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.