Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Celebrate Darren's achievement and forget the preaching

Given that this blog has in the past celebrated the achievements of Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, the European Ryder Cup team and Padraig Harrington it’s shockingly remiss that I’ve not yet managed a post about Darren Clarke. 

The big Dungannon man’s Open triumph was the pick of the bunch when it came to defying the odds.  At 42 most experts had written off his prospects of picking up a major title.

Last night, though, the BBC got to screen its now traditional documentary, charting the home-coming of yet another major champion.  It was a bit of a tear-jerker, capturing emotional scenes as Darren brought the claret jug back to his family in Portrush and to his two sons.

Now Clarke is a nice guy, but he’s not one of the generation of non-descript, clean-cut, identikit sports stars.  The documentary captured an awful lot of drinking, alongside the formal celebrations and (let’s be honest) a little on screen inebriation.  Some pompous asses have chosen to focus on this and describe Darren as a “bad example”.

I’d prefer to highlight the years of dedication that it took to hone his skills, the affable, down to earth personality which ensures that Clarke has time for all his fans and the manifestly warm and loving relationship that he has with his sons.  All these factors seem a darn sight more important in the scale of things than his fondness for a pint of Guinness or a fag after he’s finished the front 9.

One of the great things about golf is that you don’t need to be a super-fit gym monkey to compete at the highest level (although actually it can help).  Is it therefore a coincidence that it’s one of the few sports which still boasts a fair smattering of larger than life personalities?

There’s John Daly with his ridiculous trousers and rust-belt mullet, Miguel Angel Jimenez with his mighty gut, advertising an appreciation for the finer things in life and Ian Poulter with his flamboyant dress sense and heart on sleeve tweeting.  People certainly love Darren because he’s come through adversity to achieve his dream, but they also love him because they can identify with him and imagine sharing one or two of those Guinnesses he enjoys so much.

Truth is, before he captured that revered piece of silverware last week most of his critics wouldn’t have known the difference had it been his habit to smoke a six foot tall hookah coming up the 18th fairway, nor would they have cared. 

A great, down-to-earth, warm Ulsterman has just won the most prestigious golf tournament in the world.  Let’s just enjoy it with him and stop being so judgemental.   

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Will more strikers equal less tedium?

Northern Ireland fans probably deserve the summer off after the disastrous Carling Nations Cup campaign, but no such luck I'm afraid.  Nigel Worthington named his latest squad today, ahead of the Euro 2012 qualifier against the Faroe Islands, scheduled for August 10th. 

To be fair to the manager it is a fairly adventurous selection.  He names six forwards in the 23 man panel.  David Healy is back in the frame, Burnley’s Martin Paterson gets a recall and Jamie Ward, the Derby County striker who secured a permanent move from Sheffield United last season, has finally made a breakthrough to the senior set-up.

Another new face is James McClean, who has attracted the attention of a host of English clubs, playing for Derry City in the League of Ireland.  There is a suspicion that he has been promoted too early, with the threat of FAI poaching in mind, but Pat McCourt and Niall McGinn graduated successfully from the Brandywell to become influential full internationals.

In the normal course of events Northern Ireland would be expected to beat the Faroe Islands.  Indeed if the home team plays positively, 3 points will certainly be secured.  On the other hand, Brian Kerr has forged the Faroese into a capable unit and another lacklustre display will mean Worthington’s side struggles.

That means that there’s a premium on forward thinking players.  When Northern Ireland is in possession the ball has to be moved quickly, with intent.  Perhaps a raw, young winger mightn’t be the worst choice. 

The difficulty is that, although I’m not discouraged by Nigel Worthington’s squad, I still firmly believe that the personnel are not Northern Ireland’s major problem.

Our panel will always be a bit threadbare and I don’t buy the argument that there are many alternatives which would revitalise the team overnight.  The problem, in my view, is the style of play.  It’s too slow, it’s too ponderous, the ball is moved constantly sideways and backwards.

Too often, I suspect, a few turgid, pointless passes in the opening twenty minutes are mistaken for possession football.  Northern Ireland has always needed to defend in numbers and soak up pressure.  Defensiveness in that sense is not a problem. 

It's the lack of another gear, the lack of any intent when the team does have the ball - that’s the problem. 

With the best will in the world, I don’t see how that’s going to be turned round simply by selecting more strikers in the squad.  The entire system has to be revisited and the coaching changed accordingly.  That means a different manager. 

It certainly wouldn't guarantee instantly better results, but at least Northern Ireland could give it a go and boy would it be an improvement for the fans who have watched some tedious displays in recent years.  

Monday, 18 July 2011

Violence on the streets points to political problems

From Friday's Irish News.

Yes, it’s that time of the year again.  The annual mayhem is in full swing in Northern Ireland.

Sectarian clashes at an interface in East Belfast were followed by dissident republican disorder in Craigavon, then - not to be outdone - loyalist rioters torched cars and attacked police last weekend, after a dispute about flags in Ballyclare.   All this before the familiar scenes of destruction engulfed Ardoyne on Tuesday night.   

The summer threatens to be a long and hot one for the security forces, at flashpoints across the province.  It’s thirteen years since the Good Friday Agreement heralded a hopeful new future for this part of the world, but although power-sharing is firmly entrenched at Stormont, on the ground our communities seem as divided as ever. 
Politicians may frequently pay lip-service to their desire to “move on” from traditional quarrels and deliver a “shared future”, but evidence from the streets suggests either that people aren’t listening or else the parties’ fine words aren’t being matched with actions. 

We’re entitled to ask whether the executive is doing its utmost to tackle segregation and whether a system which entrenches sectarian voting blocs can ever break down divisions in our society.

In recent months the DUP and Sinn Féin have both talked up efforts to attract voters from outside their respective communities.  The Shinners claim that a number of working class Protestants, who feel abandoned by unionist politicians, are attracted by the republican party’s record of community activism. 

Meanwhile Peter Robinson has appealed to Catholics to vote for the DUP, emphasising its supposed moderate credentials.  Buoyed by the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, which suggests a majority of Catholics are happy to remain part of the UK, he believes a softer, friendlier party can capitalise on passive pro-Union sentiment. 

It’s all rather encouraging - in theory.  The parties say they want to reach out beyond their traditional supporters and embrace the notion that policy, rather than religion, could determine the contents of a voter’s ballot paper.  Unfortunately, around the executive table or out on the campaign trail, such aspirations are too easily forgotten.

The two largest parties had a perfect opportunity to do something concrete about division last year, when they published the draft of their long-awaited Programme for Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI).   As it turned out the document was almost universally regarded as a failure.

It contained platitudes aplenty, but skated over key areas like shared housing and integrated education.   It didn’t even bother to calculate the economic cost of sectarian division to our society - for the record it’s estimated that segregation carries a price tag of £1.5 billion each year. 

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, pithily diagnosed the problem, when he addressed the Assembly last month.  Pointing to an increase in the number of peace-walls erected since the St Andrews Agreement in 2006 he observed, “Northern Ireland needs a genuinely shared future; not a shared out future”.

It’s a comment which summarises neatly the parties’ failure to “get” what integration and sharing are really all about.  With justification the perception flourishes that their commitment to CSI is skin-deep and that the political institutions operate as a sectarian carve-up, rather than a genuinely cooperative enterprise.

If the violence which continues to flare-up during the summer months doesn’t support that argument, then the political reaction to it certainly does.  Some of the DUP’s representatives have adapted to the party’s touchy feely new image, but there are just as many who quickly revert to type.       

Sammy Wilson was categorical in his condemnation of loyalist violence, stating that “if there are conversations to be had with the PSNI, you don’t have them at the end of a petrol bomb”, but Willie McCrea was quicker to focus on the perceived short-comings of the police, rather than the culpability of rioters. 

The difference in emphasis suits the DUP, with one message aimed at moderate unionists who are repelled by trouble and another tailored to loyalist heartlands where the PSNI’s actions are viewed as provocative.  For the Catholic voters whom Peter Robinson claims he wants to attract, it will simply appear that the party is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

Sinn Féin does exactly the same whenever violence breaks out in republican areas.  Its condemnation of dissident rioters is tempered by half-hearted backing of the police, which the party claims it is holding to account. 

Sadly, for all their claims to the contrary, it seems the representatives who dominate our Assembly still have a carve-up mentality.  Until Northern Ireland’s politics are really all about a shared future, rather than a shared out future, the prospect of peaceful streets remains remote.