It is often said that football is a mirror of wider society; a reflection of the viewpoints held by the general public condensed, translated and displayed through support of your team. This is especially true in Northern Ireland where politics and history is almost inescapable across any part of daily life.
Benjamin Roberts has penned a book discussing the history of football in Northern Ireland and its inevitable relationship with politics and conflict – aptly named Gunshots & Goalposts. Benjamin is a Charlton Athletic supporter living in East Sussex who currently works in music publishing. That Football Daily had the opportunity to talk to Benjamin about the book he has written and his thinking behind that.
TFD: When and where did your interest in Northern Irish football begin?
BR: My dad was born in Lisburn in the late fifties, so although I was born in Leicester I’ve always had that strong affinity with my ancestry in and around Belfast; his parents lived and grew up in east Belfast and latterly Dunmurry. It was Dunmurry that I visited a number of times when I was a young boy in, I think, 1994 – so when I was about nine or ten years old, and was taken by my uncle to watch Linfield play Glentoran on Boxing Day. It was quite different from any of the matches I’ve been to in England – before or since – so it’s always stuck in my mind. You had Glentoran fans literally burning Linfield shirts in the stand opposite it, which would probably stay in any impressionable young boys mind.
TFD: What inspired you to write a book combining politics and football in Northern Ireland? Did you have any concerns about how it would be received given the delicate subject of the country’s politics?
BR: I’m a political person, always have been. So whenever I’m looking at something there’s always a question in my mind: who is this for? Who does this benefit? That’s the case when I watch Charlton Athletic, where there’s the whole story of our fans fighting to get the club back to the Valley.
Anyway, so about a year ago I was at a symposium at the University of Brighton for the launch of 1966 And All That, a book edited by Mark Perryman taking a wide ranging look at England in that year – not just the tournament, but everything that was going on. I’m sitting there thinking, I wonder if I should write a blog post about football and culture and those sorts of things in Northern Ireland, because there’s so much writing about England.
So I did. This was in the build up to the Euros last year and quite a few people stopped by my blog to read it, and someone suggested to me that I maybe expand it out into a book – a short one, but I couldn’t stop there so it’s ended up being a full length book.
In terms of how it’s received, well, I just hope people pick it up in the first instance. I know that it’s not going to please everyone – mainly because football fans are a divergent bunch rather than because of the subject matter necessarily. Beyond that I have written the truth as I see it, consulted a really wide range sources, gone over things again and again to make sure it really stands up. Obviously my family has the background it does but I hope that informs some of the insights, rather than prejudicing them.
TFD: What is your biggest interest throughout the book: the sport or the politics?
BR: The sport. The politics is too much to bite off without having another way in like football. But really it’s the people that I found out more about: Catholic Linfield stalwart Gerry Morgan, and people like Manchester United scout Bob Bishop who discovered George Best, among others. Just digging into their backgrounds, sometimes finding similarities with my own family’s roots – my great-grandfather worked at Harland and Wolff, though who didn’t back then? I also came across a few past players who I’m almost certainly not too distantly related to, not just 1930s legend Fred Roberts!
TFD: How did you conduct your research? What sort of obstacles did you face along the journey?
BR: There was a lot of reading! If nothing else the book is incredibly well researched, probably a hundred separate sources. One of the challenges was working out what was relevant and what wasn’t – at first the book was going to be 25,000 words, then 50,000. Now it’s ended up just north of 80,000. But if I’d just written about everything it could have been double that or more. There’s so many directions you could go in so it was about closing some doors so I could open some others. Then there was conversations with my dad, whose own dad used to take him from east Belfast to Grosvenor Road to watch Distillery in the mid sixties, just before things really kicked off again. And then there’s a whole bunch of family members who are still living in and around Belfast who have involvement at various levels of local football, and some others who have been gracious enough to share their time and insight with me.
TFD: Were there any parts of your research that changed your viewpoint on any particular person or club? How so?
BR: A lot to be honest. I think, like most people living in England, a superficial knowledge of a few aspects of Northern Irish football gives a very distorted view of the complexities involved. So there’s this tendency to go straight to this knee-jerk criticism of Linfield and sure, there’s a lot to criticise through their history, especially until the last twenty odd years. But there’s these other layers there, too: they were a product of the society they were in as much as any other institutional actor in the last 140 years.
It’s the personal stories I really loved delving into though, reading about Dickie Best and his trips on the ferry to go and watch George, about the sheer number of household names Bob Bishop discovered, the obvious warmth and love that there was in the team that went to the World Cup in 1958, characters like Danny Blanchflower who just seemed to light up any room they walked into.
TFD: Given the advances of the game in Northern Ireland, domestic and international, over the last 20-30 years – where do you see the game in the next 20-30 years?
BR: It’s a tough one. Smaller leagues are never going to be powerful in European football again. That’s true of Portugal, Holland, Scotland so of course it’s especially true of the Irish League. So there’ll be no going back to that post-war thing that lasted until maybe the seventies, then completely fell off a cliff about twenty years ago. That’s gone. So the Irish League has to be interesting on it’s own terms – it can’t compete the other way. So that’s about things like making it an all round good experience for the fans, the right kind of atmosphere, the right kind of facilities. It’s the same in English football below League Two in England – it’s a different experience to going to a big game, and in a lot of ways it’s a better one: you’re not spending a fortune to do it, you can go and stand with your mates, you can enjoy some of the in-jokes from the people around you. So it’s about carrying on in that vein I think, making a virtue out of what the Irish League does have, not trying to be something it can never be.
Internationally…I mean who knows. So much is the luck of the draw. If the IFA could tie Michael O’Neill down to a binding 50 year contract I’d be very happy! But things seem to really be building in the right direction, playing to our strengths, getting the basics right. So I’m hopeful.
We would like to thank Benjamin for taking time to talk to us about his book. It provides a fantastic insight into the history of football in Northern Ireland from the very beginning to modern day. Gunshots & Goalposts will be released on Tuesday 29th August in a variety of e-book formats with the paperback version available from Tuesday 26th September. For details of how to purchase the book visit Benjamin’s website polifootmedia.com and follow him on twitter @benjamarkr where you will find a podcast link where Benjamin discusses the upcoming book!
We want to wish Benjamin the best of luck with the release of Gunshots & Goalposts, it is very pleasing to see such well researched and balanced writing about the local game.