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Sport - Sport is about bridge building, not throwing stones

IDEALLY, sport should be about building bridges - and nowhere is this more true than in the North of this island.

There, where private armies can dictate who lives where and with whom in certain areas, the need for sport to bring a bit of pleasure - and sanity - to the party is highly desirable.

Because of all this, plus a few memories of my own, I had high hopes for the recent Derry City-Linfield game in Derry's Brandywell Stadium. The game went off without a hitch, ending 1-1, and the Linfield team, on their first visit to Derry in 35 years, received a warm welcome from the 2,000 hardy souls who had braved the cold weather to attend.

Sadly, there was another agenda at work that night, and it manifested itself when the 300 Linfield fans drove away from the ground. Their buses were stoned, windows were broken, fans were traumatised - for what purpose?

The Derry thugs who made this cowardly attack on the Linfield supporters' buses set back the cause of sport - and especially any hope of eventual Irish soccer unity - by their actions. And that is rather ironic, for these people by day probably masquerade as 32-county Irelanders.

Less than a month ago, Linfield Football Club had extended the hand of friendship to the Catholic community when manager David Jeffrey arranged for the camogie players of St Mary’s Teacher Training College to train on their Windsor Park pitch. Jeffrey had been approached by St Mary’s coach, Ms Mel Smith, when her efforts to find a grass pitch for her players to train on had failed.

Ms Smith’s comments summed it up well: “Religion didn’t come into it for a minute. This is what sports people do for each other,” she said. Jeffey responded in kind: “It’s a very small way of showing respect and love and concern and helping your friends,” he remarked.

For me, that was a heart-warming story, for I have crystal clear memories of visits to Windsor Park to watch the Republic of Ireland in action during the Troubles. It is a ground situated in the heart of the Shankill, and not known for its welcome to Catholics.

I recall vividly walking down to the ground and stopping in a local shop to buy a bar of chocolate. The shop was full of fans going to the game, but the minute I opened my mouth you could cut the silence in two. My accent told them I was an ‘outsider’ and I was keenly aware that they were all observing me.

I’m no hero but I decided that friendship was my best weapon, so, having made my purchase, I turned around, gave them a big smile, and walked out the door. I never looked back, and hoped that no one took it into his head to have a go at me. Fortunately, no one did.

In case you think I exaggerate, I had another adventure a couple of years later at the same ground. This time I was at a Northern Ireland game. They were in the same group and they were playing Austria, with a chance of doing the Republic a favour so I was there to write about it.

On the way into the ground, there was plenty of evidence of British Army security, but afterwards, by the time I had finished interviewing manager Bryan Hamilton and one or two of the players I was a bit late making my exit. The fans had all left, but so had the security forces.

As I started to walk back the way I had arrived, Derek McKeague, Secretary-Manager of Glentoran, the other big Protestant club in Belfast, said to me: “What are you doing?” When I explained that it was only a short walk to my accommodation, he responded: “Walk? No way. I’ll leave you back.” And he insisted that I join him in his fine 4WD for a trip which, because of one-way streets, must surely have taken him out of his way. All because he wanted to make sure that I arrived safely.

When I hear about the cowardly thugs in Derry stoning the Linfield buses, I think of people like David Jeffrey and Derek McKeague and all the other good people involved in running Linfield and Glentoran Football Clubs. They have held out the hand of friendship to Catholics – both clubs have signed Catholic players who proved extremely popular with their fans – and still their good work is undermined by troublemakers within their own ranks and within the ranks of Catholics who operate a mean-spirited spoiling agenda.

Another test of soccer’s bridge-building gets under way at the end of the month when the Setanta Cup begins. It features three top clubs from the Eircom League – Shelbourne, Cork City and Longford Town – and the top three from the Irish League – Linfield, Glentoran and Portadown, all staunchly Protestant.

My hope is that the Setanta Cup will be a resounding success, possibly paving the way for a truly All-Ireland Cup. But for that to happen, the spirit of Jeffrey and McKeague needs to be more evident than that of Derry’s cowardly stone-throwers.

© Seán Ryan, 2005

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