disagreement necessary there).
We’d gone to support my brother-in-law’s son, Ben, who was trying to impress a couple of coaches from Inter Milan. George was in his 60s, Ben in his teens and I’m in between. I’ve thought about that day a lot since George’s death. Ben didn’t catch the eye of the coaches. No-one did. But that disappointment apart, it was a good day, one that brought three generations together. Family and football were the glue.
That notion of football as a binding agent is so familiar it’s almost unremarkable. It constantly gets down-played. Why should it matter when football talk is – when it’s not contentious – unimportant? Certainly there is a constant white noise that now whines around the game, invading news broadcasts, radio talk-ins, newspaper headlines, a barely hidden hysteria that in times past would have been seen as unmanly. “We spend a bit too much time talking about how Wayne Rooney behaves,” argues Nevin. “I don’t care. I care about the football, about the artistry in the game, and I can get that conversation. But I’ve never been able to take part so much in that other, small-minded side.”
Nevin offers the concerned fan’s vision of the sport at the moment. A game that’s sold its soul, and whose fans have lost sight of what is and isn’t important. And so they phone radio talk-ins and vent about bad refereeing decisions, players who don’t care about the fans, managers who cup their hands to their head. But they still pay their money, go to the games, support the edifice. And they ignore other areas of their lives for football’s hopped-up, media-led, artificial drama.
There’s something in this. But the notion of the fan as willing dupe stretches only so far. Plenty of fans are morally engaged with the game. In the 1980s and 1990s fanzine culture and organisations such as the Football Supporters Association helped tackle the cancer of racial abuse then prevalent throughout the game. It worked to such an extent that French players Benoît Assou-Ekotto and Sébastien Bassong recently argued that England was a much more open society than its French counterpart. Closer to home, there is Neil Lennon’s story.
For the past couple of years I have been working on a book about sport in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. It has been a sobering reminder that sport in the province (and beyond) has been twisted by the political context that it found itself in. Sometimes that came in the shape of arguments over which country a sportsman or woman should represent, what flag they should walk behind. And sometimes it came in the shape of death threats.
So many Northern Irish sportspeople were victims of this cruelty. George Best, Mary Peters, Willie John McBride, and many more. In 2002 Neil Lennon became one of them. Lennon had played many times for his country before, but his move to Celtic in 2000 galvanised a vicious sectarian response. It climaxed with a telephoned death threat the day he was meant to captain his country against Cyprus. Lennon never played for Northern Ireland again.
But there is a sequel to this story. In the wake of the death threat Northern Ireland fans, backed by the IFA, decided to do something about it. They launched the Football For All scheme. They organised block bookings for international games at Windsor Park, outsang and outchanted the bigots, used the internet to engender a sense of community, stood up for a different vision of being a fan, one that refused the sectarianism. They spoke up for football and reshaped the identity of the national team’s support. Lennon’s situation was the catalyst for that. Sport may offer a platform for sectarian identity politics. But it can also offer a platform to challenge those politics.
Ultimately, though, I want to argue for something much simpler but perhaps just as fundamental. I want to return to that day with George and Ben and to the idea of football as a conduit, a connection that threads through generations, that common language which allows us to share a history and a sense of belonging. To the idea that our obsession with football is not a symptom of emotional detachment but a means of connection.
My father-in-law Wullie Stewart, when he wasn’t talking about George’s terrible goalkeeping, would tell me stories about watching Real Madrid beating Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the European Cup final at Hampden Park in 1960, or being coached by former Scotland manager Bobby Brown. I’d hear family stories of the Ibrox disaster and the narrow margin between safety and disaster. Football was part of Wullie and George’s family story, to which I then added my own filigree (as a Spurs and Northern Ireland fan). It was a language we could share (even if it was only to agree to disagree). It helped sew us together. Nevin says the same about the fact that he and his 19-year-old son have discovered a new togetherness through their shared love of Hibernian football club.

There’s a danger that we sentimentalise the fan mentality without recognising its sharper, dirtier edges. But that doesn’t undermine the simple truth of it. “I have no doubt that much conversation about football reflects very deep literacies,” suggests broadcaster Stuart Cosgrove, “myth, history and shared communal memory among them. Because the noise around football is loud and abrasive, in Scotland we frequently miss out on nuance.” But it’s there if you look for it. “Last year a group of St Johnstone fans lobbied the local council to name a street in Perth after our recently deceased captain Drew Rutherford. The opening allowed fans to meet, share past anecdotes, fond memories and pay requiem. It is an example of the touching, almost reverential values that football can uniquely evoke.”
That’s defence enough in itself. But I’d like to go further, taking issue with Pat Nevin’s idea that football is a substitute for life. If anything, it is the opposite. When we talk about football we are actually displaying a form of emotional engagement.
The classic view of male conversation (the Men are from Mars theory) is described by clinical psychologist Oliver James as typically adversarial: “Men tend to say one thing then the other reacts. And it tends to be much less about the personal, about feelings and about details of emotional life with intimates, and more about impersonal subjects like politics and football.” Women, by contrast, are allegedly more willing and able to talk about emotions and feelings.
“But in reality,” says James, “men are expressing their emotions through their discussions of current affairs, football or whatever. Men are using football as a vehicle for their psychopathology ... subliminally communicating their state of mind.
“If I’m feeling down and trashing my team Chelsea my friend might try to cheer me up either by saying, ‘Chelsea aren’t as bad as you think’, or ‘You’re not as bad as you think’. Or empathise by weighing in with me. ‘Oh God, yes they’re rubbish aren’t they?’ Clearly, emotional transactions are going on.”
Football, then, is not a sign of our stunted emotional growth. For some men it can be a vehicle for emotional display in the same way as pop music, opera or Savile Row tailoring. More than that, football can be a vehicle to discuss issues that may be difficult to talk about in working-class male culture – notions of beauty, of aesthetics. “It doesn’t seem prissy to talk about the beauty of a goal and to share that beauty with another person and to jointly relish it,” agrees academic and football fan John Williams. “Whereas if you start talking about the beauty of Tolstoy’s prose everyone starts looking a little uneasy.”
In our hearts we are (nearly) all Barcelona fans. There is such a thing as the beautiful game. And maybe football also gives us a chance to discuss masculinity itself. When we talk about Wayne Rooney – his contract wrangles, his off-the-pitch problems – aren’t we also debating notions of responsibility, of loyalty?
What do we talk about when we talk about football? Yes, we talk about diabolical refereeing decisions, managers keeping someone on the pitch long after they’d proved they weren’t up to it. We talk about the money footballers are paid, the commercialism that’s overtaking the game, sometimes the corruption that infects it. And sometimes, particularly in Scotland, we talk about the orange and the green and how two football teams in Glasgow represent hundreds of years of, at times, bitter history. All of that is true.
But I think we talk about something more, too. When I speak to my friend Mark, who lives hundreds of miles away, our conversation often becomes a litany of goals and players we remember. Woven into that conversation are ideas about who we were, who we are, the values that underlie our affections and loyalties. And, I think, a notion of how we want the world to be. The great football writer Arthur Hopcraft once wrote: “What happens on the football field matters, not in the way that food matters but as poetry does to some people and alcohol does to others; it engages the personality.”
In other words, football is not an escape or a distraction or a means of emotional avoidance. For some of us it is central.
You could say it is part of who we are. And that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Always knew he was a bit of an artist

George Best on the cover of today's Herald's Arts supplement. Dancing Shoes The George Best Story is coming to the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow on September 13. It's written by Marie Jones and Martin Lynch.

Look what arrived in the post today

Friday, 2 September 2011

It's the hope that kills

Northern Ireland play Serbia tonight with a chance of finishing second in group C still a possibility. It’s best not to get too excited at such moments. It was about this time two years ago that I travelled to Windsor Park to see them play Slovakia with a place in the 2010 finals in South Africa not totally out of the question. It was by final whistle. Slovakia won 2-0 and that was that.

It’s quite possible that I will not see Northern Ireland qualify again for the finals of either the World Cup or the European Championships. Maybe I should consider myself lucky to have been around in 1982 and 1986 when they went to Spain and then Mexico.
And yet it’s impossible to be totally disheartened. There’s an argument that if the football over the last decade hasn’t been great (and sometimes it’s been terrible) the story off the field has been on an upward curve.
Of course it couldn’t have got much lower in the wake of the death threat against Neil Lennon which ended the then Celtic player’s international career almost ten years ago. Yet within four years Northern Ireland fans had been named the best fans in Europe after a concerted, self-generated campaign to tackle sectarianism at Windsor Park during international games.
Last month when Northern Ireland took on the mighty Faroe Islands another small step forward was taken when Stormont’s Sports Minister Caral Ni Chuilin, of Sinn Fein attended (although she arrived late to ensure she missed the playing of God Save The Queen). Unsurprisingly it was her first visit to Windsor Park.
Not sure she was still about when Paddy McCourt ("the Derry Pele") scored his wonder goal. McCourt, a Celtic player, originally from Stroke City (London/Derry - delete according to preference) was cheered to the rafters on the night.

Of course four days before, James McClean, also from the second city, decided that he didn’t want to play for Northern Ireland. The Sunderland player had been called into the squad and had represented Northern Ireland at U21 level. But he said he’d rather wait and play for the Republic if he got the chance.
It's still not nailed on that players from the nationalist community will opt to play for Northern Ireland.
Oh and McCourt might not be fit to play tonight.
Even so. My fingers are crossed.

Postscript - 22.07pm - at least Ulster won the rugby tonight. And The Smiths are on BBC4.