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.