Tuesday, 30 August 2011

In Praise Of Northern Irish Golf - The Director's Cut

The day after Rory McIlroy won the US Open I was asked to write a short piece for The Herald putting the achievement into the context of Northern Irish sport. Unfortunately there wasn't space to use the piece although it did appear in a more abbreviated form a couple of days later.
I thought it would be worth reprinting the (slightly) longer version. Darren Clarke had not won the Open when I wrote this so there was still more to come. At the same time this summer's Belfast riots were only days away too. So perhaps the piece's optimism is slightly overemphasised:

On Sunday night in the Holywood Golf club a familiar face sat amongst all the local golfers and fans who were cheering on their local hero. As Rory McIlroy was breaking records left, right and down the fairway on the other side of the Atlantic another local hero Gerry Armstong popped in to McIlroy’s home club to cheer the 22-year-old.
Armstrong, of course, wrote himself into his country’s sporting history when he scored the winning goal against Spain, a goal that took Northern Ireland through to the second round of the 1982 World Cup finals. Back then, though, Northern Ireland was a different country. It was just a year after the Hunger Strikes, 16 years before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and seven years before McIlroy was even born. Armstrong grew up in west Belfast at a time when the city was, to paraphrase Northern Irish novelist Glenn Patterson, disgracing itself, with bombs and shootings and riots.
How far away that must have seemed on Sunday night. You could argue that McIlroy is one of the first generation of post-Troubles sportsmen and women from the province. Alongside his friend and fellow golfer Graeme McDowell and snooker’s Mark Allen, his successes (and failures) have been for the most part played out against a more settled political background than the sportsmen and women of Armstrong’s generation.
For the best part of 40 years sportsmen and women saw their sporting careers shaped and sometimes distorted by the political context of Northern Ireland. Death threats were common. Some sportsmen - Gaelic footballers and hurlers mostly - even lost their lives.
Neil Lennon, for one, knows all too well the way the toxins of sectarianism still seep poisonously into sport, but McIlroy’s story has been shaped by more traditional sporting storylines - that of a boy from a modest background who displays natural talent, twice finds himself in a position to win a major trophy only to throw it away and then, third time lucky, translates his remarkable skills into remarkable sporting success. It’s a story born in Holywood but one that could have been fashioned by Hollywood.
But what was particularly notable at the weekend for those of us who grew up in the north during the Troubles was the fact that they were never mentioned by those covering McIlroy’s US Open success. Thirty years ago it would have been impossible to avoid.
Last October seven large hexagonal basalt stones were sold in auction in West Sussex. Believed to be from the Giant's Causeway, the stones had for years been used to protect the Portrush golf club Rathmore - the home club of the previous US Open champion Graeme McDowell - from IRA car bombs. Maybe if you were looking for a symbol of how things have changed you could find it here. Northern Irish golf is no longer hunkered down behind huge rocks, it's going out and conquering the world (oh and winning the Ryder Cup more or less in the process).

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Ten English football names mentioned in the Index

Malcolm Allison
Gordon Banks
Peter Beardsley
David Beckham
Luther Blissett
Martin Chivers
Ralph Coates
Terry Fenwick
Rio Ferdinand
Stanley Matthews

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Four Pop Stars Mentioned in the Index

James Dean Bradfield (also Manic Street Preachers)
Gary Lightbody
Jerry Lee Lewis

Others not indexed but mentioned in the book include Van Morrison (but you could have guessed that), The Smiths and, rather pleasingly, Fat Larry's Band.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Index Linked

Just before Whose Side Are You On? went to the printer my editor sent me an index to check. It was curiously thrilling and slightly disorientating to see a couple of year's work reduced to a list of places and names. A tad worrying too when you didn't recognise said names straight away.
But now the fun is finding the rogue name that jumps off the page. Are there really so many English footballers in the book? And are those really the only pop stars who get a mention?

My favourite entry - just for its very incongruity - is possibly Valerie Singleton. But over the next few days I thought it would be fun to give you a list of names culled from the index that might give you a slightly skewed sense of what to expect. Tomorrow I'll start with the aforementioned pop stars.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

Georgie Best ... Superstar

In the beginning was George Best. In my beginning anyway. Born in the sixties and growing up in the seventies, I was the right age for him.  Georgie was the first footballer I knew.
That said, he played for Man United who weren't my team. In the streets we'd sing "Georgie Best, superstar/ Walks like a woman and he wears a bra".
It was a backhanded compliment of course.  Best was the best footballer from the north of Ireland. And the best-known. He'd even turn up on the telly selling aftershave and even meat products.
I've been a vegetarian for years now but if someone says sausages I still think of Cookstown sausages. That's down to George.

I also wonder if my love of contemporary architecture started with that blocky house that he had built in Bramhall in Cheshire (not that he stayed there long).
More than any other footballers in the 1960s - in the way he played, on the field and off - he represented a very sixties modernism. And yet he still liked his mum's home cooking.
On the pitch the great disappointment is that he never got to play in the World Cup. In his biography Blessed he suggests there was a chance he could have made the 1982 Northern Ireland squad. He was 35, off the drink and given the option of joining Middlesbrough at the end of the previous year which would have given him the chance to get match fit.
Would he have fitted into Billy Bingham's squad? Possibly not. But given that he didn't choose to join the Boro and started drinking again it's possible he didn't want to find out.  The odd game for Bournemouth and the Brisbane Lions apart, he decided that his footballing story was already over.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Kicking Off

So I’ve written this book. It has taken more than two years, numerous interviews, many hours on planes, boats and automobiles, and gallons of tea. It has also taken me from Croke Park to Windsor Park, and from Crossmaglen to Sammy McIlroy’s front room. Among other places.
It’s a book about sport and the Troubles and how the stories of Northern Irish sportsmen and women were shaped, sometimes distorted and now and again twisted and mangled by the politics of place and time over the last 40 years. It’s a story that takes in Belfast Celtic and Rory McIlroy, George Best and Bloody Friday.
It also takes in me growing up in Coleraine in the top left-hand corner of the province, so it’s also, in passing, a bit of a memoir.
In corners, too, it is a look at the idea of identity in Northern Ireland and the possibility that sport might offer a way to be Northern Irish without the sectarian trappings (while recognising that sport can also be a vehicle for those sectarian trappings).
In short it covers a lot of ground and a lot of years.
In the run-up to publication (September 29 if you want to know; you can pre-order it now if you like) I thought it might be fun to set up a blog to act as a teaser and a notebook. And so that’s what this is.
In the days and weeks that follow I’ll be adding links and blogposts about the book and the issues surrounding it. I would love to hear from you too.