Book review: Whose Side Are You On? Sport, the Troubles and Me

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IMAGINE this. You’ve just left grammar school in Coleraine, Northern Ireland and have been accepted for Stirling University.

On 25 June 1982 you watch with joy as Northern Ireland defeats Spain in the World Cup and … that night your father is injured by an IRA bomb on his regular UDR patrol. All your dad says is “don’t tell your mother”.

Teddy Jamieson’s first book is a talented intertwining of sport with the politics of Northern Ireland. We are often told that sport transcends politics but in that part of the world it clearly didn’t. Even though he didn’t realise it as a child, the side he was on had already been chosen for him: as a small boy, he wore the Orange sash and unknowingly absorbed the atmosphere and the language aimed at the “enemy”. As he grew more aware, all he wanted was to escape and not come back.

Jamieson tells the story of the Troubles through rugby, football, athletics, Gaelic sports, boxing, snooker, motorbike racing and golf. He recalls Willie John McBride, the international rugby player who narrowly escaped injury in a 1972 IRA bomb attack in Belfast. As a protestant who lined up with Catholics, and respected the Irish national anthem, he was targeted by both sides.

Politics may have moved on since then but Gaelic sports players who had shown “disloyalty” by joining the police force were attacked – one killed and one maimed as recently as last year. Both were Catholics, both sports players, both embracing change.

Refuge in Northern England then in Scotland again did not take Jamieson away from the intermingling of sport and sectarianism. He deals bluntly with the experience of Neil Lennon and with football in the west of Scotland, seeking an explanation from his homeland.

But not all the book is negative. It doubles as a history of Northern Irish sporting prowess. It shows how complex Northern Irish politics was and is. It informs, entertains, absorbs and brings despair.

What more could you want?

Whose Side Are You On? Sport, the Troubles and Me

By Teddy Jamieson

Yellow Jersey Press 326pp £16.99