Sunday 15 December 2019

Entertaining tales of football on both sides of the border

Green Shoots - Irish Football Histories
Green Shoots - Irish Football Histories

Book review - Alan Aherne

I'm an infrequent reader of the 'Irish Times', although I do try to buy it most Saturdays and invariably turn to the sport section first to read the latest ruminations of Keith Duggan and Michael Walker, two of the finest writers in the country in my opinion.

While Duggan could be waxing lyrical on any sporting topic on the back page, Walker is a specialist writer whose area of expertise is football.

The Belfast native has a folksy style and an ability to tell a story as an onlooker, rather than involving himself excessively in the narrative.

And this essential quality for a sports writer shines through in his warm and evocative book, 'Green Shoots - Irish Football Histories'.

Indeed, the front page commendation from 'Of Pitch & Page' sums it up perfectly, stating that 'Walker is highly skilled at combining the best aspects of short-form journalism with a more literary eloquence'.

That cover also features a photograph of Johnny Brown, a Protestant from Belfast who played with the southern Irish international team in the era when it was permitted to line out with both sides.

We learn that Brown, a great uncle of the author, died by suicide, and his is one of several fascinating stories adorning a well-researched and always interesting book.

Given that the island of Ireland sent two international teams to the European Championship finals last year, Walker looks back at their shared history and spotlights a number of characters who made an impact in the game on either side, or in some cases both sides, of the border.

We learn more about the innovators who shaped the direction of football, such as William McCrum from Armagh who invented the penalty kick to curb cynical foul play, and Billy McCracken from Belfast who changed the offside law in 1925 and breathed new life into an ailing game.

The two O'Neills, Martin and Michael, are interviewed and their careers on and off the field are reviewed through the medium of three key games apiece that they had a direct involvement in, either as player or manager.

The pathway of Gareth McAuley from a rugby-playing school in Larne to making his Premier League debut at the ripe old age of 31 makes for an insightful section, while Liam Brady's opinions are never less than engaging and he gives a detailed account of his time in Italy and the ups and downs of his life in Europe.

He is one of five subjects in a section titled 'Foreign Pioneers', with the others including Patrick O'Connell who mixed a colourful personal life with his pioneering role in re-invigorating Barcelona as their manager during the Spanish Civil War.

It's a shock to the system to learn that Dubliner Noel Campbell, who enjoyed a fruitful career in West Germany in the 1970s, initially left home to join up with Arsenal at the age of 13, staying in digs in London and unsurprisingly longing for the comforts of home.

There's also confirmation of the shambolic organisation of the FAI in the bad old days, an issue covered recently in this column in the review of Eoin Hand's autobiography.

Paddy Mulligan remembers the international team sitting on their bags on a mail train connecting Poland to Germany as they travelled from one friendly game to another, with the suits from the FAI getting the best of treatment elsewhere.

This book educates and entertains in equal measure, with Walker's elegant prose ensuring the interesting subject matter hops off the page. He has done the game on this island a significant service.

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