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.