Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 24 July 2014

Our allegiances should not lead to sporting strife

Rory McIlroy unites us like no other sports star. It would be a shame if national identity was allowed to spoil that, says Michael Wolsey

Do you cheer for Rory McIlroy? Are you happy when he wins? Sorry when he loses? Do you shout encouragement at the television and wish you were there in person to urge him on? Do you discuss his achievements with friends and neighbours and share your pride? Me, too.

Were you delighted with Europe's surprise Ryder Cup triumph? And did you, maybe, enjoy it just a wee bit more because Rory and Graeme McDowell were on the team? Same here.

It's all so obvious it hardly needs saying. And in most countries, it is a commonplace thing; to rally behind a team, or sporting hero, and bask in the glow of irrational, shared loyalty.

Sadly, this unifying emotion is one we rarely experience in divided Northern Ireland.

There is no logic behind the support for sports stars. Rory is a personable young man, who comes from the corner of the world I call home. But his triumphs, for which he gets hugely well rewarded, are of no direct benefit to me.

Usually, he doesn't even claim to represent me. The Ryder Cup is an exception but, generally, golf is a sport for individuals. Rory plays for no team and under no banner but his own.

So why am I a Rory fan? I don't even like golf much. But, then, this is sport - it doesn't have to make sense.

I have other sporting loyalties, which are just as hard to explain. I started supporting Liverpool when I worked there for a few years in the late-1970s.

I've had no connection with the city since then and have only been to Anfield a handful of times, yet I follow them eagerly on television and I am more elated, or deflated, by their results than by those of any team not playing in a green shirt.

There is something deep in the human psyche that needs this team bonding, this identification with 'our side, right or wrong'.

Particularly in the male psyche, I think, for though women are well represented nowadays in the crowds at rugby and football matches, few seem to share the intensity of devotion men will give to a team for no reason other than that they have picked it out as theirs.

Club support - soccer club support, in particular - is a divisive thing, dangerously so in Northern Ireland, where the division often runs along the sectarian fault-line. We badly lack the type of sporting heroes who can unite us in common cause.

When Donegal reached this year's All-Ireland gaelic football final, there was huge excitement everywhere in the county. When they won, everybody celebrated. No doubt, some are celebrating yet.

No side unites a Northern Ireland community in that way. With very few exceptions, it is only Catholics who rejoice in the achievements of Down, Derry or Tyrone.

Their Protestant neighbours are, at best, benignly indifferent to the doings of the team that represents their county; some would even view its success with hostility.

The other football code also fails to unite us. When the Republic's soccer team goes into action, it has the country behind it.

When it qualifies for a major tournament, there is a real sense of excitement that sweeps far beyond followers of the sport. It's the national team in action and so its campaigns become a national event.

In spite of the best efforts of the IFA, Northern Ireland does not attract that sort of following. Not everyone wants to see them win and, let's face it, some people are quite happy to see them lose.

Support for all-Ireland teams - in rugby, most obviously, but hockey and cricket, too - is a different matter, when we put aside our northern identity in favour of the wider cause and the green shirt.

But that united spirit extends, in the main, only to rugby, or hockey, supporters. It would be nice to have a team that unites us all as friends and neighbours. One that has us all cheering together and talking the same talk next day.

Ulster Rugby might do it yet. The sport has come a long way, given that its roots were once firmly planted in Protestant schools - and rather posh Protestant schools, at that. It is drawing good, happy, family crowds to Ravenhill and even among those who do not support the team I have heard no one wish it ill.

Anyway, it's a team we can all support and for that we should grateful. Not there yet, perhaps, but moving in the right direction.

In the meantime, we have Rory. So it will be a shame if controversy over which Olympic team he plays for is allowed to divide his following.

And since it would also be a shame if the world's best golfer does not perform on the world's biggest stage, it is up to us all to make clear that our loyalty will not change, whatever the man decides.

It doesn't matter if he plays for this lot, or that lot - he'll always be one of us.

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