Friday, June 15, 2012

Patriot Brothers


Some very moving touches to be seen at last week's funeral of Bee Gees singer Robin Gibb in Oxfordshire, as harking back to the oldest and saddest of all of the lost cultural connections across the British Isles, with the service incorporating both Jerusalem and the beautiful old Irish hymn Be Thou My Vision - Gibb's coffin draped in the flag of the Isle of Man.

The consolidation of the ethnic frontier in the North East of Ireland on structural and institutional grounds in 1921 would also incorporate the division of the sport of football itself - though not that of rugby union or cricket. This week's disappointing results for the Irish Republic at the European Championships in Poland and the Ukraine - and indeed ongoing controversy about young Northern Irish-born players from nationalist backgrounds opting to play for the South - yet again underscoring one of the most ironic dichotomies in the history of the game.

In terms of appearances at World Cup finals the English team has now done so on thirteen occasions, the Scottish eight and the Welsh once. The Northern Ireland team played at the 1958 finals in Sweden, 1982 in Spain and 1986 in Mexico - the Republic of Ireland in 1990 in Italy, 1994 in the USA and 2002 in South Korea. Northern Ireland were quarter-finalists in 1958 - the geographically smallest country to date to achieve such a feat - and the Republic in 1990. The Republic of Ireland also played in the 1988 European Championship finals in Germany. Hence if gauged to European populations alone - alike Uruguay for example in the South American context - both teams have had very successful footballing histories.

So alongside the unbeaten performances of the Scottish side in 1974 in West Germany - where the squad was then so strong that neither Dennis Law nor Jimmy Johnstone were played in any of the three games - the sequencing of World Cup success from the respective parts of Ireland from the Fifties onwards is a matter of significant historical note in European football. This as against the further qualifications that the Northern Ireland squad between the successes of the Fifties and Eighties included George Best - and indeed one of the world's then greatest goalkeepers in Pat Jennings - and that the fallow years for the Republic in the Seventies nevertheless saw their squad incorporate talent of the calibre of Leeds United's Johnny Giles, Liverpool's Steve Heighway and Arsenal's Liam Brady.

Alike the political decisions that undermined any chance of integrated education taking root in the new Northern Ireland state within the violent turmoil of the early Twenties, there was no significant party that realistically had the monopoly for either instigating the initial organisational division or copperfastening it in turn.

The Football Association of Ireland initially broke away from the Belfast-based Irish Football Association in 1921 because of a dispute over the venue for an Irish Cup Final between Glentoran of East Belfast and Dublin's Shelbourne and alongside alleged neglect of the game in the South. The IFA countered by stressing how the game was mainly played in the North. Both associations thereafter claimed to represent football across the entire island and fielded national teams under the name of "Ireland" - several players even ended up playing for both international brands. Only interventions by FIFA in the early Fifties clarified the status of each Irish team as being seperately the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The division would nevertheless be a fundamental and fateful factor in limiting Irish football success by way of clearcut population limitations and of course the fact that no national football team has an international cross- border makeup as such - Eire having left the British Commonwealth in 1949.

As discussed in an earlier post, the two main football figures from Northern Ireland who were fervent in their belief in the sporting and social benefits of a united Ireland team were Derek Dougan and George Best.

On 3rd July 1973 - and as against opposition from the Irish Football Association and the reservations of the Football Association of Ireland - Dougan and Johnny Giles organised an all-Ireland team under the aegis of "Shamrock Rovers" to play Brazil during their nine-match summer tour of Europe. In a period of extraordinary violence in Ulster it could be seen as a significant act of solidarity between the two parts of Ireland. Only a Brazilian flag was displayed during the match and the Brazilian anthem solely played beforehand.

The team included Northern Ireland's Allan Hunter, Bryan Hamilton, Martin O'Neill and Pat Jennings and the Republic's Don Givens, Terry Conroy, Paddy Mulligan and Mick Martin. Brazil - whose team included the legendary Jairzinho and Rivelino - won the match 4-3.

Consideration of what a solitary Irish national football team representing the whole island could have achieved is extremely thought provoking. That both by way of sporting achievement, which could surely have replicated that of Scotland, and as a unifying factor for the people of the partitioned island - in war and peace.

Although the full scale of barely contained civil war in Ulster between 1971 and 1976 may well have had devastating effects on such a team's ability to function in security, the fact remains that in the fractured run up to the dark core of the Troubles between the Divis Street riots of 1964 in Belfast and the acceleration of Provisional IRA bombing attacks in the second half of 1970, that the Northern Ireland team themselves with George Best came close to qualifying for both the 1966 World Cup finals in England and those in Mexico in 1970.

Footage of the famous Windsor Park international of Northern Ireland against Scotland in 1967 has fans of the home team clearly shouting for "Ireland" while a poster inside the Sinn Fein election office on the Falls Road three years earlier - where the placement of an Irish tricolour became the catalyst for the worst street rioting since 1935 - still noted the inclusive words of John Frazier and Sean Tyrrell:

And though it be in our country's cause
Our party feelings blended
'Til lasting peace from equal laws
On both will have descended
'Til then the orange lily be
Your badge, my patriot brother
It's the everlasting green for me
And we for one another

Yesterday's liquidation of Glasgow Rangers football club in turn provided a sobering epilogue to the long narrative of Scottish football - as analysed in detail in Archie Macpherson's magnificent Flower of Scotland history - from the days when brilliant players from the north of the border grew on the proverbial trees and right through to 2000/2001 when Rangers and Celtic first fielded teams with 11 non-Scottish players on their sides.

Hence the December 2005 Belfast funeral of George Best was perhaps memorable for more than its desperately sad public farewell to one of the most individually gifted figures in British social history - the draping of the flag of the Northern Ireland Football Association across his coffin in some way emblematic of the fading sources of indigenous sporting talent emanating from these islands as a whole.

And equally so it was perhaps reflective of the lost golden chance that all the people of a politically divided island had to unite around the one thing that could have made us all - even for a solitary day - the best in Europe and, just perhaps, the world.

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