Thursday, 15 November 2012

Warning - I'm in this

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

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Football, racism, Hillsborough

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

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

Thursday, 27 September 2012

Almost 365 Days Later ...

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

Friday, 17 August 2012

Edinburgh Away

Just a quick note to say I will be speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival alongside the estimable Rodge Glass on Monday 8.30pm. The title for the event is When Sporting Dreams Turn Sour. And I don't think we're talking about Spurs's failure to get into the Champions League. Northern Ireland, Man United and Rory McIlroy may all feature.
Rodge's latest book Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs is that rare thing, a football novel. Even rarer, it's a good one; a fascinating take on the corrosive nature of failure and the rise of celebrity footballers.  (a good excuse,too, to use that front page of The Sunday Herald, above).
Rodge is excellent company and should ensure that the event is a success with or without my input. And if nothing else you'll get the chance to enjoy the comedy of hearing me read out loud (something I've done only once since I was about 15).
For more details visit the Book Festival's website. And if you do manage along, say hello.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Colour Me Olympian

The eminent journalist and provocateur Eamonn Mallie has caused a small fuss in the last few days by condemning Northern Ireland's Olympic celebrations. Despite the fact that London 2012 saw the greatest ever success for Northern Irish sportsmen, he has argued in his blog that the province's celebration of their achievements was shamefully divided, with the Belfast boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan, who won bronze medals boxing for Ireland, being festooned in green, white and gold in Belfast, while the celebrations of the three Coleraine rowers, Alan Campbell and the Chambers brothers were to be decked out  in red, white and blue during their own hometown celebration.
You can listen to his despair on his website here:
This morning I was asked to contribute to the Stephen Nolan Show on Radio Ulster this morning, as a counterpoint to Eamonn. As I didn't really disagree with what he was saying I'm not sure I was a particularly enlightening contributor, but I thought it might be worth looking at his points in a little more detail here (it was a very brief discussion).
Eamonn argued that the achievements of the Olympians has been undermined by the sometimes begrudging reception they received, pointing out that the Dublin media had mostly ignored the achievements of the three rowers who were representing Team GB. He also wanted to know why there wasn't a joint celebration of all of Northern Ireland's Olympians, a celebration that didn't divide by flag.

My own brief contribution to the debate amounted to saying that that was indeed a good idea but to also say why shouldn't the boxers be celebrated in Belfast and the rowers in Coleraine? Why shouldn't they be acclaimed in their own communities? Isn't the challenge for Northern Ireland to get to the stage where we don't see one community's celebration as in some way diminishing for the other?
There is some talk of Stormont organising a large celebration of the province's Olympians following the completion of the Paralympics, which hopefully will address Eamonn's main contention - that each community is only celebrating its own and not embracing those from the other side. I hope that does indeed take place. In some senses it strikes me that this debate goes to the very heart of what I wanted to talk about in Whose Side Are You On? The idea that sport is and always has existed in a political framework, and as a result has been tugged and twisted to fit political agendas. That twisting and buckling is the story of Northern Irish sport over the last half century (and more).
But that's not the only story sport tells. It also reveals that sometimes we can find ourselves finding common cause with "the other side" through sporting heroes - from George Best to Dennis Taylor, Barry McGuigan to Alan Campbell and Paddy Barnes. It also tells us that sport can be used as a vehicle for attempting to heal divisions, whether it be in the work of grass roots organisations such as Peace Players International or in the way  local Irish League football clubs have forged associations with GAA clubs.
One of the points Eamonn made this morning was about symbolism. He reminded Radio Ulster listeners that the DUP First Minister Peter Robinson has gone to a GAA match and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has turned up at Windsor Park. These are symbols of politicians embracing the sporting environments of the other community. Sport allows for these gestures of reconciliation because it has so often been a point of division. It can be a vehicle for both.
There's another story that sport tells too, one that sometimes gets overlooked in Northern Ireland because we are so keyed to symbolism. That's the story sport tells about sport. The reasons why an Olympic celebration should matter in the first place is because of the efforts of five Olympians from the province. They may well have wanted to win a medal for the country they were representing but it's not difficult to imagine that in the first place they wanted to win a medal for themselves as a recognition of their own effort. Sportsmen and women are sportsmen and women because they love sport. Some may have political opinions, some may not. But those come second to the desire to compete. Sport is about competition first and foremost. The flags are an afterthought.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

George Best Bites His Nails

Last Monday night I went along to an open air cinema in Brunswick Street in Glasgow to watch a film I've wanted to see for years - Football Like Never Before, a 1971 German film about George Best in which the film-maker Hellmuth Costard used eight 16mm cameras to film Best during a game against Coventry City in 1970 - the same trick Glasgow artist Douglas Gordon would do with Zinedine Zidane more than 30 years later.

It's an interesting trick but one that does demand some endurance. Costard's film offered some aesthetic pleasures - the slab red of Best's top and socks popping on the screen against the green of the pitch, the raven blackness of his long hair and the way it matched his boots which, as the man behind me said, looked like winklepickers - but by the end of the game I wasn't really surprised that there was only myself and the organisers left (along with maybe a couple of people who had retreated to the outdoor seats at the Brunswick bar).
The film was rather at the whim of circumstances and the game Costard chose to shoot turned out to be a rather dreary one, especially in the first half. But for those of us who never got to see Best play live it offers a unique opportunity.
There's a good summary of the film here for those who want more details, but my own impressions were fragmentary. I was taken by how little the warm-up amounted to - basically George attempting a flick-kick if the ball came near him  - by the lack of football tops in the crowd (the early seventies, another world) and by the game's puritanism (Bobby Charlton gets a handshake when he scores and that's it. Best gets an arm in the mouth and he gets up, makes sure he's not bleeding and gets on with it).
But when I got tired of looking at the crowd or trying to identify who was playing for Coventry (I noticed WIlly Carr and Ernie Hunt which immediately made me think of trying to recreate their famous goal after seeing it on Match of the Day) I was left watching George and what struck me was how lonely he looked.

I'm trying not to project here. I'm trying not to read his future into this. But it is striking for how much of the game he is in the frame alone. He ambles about, making cursory tackles here and there, passing the ball when it comes to him, starting a run, getting tackled, falling over then waiting for the ball to come near him again.
Part of this isolation is down to the fact that he is on the periphery of the game for long stetches of course. In the second half he scores and sets up the Charlton goal and now and again you get a sense of what he was capable of as he accelerates from a standing start in huge lung-bursting surges past the pale blue Coventry shirts. Then again, the only time he seems to talk to any of his team mates is just before the second half kick-off and when he's not involved in the game he is biting his nails.
It all ties in with a remarkable sequence at half time when the camera cuts away from the game and we find ourselves in the back corridors of Old Trafford. This is clearly a different day because Best is now heavily stubbled, whereas he's clean shaven during the game. He walks in front of the camera and then turns and for a few minutes he is looking at us (or so it seems) as we look at him. He says nothing. The cameraman says nothing. It's a sequence that feels revelatory. Here is Best the man before us, exposed. Does he look uncomfortable? Does he look wounded?
Sorry, I'm projecting again. But I suppose that's what the film leaves you with. A fleeting sense of the man behind the myth. Yes, he was talented and yes, he was good-looking (there's no question that at times the film has almost homoerotic overtones as the camera repeatedly focuses on Best's thighs, his backside, the nape of his neck), but he was also human. He made the wrong decisions in games. He chose the wrong path. He got knocked down. But he got up again.
 It's the getting up again that makes you a sportsman, I guess.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

We shiver in the rain by the touchline ...

Coleraine Academical Institutution finished me as a sportsman. When I arrived in 1975 my previous high standing as captain of the Killowen Primary School football team counted for nothing. Mostly that's because Inst didn't play football. It was a grammar school. Rugby, cricket and rowing were its sports. And I was too weedy for rugby and rowing. I'd also had an unfortunate encounter with a real cricket ball a year or two earlier which has left me suspicious of the sport ever since.
In first year I stood on the touchline in a mustard yellow top hoping the rugby ball would come nowhere near me before eventually opting out of sport for the weekly run which over the years slowed to a leisurely stroll, dreams of a sporting future shrivelling with every step. By then I was more interested in comic books and movies anyway.
Clearly whatever resentment I might once have felt towards the school's anti-football tendency (and believe me, there were times when it made me livid. I mean, Killowen had won, oh I'd say, maybe two games under my captaincy) has faded because this week I was glued to the TV to watch the two Coleraine Inst "old boys" compete in the rowing at Eton Dorney. To see the emotion and sheer agony on Alan Campbell's face after the single sculls yesterday was to be reminded of the agony and ecstasy of sport. Sitting in a wheelchair trying to respond to John Inverdale's questions he looked in such pain it felt like a cruelty to watch him.
And yet today he can feel warmed by his achievement. And in the space of a couple of days my home town  can suddenly boast three Olympic medal winners and Coleraine's name has been appearing in national newspaper headlines, following the silver for the Chambers brothers, Richard (who also went to Inst) and Peter  in the lightweight four. All three once belonged to the Bann Rowing Club.
 Campbell and the Chambers Brothers will undoubtedly  receive some kind of civic reception in the near future. If it takes place in the Coleraine town hall they may pass by the statue of another sporting hero of the town, Bertie Peacock which has pride of place in the Diamond. Sport is a way of writing places into the popular consciousness. There are much worse ways. As Northern Ireland knows all too well.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Olympic Cycles

There are three Olympic stories told in Whose Side Are You On? The first is the most famous - the story of Mary Peters who left a bleak, bomb-blasted Belfast in 1972 to travel to Munich to compete in the Pentathlon. After two days of competition she returned to Northern Ireland with a gold medal hanging around her neck (and a death threat hanging over her head). Hers is the great Northern Irish Olympic story. The story of an athlete who pushed herself and pushed herself and got her rewards. I always think her success is underrated in the British Olympic story, given the paucity of facilities she had to train on in Belfast at the time and the violence that marked the city at that time (no mention, for example, in this morning's Radio Four Olympic montage).

Then there's Wayne McCullough's story. McCullough is one of Northern Ireland's best ever boxers, born and raised in the heart of Protestant Shankill.who represented Ireland - because boxing is organised on an all-island basis in Ireland - in the Seoul Olympics in 1988 at the age of 17. He was asked to carry the Irish flag at the opening ceremony and maybe was too young to realise how that would be perceived back in parts of Belfast.
The third story is the least well known, I guess. But I thought it's worth retelling here because it's a little cameo of the way sports stories are constantly at the mercy of politics. It concerns a cyclist called Noel Teggart, a lorry driver from Banbridge. Teggart was 31. He was representing Ireland, cycling, like boxing, being one of those sports organised on an all-island basis. Unfortunately there were other Irishmen in Munich  who were keen to make a protest. Members of the National Cycling Association, an organisation banned by the sport, wanted to make a protest against the "British occupation of Northern Ireland". To do so they hid in a ditch all night with the aim of then jumping up and interrupting the race.
Unfortunately, they didn't realise the race had been delayed for 24 hours. Still, they were back in the ditch 24 hours later and when it finally got underway they emerged from hiding, grabbed Teggart's bike and refused to let him move for a couple of minutes, by which time whatever chances he had in the race were long gone.
The story of cycling in Ireland after partition is a litany of organisations being banned and new organisations being formed usually along religious and political lines. Teggart was unfortunate in that his story was subsumed into this larger one.
And to little purpose in the end. Although the NCA's protest - although widely reported in Ireland, north and south - was largely ignored by the rest of the world. That's because the Palestinian Black September group had by then mounted their own protest by seizing Israeli athletes in the Olympic village. The siege ended in a gun battle that killed nine of the athletes. It remains the greatest disaster in Olympic history and the greatest stain on the Olympic ideal. The 40th anniversary of that tragedy is just around the corner. 

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Sporting Snobbery ... A Confession

Is it me or has the Tour de France been a bit dull this year? No? So definitely just me then? Honestly, I can't say I've been able to get too excited about the prospect of the first ever British winner of the greatest race in sport. Good on Bradley Wiggins and all that, but his success has not really raised my heart rate.
Two reasons. One is that the race itself this year has been quite unexceptional. Team Sky has bossed it and as a result Wiggins has never really been truly tested. Maybe that's because there's no one good enough to test him (except his team mate Chris Froome).
Yes, I know that controlling the race is itself a huge sign of sporting prowess but it's not what I want from the Tour. My most cherished cycling memories have always been those moments - usually in the mountains; I've never been that bothered about the sprint finishes - where a rider is on his own against his closest rivals and has to put up or shut up. And so, as I've mentioned before, my favourite Tour moment of all is Stephen Roche's astonishing recovery on La Plagne in the 1987 tour when he hauled himself back to within spitting distance of Pedro Delgado after the Spaniard had attacked and opened up a 90-second lead. That and the time the (dope-assisted) Bjarne Riis rode away from all his rivals (including Miguel Indurain) on Hautacam in the 1996 tour in a contemptuous display of acceleration, not once, not twice, but three times.

If I'm honest, though, this isn't just about sporting taste. There's something else going on here too that I think I have to own up to. The reason I kind of don't really want Bradley Wiggins to win is that, well, he's not exotic enough for me. He's called Bradley and he's British and he doesn't fit in with my own sports snobbery. 
Back in the 1980s when Channel 4 first started screening highlights of the Tour part of the appeal for me was that it was not mainstream. I was living in Scotland but only my bike-loving mates Gerry and Davy knew who Robert Millar was at the time. Following the Tour was a mark of difference for us.
And marks of difference mattered then. Pop culture in the eighties was very bipolar. You either bought into the Tina Turner/Phil Collins mainstream or you bought the NME, listened to the Smiths and kidded yourself on you were cooler than everyone else. Coolness was a political statement. It meant you'd probably heard of  (if not actually heard) Test Department, seen the odd Wim Wenders movie and didn't vote for the Tories. Almost inevitably that outlook extended into your sporting tastes. And so Alex Higgins was cool, Steve Davis wasn't. Eric Bristow was cool, John Lowe wasn't.
You (okay, I) formed perceptions of sportsmen and women and put them in one camp or another. Davis was uncool because he was linked to Barry Hearn, was a very effective snooker player and turned up once at a Tory party conference. Alex Higgins was Alex Higgins.
In more recent years I've rather warmed to Davis, while the more I learned about Higgins's messy life the less I liked him. I still think he was the more thrilling - if not necessarily better - snooker player though.
You would think I'd have grown out of this by now, but if I'm honest I still carry a fair freight of sporting snobbery around with me. And so it doesn't seem right to me that a British team called Team Sky should dominate the Tour. It's too ordinary. I want it to be some exotically-named Spaniard or Italian. Or Colombian. (Whatever did happen to Luis Herrera?)
 Nor do I want English teams to win the Champions League (unless, of course, it happened to be Spurs, but I don't think there's any danger of that happening soon). And I rather enjoy it when England or Scotland are outplayed by a technically superior European or South American side because it plays into my vision of the rest of the world being cooler than us (though if it's Northern Ireland playing allegiance trumps snobbery).
I can't be alone in this, can I? There must be many of you out there who rave about the superiority of Serie A over the Premier League, or talk knowingly of the superiority of Cuban boxing in comparison to the rest of the world. (Examples welcome.)
The real triumph of cycling in recent years, of course, has been the huge explosion in its popularity in Britain. Thanks to the efforts of Chris Hoy, Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins the sport is moving into the mainstream. It's getting extensive coverage in the press (rather than just a column buried somewhere deep in the sports pages) and you can buy creamy, luxurious magazines like Rouleur dedicated to the sport.
In some sense I'm thrilled by this - there's a sense of vindication inherent in the fact that everyone is cottoning on to something I've always known about -  but the snob in me is still slightly put out. Where were you all in 1984, eh? Now excuse me, I've got some Rough Trade B-sides to catalogue.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Green Days

Now that Spain are champions of the world and champions of Europe (again),  it's worth remembering that it wasn't always so. Here's a slightly longer version of the piece I wrote for the Sunday Herald to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Northern Ireland's victory over Spain in Valencia in the 1982 World Cup:

"Gerry Armstrong ... What a worker he is ..." For most of us, I’d imagine, there are a handful of sporting moments that we hold closer than most, moments where the thrill of what we’ve seen has seared itself into our memory never to be dislodged. " ... Striding away there with Hamilton to his right ..." Ask me and I’ll happily reel my own off: Ricky Villa’s goal in the 1981 FA cup final replay, the Chris Eubanks-Nigel Benn fights of the early 1990s, Stephen Roche coming round the corner on La Plagne still close enough to the wheelrims of Pedro Delgado to ensure he’d win the 1987 Tour de France, Usain Bolt seeming to slow down to look around as he won gold at Beijing four years ago (running the fastest time ever as an added bonus). "Still Billy Hamilton, he’s gone past Tendilio ... " But my absolute favourite came 30 years ago, on a hot night in Valencia, soundtracked by John Motson’s commentary. " ... Arconada ... Armstrong!"
Thirty years. Half a lifetime. I can still see the living room of my parents’ house in Coleraine where I sat that night; the sofa, the fireplace, which in winter still held a real fire back then, and the TV in the corner, small by today’s standards, the colour images fizzing and strobing from the satellite feed. I was just a couple of weeks from my 19th birthday, a couple of months from leaving Northern Ireland to start life as a student in Scotland and start untying myself from the place I came from.
At the time it couldn’t come soon enough. The Troubles had started when I was six years old and were showing no signs of stopping. The early eighties were a particularly grim time. We were only a year on from the hunger strikes. A month on from this night the IRA will detonate bombs in Hyde Park and Regents Park in London, killing 11 British soldiers. Back then I wasn’t sure I wanted to be Northern Irish any more.
But I still wanted Northern Ireland - a ragged bunch of motley journeymen with only one recognised world class player (Pat Jennings) - to win that night. They were still my team. I still sat forward in my chair as Gerry Armstrong picked up the ball in his own half and surged forward. He was the only white-shirted player on the screen until Billy Hamilton moved up on the right wing. Hamilton played for Burnley, had a wee spidey moustache on his upper lip and would never be as famous again as he was on this night. Armstrong knocked the ball wide to him and moved towards the Spanish box. Hamilton almost casually shrugged off a challenge from the Spanish defender Miguel Tendilio and pushed the ball into the Spanish penalty box. But right at the Spanish keeper Luis Arconada unfortunately. The keeper just had to drop on it and that would be the end of the attack. But for some reason Arconada elects to punch instead. Straight to Armstrong who fires it into the back of the net. 1-0 to Northern Ireland. For a moment the world - or my world at any rate - stopped.
On my TV screen Armstrong is embraced by a limping Sammy McIlroy and given a bear hug by Whiteside (who at 17 and a matter of days is the youngest player to play in the World Cup finals to this point) and as he does so I swear I hear the whole street I live in erupt; a ragged, raucous cheer echoing from house to house. This is the sporting moment I love most, the moment I remember feeling most simply, happily, giddily Northern Irish too. For the next 40 minutes Spain batter at the Northern Ireland back line but can’t find a way through. Northern Ireland have beaten the hosts, topped their group and gone through to the next round of the World Cup. It is a glorious night.
A few hours later at around two in the morning my father is on patrol with the Ulster Defence Regiment between Magherafelt and Garvagh when a 500lb landmine is detonated under his landrover. He came limping home the next morning (limping worse than Sammy McIlroy) and told me in the vaguest possible terms what had happened.
What’s curious to me now is how far apart my head had separated these two memories. It was only a couple of years ago, prompted by reading a private history of his regiment, that I realised they had happened within hours of each other. It’s as if I had deliberately rubbed out the linkage, as if not wanting to sully the good memory with the bad.
June 1982 is the high point of my life as a Northern Irish sports fan. Other days and nights - arguably greater days and nights - followed: watching Dennis Taylor, Barry McGuigan, right up to Rory McIlroy winning the US Open. But they’re not football.
I guess 1982 has other resonances too. It was - or I like to think so - represents a utopian moment, a moment when Catholics and Protestants played together in the same team and no one thought anything of it. Just over ten years later Northern Ireland would play the Republic of Ireland in Windsor Park on a night full of sectarian chanting. Just over 20 years later Neil Lennon would receive a death threat and never play for his country again. And even today players like Sunderland James McClean who come from nationalist backgrounds say they don’t feel comfortable playing for Northern Ireland, despite major efforts by fans and the Irish Football Association to address the problem. Back in 1982, Gerry Armstrong, a player who grew up in nationalist west Belfast was a hero of the fans. He never received any sectarian barracking because of his religion.
I can’t believe anyone today would still claim that sport and politics don’t mix. The problem in Northern Ireland has been that for the last 40 years sport and politics have too often mixed in the same way as guncotton and nitroglycerin. June 25, 1982 is one of those moments, though, when that didn’t apply. That’s why it still seems something to savour.
A few years ago I went to a race meeting at Down Royal. On the way I passed the site of the former Maze prison. It was a clear summer’s day. There were people dressed in their Sunday best, punters in denim (many with Billy Hamilton taches) and bookies all of whom were from south of the border. The punters got drunk, the well-dressed had their pictures taken, the bookies got rich. I remember standing in the grandstand, tearing up another losing betting slip and looking out across the course to the fields beyond. Those tight little fields that surrounded me in my younger years. All those different shades of green. And I thought of all they might represent. The green of the land, the green of football shirts, the green of UDR landrovers. People were cheering and - I’m pretty certain about this memory - I thought about Gerry Armstrong.

Monday, 25 June 2012

England's dreaming ... but why not the rest of us?

Here we are the day after the night before and I'm listening to Gary Lineker on Radio Five Live lamenting another English failure. So it goes. So it always goes. 
I spent this afternoon watching the film One Night in Turin, the documentary about the 1990 World Cup  and it's amazing how familiar some of the echoes between then and now are - most notably in the discussions about England's preference for 4-4-2.
Otherwise, though, everything - football hooliganism, a government in 1990 that was explicitly anti-football, the last time West Germany played in an international competition - has changed. What hasn't changed is that sport and politics go hand and hand.
One Night in Turin is good fun, by the way. It has the advantage of the operatic nature of that World Cup. Not the best in terms of the football but full of great stories. 
You do watch it thinking how did England ever get to that semi-final, of course. Cameroon should have humped them in the quarter final. But then, as I've mentioned before, England were so good in that semi-final, so deserving of going through, you can't help but feel for them at the end of the film. There's some lovely footage of the late Bobby Robson consoling Paul Gascoigne just before the penalty shoot-out, Gazza knowing he won't be playing in the final if England do go through because he'd picked up a second booking. And rather moving footage of Chris Waddle too as he steps up to take a penalty and misses. The camera stays with him, watching as he drifts from disbelief to despair. The fact that West Germany's Lothar Mattheus goes to console him before joining his victorious team-mates speaks well of the German captain.  
It's interesting, though, watching it today particularly. In Scotland this morning the anti-independence campaign was launched probably thankful that England went out last night. This may seem a shallow point but the fact is there is no question that when England play in the World Cup and the Euros the TV coverage is so pro-English that it has an inevitable distancing effect for those of us who are not English. Last night I spent the match moaning that the Republic of Ireland should take back all those caps it gave Mark Lawrenson so boss-eyed was his commentary.
I doubt that's going to change how anyone will vote in a referendum of  course. But it's part of the mood music. And while it's totally understandable that the majority of viewers/listeners/football fans in the UK are English and it's no surprise that the coverage reflects that, it still sometimes feels that the rest of us are stuck on the outside looking through a glass wall. And no one seems to be looking back at us. There is no Scottish or Irish or Welsh equivalent of One Night in Turin. Yes, you might say, that's because none of them have ever reached the semi-final of a World Cup.  I can't argue with that.

But today is the 30th anniversary of Northern Ireland's win over Spain in the 1982 World Cup. If you want to know why that matters to me you can read a piece I wrote in yesterday's Sunday Herald (I'll post it here soon).
It's not an anniversary that has received much coverage elsewhere. Why should it, you might ask again? It was only a group game. That's true. But clearly Northern Ireland is never going to win the World Cup or the Euros. It's conceivable that we might never qualify for the finals again in my lifetime. So it seems like a worthwhile story, especially given the politics in Northern Ireland at the time, just a year after the Hunger Strikes.
The fact is that the football stories we get told for the most part are English stories. Not in books, but on TV and radio and in the newspapers, that tends to be the case.
I wish that wasn't so. I would love to see a documentary about Northern Ireland in Spain in 1982. But then I'd also love to see a documentary that traced German football from the war, or Spanish football. The beautiful game is full of amazing stories. Tell us them all.
I'm happy seeing English stories too, by the way. The fact is England's footballing history over the last 40 years is, in a way, also my history. There's another anniversary coming up tomorrow. It will be 16 years since England were knocked out of Euro '96 by the Germans. On penalties. Four minutes after the last penalty that night my daughter was born.

Friday, 22 June 2012

One night in Valencia

A couple of heads-ups for you. It is almost 30 years since Northern Ireland's glorious victory over Spain in the 1982 World Cup. If you remember watching it - and yes I do - you're probably not a young thing any more. I've written a piece celebrating Gerry Armstrong's winning goal in this year's Sunday Herald. Will link to it asap.

Also just announced yesterday is the Edinburgh Book Festival programme. And I'm appearing alongside the estimable Rodge Glass, author of Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs, which is a top novel by the way. The theme for our event is "When Sporting Dreams Go Sour". Plenty of scope there, I would have thought.
Feel free to come along on Monday, August 20 and snigger when I have to read out loud (Rodge is very good at it so that will make me look all the worse). The details are here:

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Euro 2012: Why I'm Not Supporting Ireland either

I was listening to Radio Five Live last night as Packie Bonner, John Aldridge and David O'Leary were reminiscing about playing for Ireland in the Euro 88 and the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and what was most striking was how familiar it sounded.
Change the year and move the accents slightly north (Aldridge accepted of course) and it could have been Gerry Armstrong, Sammy McIlroy and Norman Whiteside talking about Spain in 1982 (another anniversary fast approaching).
I remember watching Jack Charlton's team with a slightly detached enjoyment at the time. It was a great story in 88, especially when they beat England in the opening game - a classic case of the thrill that greets the triumph of the underdog. My dad, whose background and inclination were solidly unionist even cheered that one,  though his politics would have suggested otherwise. Sometimes, sport can be just sport I guess.
So here's the thing. I support Ireland on the rugby pitch but not on the football pitch (not unless they're playing for the Northern version). Why is that?
 I hope it is very simple. The Republic is another country in footballing terms - which are the terms I'm interested in -  and so many of the same reasons I suggested for not supporting England yesterday are relevant here too. Well, apart from the media coverage perhaps.
 Not everyone would adhere to such airy dismissals of course. The history of Northern Ireland's meetings with the Republic of Ireland has often had more than a bit of poison swirling around it, most notoriously in 1993 when Charlton's team travelled north to play at Windsor Park hoping to ensure their place in the World Cup in America. The venom in the ground that night directed towards the Republic's players would inspire Marie Jones's play A Night in November. It's a game I cover at length in Whose Side Are You On? On that night, as on many others, football was politics by another means. For some in the crowd at any rate.

And an ongoing tension between north and south continues up to the present day. The fact that there are players born and raised in the north playing for the south is a bugbear for some. There's been some heated words said in the last couple of months about Sunderland player James McLean's comments suggesting that Catholic players were not welcome in the Northern Ireland set-up. Former Northern Ireland winger Keith Gillespie had a go at him this week and even argued that McLean had used Northern Ireland when playing at Under 21 level: "He had no intention of every playing for the Northern Ireland senior team and he's made that clear but he used the Northern Ireland system to get into a position where he could defect to the Republic."
Others, anonymously, said much worse and even sent McLean death threats, which no one deserves.
McLean's comments do point out the challenge that still faces the Irish Football Association in Belfast despite the huge strides that have been made via the Football For All campaign. We have to recognise that some players from nationalist backgrounds will always prefer to play for the Republic. And after that make the Northern Ireland set-up as welcoming for everyone else. Some would argue - Gillespie among them, I guess - that's already been done.
Football has always been one of the principal sporting theatres for sectarianism in Ireland, north and south. That's a given. But it should be said that it's also a theatre for challenging it too. Gerry Armstrong and Pat Jennings are heroes to most Northern Ireland fans. It doesn't matter their background.
But back to not supporting Ireland. Here's the thing. I hope they do well. I hope they're not too boring and I hope that Robbie Keane bows out in scintillating form (always loved Robbie). But I'm not going to be cheering them on. I want Euro 2012 to be a brilliant footballing spectacle where the best players in the world play to the best of their ability and dazzle us with their skills. I kind of hope Spain win but really in the end I want the best team to win and not someone boring us to death with 1-0 wins.
If Northern Ireland had made it I would qualify that wish. But as they didn't, I can smugly say that's exactly why I won't be supporting Ireland (or England for that matter). In the end it is about the football.
Then again, say both England and Ireland come through their groups and meet in the quarter finals. Who will I be cheering on then?

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Euro 2012: Why I Won't Be Supporting England

A couple of years ago I was asked by the Sunday Herald in Glasgow to write a piece to run ahead of the World Cup explaining why I wouldn't be supporting England in South Africa. A little context. At the time England travelled with some expectation and I imagine while I was writing it the hot air of the media at the time would have been overheating me in the run-up to the tournament. I was also writing for a Scottish audience who were being encouraged to overturn their habit of saying "A-B-E" - "anyone but England". Which seemed to be ridiculous to me at the time. I tried to explain why in the following piece:

My name is Teddy Jamieson and I’m not supporting England during this World Cup. Does that make me a bad person? Actually, some people seem to think it does. Of late a lot of people seem to have been telling me I should get over myself and start supporting Fabio’s boys; newspaper columnists, Scottish footballing types (including the manager of the national side), even the Prime Minister have all implied as much.
Well I have listened to what’s been said, weighed up the advice and come to the conclusion that the argument being advanced is, in technical terms, mince.  I’m not raising a Red Cross above the house. I’m not praying that Gareth Barry’s fit. I’m more likely to be hoping that Wayne Rooney loses his temper and tells some luckless referee to stick his whistle up his vuvuzela.
There’s a very simple reason for this of course. I’m not English. This seem to confuse people, yet last I looked the United Kingdom consists of four countries, not one. And just because the other three countries weren’t - let’s not beat about the bush - good enough to participate in the South African extravaganza doesn’t necessarily mean I should then automatically cheer on the next-door neighbour. It’s a bit like living in the same street as someone who’s having a month-long party and you’re not invited (probably because you’re rubbish at dancing and they know you’ll drink all the booze). It’s understandable that, as much as you get along with them most of the time, you might get a bit irked as the noise rises.
What bugs me about the arguments being advanced at the moment is how they manage to both take football too seriously and not seriously enough at the same time. Too seriously in the sense that they conflate not supporting England with anti-Englishness. Which is spurious rot. It does not automatically make me some raving nationalist bigot who can tell you the names of every Scottish braveheart who died at Bannockburn. (That’s maybe because I’m not Scottish either. My national team of choice is Northern Ireland and I quite enjoy it when Scotland get humped too.)
Of course there are bigots out there. But they’re not the norm. The truth is, it’s not racism that fuels an antipathy to the England football team. It’s the thing that fuels football supporters everywhere -  sporting tribalism. This is what's not taken seriously enough. Would David Cameron stand up in parliament and suggest Celtic fans should back Rangers in any future Europa League final? Would he expect Liverpool fans to cheer on Man United in the Champions  League? No. So why is it that at international level such rivalries are suddenly meant to be put aside? As a Spurs and Stirling Albion fan I take almost as much delight in the failures of the Gooners and Alloa Athletic as the successes of the former. Sometimes, schadenfreude is the only pleasure we have.
And anyway,  even from an aesthetic viewpoint there’s no reason to support England. Are they likely to play the best football in the competition? I doubt it. That’s more likely to be Spain or Holland. Will they offer the best story? No, that will come from Argentina, where Diego Maradona will either undermine the most gifted players in the tournament, or, less likely, admittedly, guide them to a stunning triumph.
And how many times in living memory could you say England have ever actually played glorious football in the final stages of international competitions? Maybe in 1996. Mostly, though, they’re dour and relatively efficient. Until they meet someone better than they are. And there's always someone better than they are. The truth of it is, the England team are just Germans who are rubbish at penalties."

Revisiting the piece two years on, I'm rather pleased that I predicted the finalists (kind of). Oh and England lived down to my expectations. They had a poor tournament, played badly throughout and in the end were well beaten by Germany. 
It's interesting in 2012 that I don't feel quite as animated as I appear to be in that piece (which, incidentally was spiked for lack of space), which is probably a reflection of the much reduced level of expectation surrounding England this time. Too many injuries, Wayne Rooney out for two games and a sense that this is a team that's in transition.Even Time Magazine has noticed.
But I still don't want England to do well. Just because I don't really want to have to listen to the (understandable) triumphalism that would ensue.
What I didn't have room to address in that piece was the fact that, of course, I love English football. My whole frame of footballing reference arises out of 40 years of watching Match Of The Day. I love Spurs. Growing up, my favourite players were all Spurs players, often English players. I loved no one more than Glenn Hoddle and if you ask me now my favourite British player I'd say Hoddle before I'd say George Best. Or even Pat Jennings.
More than that I love England. London is my favourite city in the world. I love spending time in Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. But in the end my national team is Northern Ireland, not  England and when the BBC becomes the EBC as it invariably does during such football tournaments I feel inevitably other, not part of the collective that's been reflected back at me.
But even so there are complications now and again. Back in 1990 I cursed and swore at England all the way through the tournament. To me they should have been knocked out by Belgium in the last 16, knocked out by Cameroon in the Quarter Finals and then they played West Germany in the semi-final. Since I was born in West Germany I've always had a soft spot for the German team (even wanting them rather than Holland to win in the 1974 World Cup final).
But as that game went on in the sheer theatre of the game I found myself willing England to win it. They were the better team. They deserved to get to the final. I wanted Chrissy Waddle to play in a World Cup final. They didn't get there of course. As already mentioned, rubbish at penalties. And of course I would have reverted to anyone but England if they had got to the final. 
But it didn't happen and it feels less likely this time. Perhaps I'll be surprised. Maybe England this time around will thrill me. Then again, it is England. The tragedy of English football? Its predictability.

Next: Why I'm not supporting the Republic of Ireland

Monday, 28 May 2012

Best gear

Flicking through a new book on the fashion designer Paul Smith [Paul Smith A To Z, Abrams, £18.99] I noticed that along with his predictable love of cyclists one of Smith's sporting heroes was George Best. "I met this amazing footballer from Northern Ireland. He is immediately recognisable by his sideburns and his taste for champagne," he writes.
Best's life is capable of being interpreted in so many different ways but it's possibly not so common now to talk about him as a fashion icon, partly because his look - or the look that we remember him for - was very seventies and for all the Sandbrook-inspired retrospectives going round at the moment the seventies lad isn't a style that's particularly popular (although I have noticed the odd big sideburn in the last couple of years).
And yet starting with Best the way footballers appeared became part of their appeal. As a result, one of the reasons he was so loved was because of his look, and, of course, how that look meshed with his lifestyle and playing style. As Paolo Hewitt said in an interview about his book Fashion and Football a few years ago:  "George Best was an amazing player because he was like that off the field. When he got the ball he wanted to entertain and to play and that carried over into all aspects of his life, his drinking, his womanizing and his clothes."

We were (and perhaps still are) enthralled by the completeness of Best's lifestyle. The fact that he played on and off the field in the same manner. Clearly by the time his problem with alcohol became known it wasn't/isn't so attractive. But he was - as Paul Smith and Paolo Hewitt could attest - a fashion icon for a while.
In the 1960s Best even owned his own clothes store, Best Boutique, in Manchester (he opened it with Man City's Mike Summerbee. You can see it in the opening sequence of the movie version of Jack Rosenthal's The Lovers.
I'd love to know if anyone from Belfast (or their dads or Grandads) made the journey to shop there.

The Fashion of Football by Paolo Hewitt and Mark Baxter is currently available on Kindle

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Joey Boy

What with a Champions League final, the arrival of the Olympic Torch, the countdown to Euro 2012 and even an all-Edinburgh Scottish Cup final going on, it's possible that many will overlook the fact that this is a huge weekend for Northern Irish sport.
Of course the Heineken Cup final will be noticed, especially if Ulster manage to upset the odds on Saturday (here's hoping). But the other huge Irish sporting event of the weekend, the North West 200, may not get quite the same coverage. And yet the motorbike road race will attract tens of thousands of people to Northern Ireland's north coast attracted to the speed, roar and rush of the race.
That roar is a soundtrack of my childhood.Growing up in Coleraine as I did, the race was an annual event in the town. But if I'm honest it was never something I looked forward to particularly. There's a family story that as a kid I went to see it and then came down with Mumps the next day. But I doubt that association really explains my disinterest. It's more, I suspect, that motor sports are one of my blind spots. I'm even more indifferent to Formula One.
Even so, I was always aware of the North West 200. It would have been impossible not to be, given how large it figured in local culture. And of course that wasn't just because of the race itself. There was also the fact that one of the greatest motorbike racers lived just down the road.
In Northern Ireland Joey Dunlop is one of the most important sporting figures of the last 40 years. And yet his name is little known outside the province and motorbike circles.
Perhaps that just makes their affection for him all the stronger. A five-times world champion, Dunlop could ride a bit. That was a part of his appeal. But I always thought the fact that he was so Northern Irish helped too:  Northern Irish in his thrawnness, his unwillingness to put on airs and graces and his sometimes comically monosyllabic interviews. And when he did speak the broadness of his Ballymoney accent only cemented his down-home image.
Dunlop is, it's worth adding, the reason I wrote Whose Side Are You On? in the first place. The book began when I read an obituary of Joey's brother Robert during a practice session of the North West 200 in 2008. Robert's death came eight years after his brother's. Joey died when he came off his bike during a race in Tallinn in Estonia in 2000. In Robert's obituary it mentioned that when Joey died his body was brought back to Dublin and then the funeral cortege headed north to Ballymoney.
The journey, though, coincided with a spasm of violence in the north. It was marching season and the refusal to allow Orangemen to march down the Garvaghy Road in Portadown had led to widespread road blocks and confrontations between loyalists and the security forces. As a result the cortege struggled to get to Ballymoney and Robert had to make a public plea to allow his brother's body to be brought home.
Reading that obit in 2008 I suddenly thought that here was an example of how the Troubles had impacted on a Northern Irish sporting story. How many more had that happened to? Very, very many, it turned out four years and more than 300 pages later.
Ironically, though, Dunlop's story is actually one that for the most part was not touched by the Troubles. He was an apolitical figure and motor bike racing was not associated with one side or the other. It was allowed for the most part to just be a sport. The North West 200 itself was only cancelled once because of security fears prompted by the Troubles. Numerically foot-and-mouth had as much of an impact.
 For that reason alone, I'd argue, the race should be celebrated. I hope the weather's kind to those who are going to Coleraine, Portstewart or Portrush this weekend. And have an ice cream in Morelli's for me.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Snooker loopy

"Snooker loopy nuts are we ..."No doubt the current World Championship in Sheffield and on BBC2 is drawing respectable audiences. And if Ronnie O'Sullivan wins this year it will give the sport a fillip. But snooker feels some way distant from it's all-conquering pomp back in the 1980s. Indeed, the very notion of O'Sullivan, Judd Trump and Ali Carter teaming up with the current equivalent of Chas and Dave (Olly Murs maybe?) and getting in the charts is so ridiculous it has a sort of charm to it (not that I'd want to hear the result or anything). But it's ridiculousness does emphasise how far snooker has fallen since those halcyon days.
Or rather maybe it's a reminder of how, for a while, Britain went a little demented over the sport.
In John Landis's glorious 1981 horror movie An American Werewolf In London, if I remember rightly, the American director's had a character trying to watch British telly and finding only ads for the News of the World and darts on the box.
If the film had been made, say, five years later, I suspect Landis may have opted for snooker, so ubiquitous was the sport in the mid-eighties. Indeed it reached its apotheosis in 1985 with the most celebrated final of all, when Dennis Taylor beat Steve Davis on the black ball in the last frame, prompting a letter of praise (among many others) for Taylor from the H Block.
We know that because Donald Trelford, former editor of the Observer, mentioned it in his 1986 book Snookered, a book which itself was a symptom of the game's infiltration of the culture. Indeed the same year also saw the late (and often great) Gordon Burn - best known for his books on Damien Hirst and British serial killers - publish Pocket Money about "Britain's boom-time snooker".
Today only football has the same cultural penetration as snooker had back then. It was inescapable. Not that I wanted to escape it. I was one of the millions who sat up to watch Taylor's incredible victory which seemed at the time a double victory. I could cheer because the winner was a fellow Northern Irishman (and I did), but also because Davis seemed to represent the enemy at the time - he was a Tory for a start. Then there was his mechanistic playing style, that ability of his to grind out results.
And why was that a problem? Well probably because the man who had made snooker the game it was, the man who put the game on the cultural map was never a man for grinding out results.

Alex Higgins won his first World Championship in 1972. "Snooker was never the same again," Clive Everton, the doyen of snooker reporters, told Trelford. Higgins was a very seventies figure in many ways. A lad who liked his drink and liked women and liked showing off. He was a George Best for the baize (the temptation to link the two was one I couldn't avoid in Whose Side Are You On?). He even carried with him,the Daily Mail said at the time, "the raw sense of the streets".
That, of course, was always the problem with Higgins. His emotional volatility and vulnerability saw him drink too much and fight too often. Most notoriously, he once threatened that he'd have his fellow countryman Taylor shot the next time Taylor was in Northern Ireland. Given that Taylor was a Catholic and Higgins a Protestant it's difficult not to see a sectarian element in such a dumb sentiment.
Higgins was always a problematic hero. His neediness, his kneejerk anti-authority attitude, the man's emotional explosiveness meant he did a lot of collateral damage in his life. But bloody hell could he play. He brought a louche danger to the staidest of sports and a jerky nervous energy that radiated off the TV screen. The afterglow of that hung around him, carried him through his own excesses and meant his death prompted an outpouring of genuine sorrow in Belfast.
I'm not sure if it's a sign that I'm now unmistakeably middle-aged but these days I find myself rather liking Steve Davis. Yes he was a Tory but he is wryly funny and loves his soul music. I think he'd be good company. I'm not sure in his later years you could say the same about Higgins. For some sense of what he could be like I'd recommend you read the first chapter of Bill Borrows's excellent biography of the man.
But without him would we be watching snooker in the first place?

Saturday, 28 April 2012

I Love the 70s: It's Iam not Ian McFaul

Continuing our 1970s theme here's another page from The Tiger Book of Soccer Stars 1971.
Today's star is another goalkeeper. This time it's Newcastle United's number one Iam McFaul.
I've always thought McFaul was tiny for a keeper but according to Tiger he was 5ft, 9 and a half inches. Which is taller than me if nothing else.
In his time at Newcastle he helped the team to victory in the 1969 European Fairs Cup. They beat Rangers in the semi-final and then Hungarian side Ujpest FC 6-2 on aggregate in the final over two legs.
He played for his country too but he had the misfortune to be a contemporary of Northern Ireland's greatest keeper, Pat Jennings.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Best of Times?

I have missed some of Dominic Westbrook's current BBC2 series so I don't know if George Best has featured in it at all, but "the football folk hero" (as Sandbrook dubs him) does turn up in the historian's 2010 book State Of Emergency when it turns its attention to football in the early 1970s.
It is difficult to find anything new to say about Best now so much has been written about him over the years. In fact writing Whose Side Are You On? I felt quite privileged that by focusing on him as a specifically Northern Irish figure I had some space to reframe his story to some degree.
 Even so, the patterns of the story are now well engrained, almost mythical, with Best as a kind of Mancunian Icarus soaring through the sixties only to have his wings singed when the decade changed. As a result he fell hard (into a bottle most likely).
There is also a tendency to make Best's story emblematic, to see in him a marker for football in that era. In some senses that's inevitable. Where Best led, the likes of Rodney Marsh, Stan Bowles, Frank Worthington and all the other seventies fancy dans followed as football became the new rock 'n' roll. (Best is described in the Tiger Book of Soccer Stars 1971, above, as having "pop star hair".)
For some that was a reason to celebrate. For others it was a reason to despair. In State of Emergency Sandbrook does rather cleave to the latter line. He quotes Arthur Hopcraft who in 1971 said that Best was synonymous with "contempt for authority and heedless petulance". For Hopcroft Best had "come to represent almost every extreme in the modern footballer's lifestyle".
This argument is reflective of one of the main strands of conservative thinking on the 1970s which sees it as a time of decline. That decline might have been an economic one (caused by the rise of union power) or a social one (the death of deference: Best's drunken insubordination at his club can stand - unsteadily perhaps - for this ). Football was violent off the pitch (from Best it's notable that Sandbrook moves on to look at football hooliganism) and arrogant on.
It's tempting - just out of pure contrariness - to try to put a different spin on Best's actions. Is it possible to argue that he in fact represents the employee railing against the strictures placed on him by his employer? This was still a time when players were not in control of their destiny. They were there to be bought and sold and in between they were expected to do what they were told. And Best always complained that he felt he was carrying Manchester United at the start of that decade.
Or can we say that he was the embodiment of individualism in a team game? In short that he represented an otherness the powers that be in football and in the wider culture couldn't contain and so condemned?
It's a stretch, perhaps. All too often Best was his own worst enemy and increasingly football was less important to him than wine or women. But that said, it seems harsh to condemn as all that was wrong with football culture. His failings were his own.
And it should be said that while football fans are conservative in all sorts of ways the narratives they most respond to - and celebrate - are utopian ones. And so for them Best the footballer tends to matter more than Best the alcoholic. The striker who left defenders with, in Alex Ferguson's memorable phrase, "twisted blood". On the field Best was anything but conservative. That was what was great about him

PS: In the May issue of GQ Robert Chalmers interviews Pele. Right at the start they talk about Best. "An unbelievable player," says Pele. "To me he never looked like a European. He was a Latin player - a Brazilian player." What is it Northern Ireland fans sing? "We're not Brazil". Oh let's imagine we are. Just a little.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Nostalgia at 12 and 6

I was back in Northern Ireland for Easter, when one of my jobs was to go up into the attic and clear out some of my belongings. Mostly that meant an awful lot of Marvel comics which were, for a while, the most important thing I could imagine. Even more than football.
But there were a couple of football annuals that now seem far more important to me than Spiderman Comics Weekly or Planet of the Apes. The earliest - and best - of them is the Tiger Book of Soccer Stars 1971, which I must have got at Christmas 1970 when I was seven.
More than 40 years on it is a gloriously nostalgic artefact, helped by its full colour images. Just the names conjure up memories of sitting up to watch Match of the Day. Tony Book. John Hollins. Terry Paine. Another age.
Northern Ireland is represented by a number of players. Two goalies, a "wonderful winger" and the Doug.

It's quite a large format so as you can see my scanner is not quite up to the job but I'm going to post a few spreads from the annual over the next few days. It seems appropriate to start with a number one, so here's Pat Jennings. "Spurs are proud of their good looking Irish No 1". Jennings joined Spurs in 1964 for a fee of £25,000. Wonder what he would be worth now.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Who am I? I'm still working on it

I was chairing a debate in the National Library of Scotland last night (get me!) about the impact independence might have on Scottish culture. Oranised by Irish Pages and Gutter Magazine, it brought eight authors (four Scots, four Irish) together to debate what might happen to Scotland if independence came to pass, how had independence changed Irish culture and how might Scottish independence impact on Northern Ireland.
It was an interesting debate which shot off in all sorts of interesting directions. At one point the Irish poet Thomas McCarthy argued that Scots, if they do opt for independence, should then feel a duty of care to Ulster Protestants - the Scots Irish - in the same way as the Irish Republic felt a duty to Northern Irish Catholics. In reply, the Belfast novelist Glenn Patterson pointed out that many Northern Irish Protestants might not appreciate Scots telling them they were now responsible for them.
I'm still not sure how I feel about the idea of independence for Scotland. I'm not bothered by the economic arguments particularly - we are all in such deep waters when it comes to economy I'm not convinced it will make a huge difference - but I do like the idea that it would mean Scotland would be forced to grow up a little, to take responsibility for itself (if not those on the other side of the North Channel), to renew its own idea of itself. That's a challenge but also an opportunity.
What has any of this to do with sport? Well, sport is itself at times a projection of identity. We are currently in the midst of a huge pre-Olympic publicity drive which is sending out messages about Britishness.
Some of those messages - however you feel about Britishness in general - seem hugely positive to me. The Olympic Britain we are being offered is an ambitious, multicultural, inclusive place. Now you can argue that this is PR hype, but it's an attractive vision and sport is one of the areas where multiculturalism plays out in a relatively equal playing field (we are all marked by the realities of class, gender and race but if you get to the playing fields and you have talent then there's a chance your talent is what you will be judged on).
As someone who has written a book about feeling Northern Irish mostly because of Gerry Armstong's goal against Spain in the 1982 World Cup I suppose I would naturally argue that sport can define identity. But why sport? I love 1980s English pop music made in Manchester, the poetry of Philip Larkin, the films of Michael Powell and the paintings of Paul Nash - all which makes me a huge Anglophile, And yet I don't feel English at all.
For a while - in the eighties - I did feel Scottish, wanting to embrace something that wasn't Northern Irish, an identity I was keen to get away from at the time. And to do that I started becoming very interested in Scottish sport - Scottish football in particular. But before long I drifted back to liking English football because I had an emotional connection with it. It's what I had grown up watching. My Northern Irishness manifested itself via English football bizarrely enough.
I'm not sure what the point I'm trying to make is (obviously) but I guess it's got something to do with the idea that identity is fluid. It isn't fixed. Or doesn't have to be. We can remake ourselves in whatever way we want.
Some, of course, don't want to. In Northern Ireland this week Linfield fans went on what the local papers claimed was "a rampage" after their side had been beaten in a Setanta Cup tie with Derry City. The event was marked by claim and counterclaim but it is just another example of how football in the north allows a platform for a form of sectarian theatricality (the Old Firm provide the same in Scotland).
And yet the first leg of the Cup saw Martin McGuinness make his first visit to Windsor Park. In January Peter Robinson travelled to Armagh for the final of the McKenna Cup - the first time he had attended a GAA match. Token gestures you could argue but the fact that they are being made at all seems worth applauding. Robinson in the past had been a bitter critic of the GAA for its Republican links.
And the other week the DUP mayor of Ballymoney Ian Stevenson gave his public support to his local GAA team Lochgiel Shamrocks. Stevenson had recently found out that his grandfather played for the Shamrocks in the 1920s. As a result a culture he presumably felt no part of has provided a personal entry point for him.
The point is nothing is fixed. Identity may be something inherited but it is also to a large degree created. We are who we think we are. And sometimes we learn that who we think we are is only because we haven't got all the evidence to hand. Or because we've thought better of it.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Match rating

"Jamieson weaves together sport and a history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland together to produce an account of sectarianism that, incredibly after all this time and all that has happened, still has the power to shock."

The author and critic Lesley McDowell reviewed Whose Side Are You On? in the latest issue of The Scottish Review of Books. It's first rate, she says. Nice review. You can read it in full here:

And just a reminder that I am appearing at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow on Sunday alongside Rodge Glass, Alan Bissett and Richard Wilson. Details here:

See you there maybe?

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Whose Side - the live experience!

So, next Sunday I've been invited to speak at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow. I'm joining a discussion on football and sectarianism with a trio of writers who in their various ways are engaged with the subject of the beautiful game and it's sometimes baleful side-effects.
Rodge Glass's new novel Bring Me The Head of Ryan Giggs is a fictional take on Manchester United's golden generation, following one of the Beckham/Neville/Scholes generation that didn't quite make it. I'm about 80 pages in at the moment and it's a wonderfully pacy, engaging read. Rodge is a Man U fan I believe but we'll not hold that against him.
Alan Bissett's latest novel Pack Men also has a Manchester link. It's a fictional account of what happened on that fateful night when Rangers fans went on the rammy in the city in 2008 on UEFA Cup final night ("the battle of Picadilly Gardens" as some called it).

And, because all these things tend to dovetail beautifully, Rangers FC is at the heart of the book of the third speaker Richard Wilson. Richard is a freelance journalist and contributor to The Herald and Sunday Herald. His book Inside The Divide looks in depth at the Old Firm.
I'm there just to make up the numbers but it should be an interesting afternoon at Glasgow's Mitchell Library. next Sunday (Kick off 3.30pm).  For more details of the event visit
And if you make it along say hello.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Me and Piers Morgan

My Herald colleague (and friend) Susan Swarbrick has sent me a picture of Whose Side Are You On? on her bookshelf. It's nice to know someone has not only read the book but decided to keep hold of it too. Not sure about the company I find myself in. I suspect that she's deliberately manipulated it so that the likes of Piers Morgan and Toby Young are also in the frame,probably because she knows how much I hate them - the kind of  irrational hatred you can have for people you've never met.

Morgan of course is a Gooner and that smarts all the more today after yesterday's debacle at the Emirates.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Ibrox Blues

I was at Ibrox on Saturday for the Sunday Herald. You can read my report here:
A couple of days on I've been thinking a bit more about the afternoon. There was something impressive about the Rangers fans' response, the scale and noise of it. But it was tarnished by the singing of sectarian songs. It was as if in their anger they lashed out. Only they lashed out in the wrong direction.
I noted lots of Northern Irish accents before the game, a reminder that the Old Firm hold a strong hold on the hearts of many in the north. That said, growing up I didn't know anyone who supported Rangers or Celtic. In the 1970s we watched English football on the telly and pretended to be English teams in our kickabouts on the local green.
I don't know if anyone has calculated the number of travelling fans who make the journey across the North Channel on a Saturday, but I would have thought as many of them head to Old Trafford as Ibrox or Celtic Park. Certainly when I lived in Northern Ireland the majority of people I knew were United fans.
Going home in the last ten, fifteen years, though, I have noted more and more Rangers and Celtic tops on Northern Irish streets. It's a mark of identity of course. It says whose side you are on. Me, I never could afford a Spurs top when I was young and I don't think I'd look good in one now that I can.

Monday, 30 January 2012

Bits and Pieces

Sorry, things have been quiet around Whose Side acres of late. Too much work, too little time. But I was prompted by a couple of things. First there was a tweet from former world boxing champion (and Belfast boy)Wayne McCullough which showed him holding a copy of Whose Side Are You On?, a picture that understandably made my day. Wayne gave me a great interview for my chapter of boxing in the book. If you hurry you can get his own biography on Kindle.

Then there was a comment from a Whose Side? reader Peter Baxter. Peter was responding to my choice of favourite football books. He mentioned Gary Imlach's excellent My Father and other Working Class Football Heroes and Joe McGinniss's The Miracle of Castel di Sangro (which I really need to get around to reading).
It reminded me that I've got to get a move on with my list of the 50 best sports books. Any suggestions always welcome. There's the pick of the many, many great boxing books for a start. And I'm sure there are many fine books on less mainstream sports. I recall loving Walking On Water, Andy Martin's book on surfing 20 odd years ago. Are there any great ice hockey books, I wonder? Can anyone enlighten me?
Talking of books I should point you in the direction of bespoke Scottish publisher BackPage who are just about to publish Graham Hunter's Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team In the World. They also published a fine, fine book by a Herald colleague of mine, James Morgan. A fellow countryman and Spurs fan, James's In Search Of Alan Gilzean works as both an insight into football culture in the 1960s and 1970s and a neat little mystery story. Recommended.
James has promised to write me a guest blog entry about his own favourite Northern Irish sporting hero and I'll try and I'm hoping I'll get some other writers to do the same. Again, suggestions welcome.
Oh and there might be some book festival activity this year. I'll keep you posted.