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An Ulster Sports Museum would be a pantheon fit for Northern Ireland's heroes

Northern Ireland boasts a stellar line-up of sporting greats, including Olympic and world champions past and present. So why are we so bad at commemorating them? A permanent Ulster Sports Museum could provide the answer, writes Steven Beacom

Published 24/07/2015

George Best
George Best
Mary Peters with the Olympic Gold medal she won in Munich
AP McCoy

There was some good news about one of Northern Ireland's sporting greats this week. Planning permission was granted for a statue to be erected to commemorate Manchester United's legendary goalkeeper Harry Gregg in his home town of Coleraine.

The statue will be in the Diamond in the town. Fitting that, because Harry really is a gem. And he's not the only sporting icon from Northern Ireland that we can say that about.

Our wee country has had heroes galore who have done the place we call home proud.

From George Best to Jack Kyle, to Dame Mary Peters to Joey Dunlop, to Peter Canavan... right up to the present day with Rory McIlroy and Carl Frampton now top of the world in their chosen fields.

In the past and the present, every time our sporting gods have excelled at home or abroad we have rejoiced. On occasion they have been celebrated in some tangible form, too.

Murals have been painted highlighting their achievements, signs just outside where they come from have been put up detailing their greatest triumphs, statues have been built and an airport was named after the one and only Bestie.

Yet there is no place where all of our magnificent sporting men and women are celebrated together.

And there should be.

The best place for it would be a sports museum here in Northern Ireland to acknowledge the greatness and the glory of people who have made our lives brighter, often in times of Troubles, like in the 1980s when Gerry Armstrong became a World Cup sensation driving the ball into the Spanish net and everyone left the fighting to Barry McGuigan on his way to a world title belt.

You may have heard about the notion of a dedicated Ulster Sports Museum before. Several years ago the Ulster Sports Museum Association was formed to assist with that very thing.

The plan was for the museum to acknowledge sporting achievements across all sporting disciplines within Ulster, provide for the display of medals, trophies and other memorabilia, be a centre for educational awareness, house and archive film, video and sporting images and photographs and inspire the general public to have a general awareness of sport within the province. Sounds great, doesn't it?

Imagine what you could see and savour in a place like that... the list is endless: shirts, vests, boots and helmets worn by our best and silverware won by the same.

Pictures of magical moments could cover walls and our grand sporting stories could be told on audio or video. The possibilities go on and on.

Football could tell the tale of Northern Ireland's 1958, 1982 and 1986 World Cup heroes and show David Healy's winning goal against England from a decade ago... heck, they could put that one on a loop and people would come in and see it, cheering up their lunchtimes.

The Irish League club scene could be recognised, too - from the brilliance of Belfast Celtic to the excellence of Linfield and others.

In rugby, this land of ours has produced three of the greatest to ever play the sport in Jack Kyle, Mike Gibson and Willie John McBride; living and loving all that they achieved would be a joy, and that's before you get to Ulster's European Cup success in 1999.

For GAA, the museum could reflect on our teams which have been the best in Ireland many, many times. There was the great Down side of the 1960s and Mickey Harte's dominant Tyrone in the 2000s, as well as Derry, Donegal and Armagh successes in between.

And all this is before the general public would turn a corner to be greeted by the area celebrating Ulster's big boxing nights with Rinty Monaghan, McGuigan, Dave Boy McAuley to current champ Frampton - not forgetting Olympic medallists like Wayne McCullough, Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlan.

Joey Dunlop, Robert Dunlop and Philip McCallen would dominate the bikes scene, and on four wheels our motorsport stars like John Watson, Eddie Irvine and Bertie Fisher would grab attention.

And so, too, the greatest jockey of them all, Tony McCoy, and our snooker gods Alex Higgins and Dennis Taylor.

Golf might require its own building the way Rory McIlroy is marking up Major titles, with Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell helping him out in recent years in a trend started by Fred Daly in 1947.

As I say, the list is endless, with Dame Mary Peters, our golden girl, surely given a podium all to herself.

The Ulster Sports Museum is Mary's final sporting wish. She delivered for us and now we should be delivering for her.

I'm told our sporting heroes would be more than happy to lend their memorabilia to a sports museum in Northern Ireland. That's a good start.

The thing is, money is also required (a) to find a suitable venue for a sports museum and (b) to be able to sustain it, given the running and staffing costs.

The Northern Ireland Executive is suffering from budget cuts right now, but given some of the cash it has thrown away down the years, what about investing in a fantastic idea like this?

In years to come, if operated successfully, it would pay for itself and soon turn over a profit, which could be handed over to worthy causes. An Ulster Sports Museum wouldn't just be attractive for local people, it would be visited by tourists, too.

Already more than 120,000 have been to see a Travelling Sports Exhibition, which is now residing, ironically enough, at Stormont, having been enjoyed from Ards to Armagh, Ballymena to Belfast, Cavan to Coleraine and Derry to Donegal.

Former Ulster and Ireland rugby star Nigel Carr, who is the acting chair of the Ulster Sports Museum Association, said: "That is only the tip of the iceberg of what could be done.

"From our perspective, a sports museum hits so many buttons.

"It is important from a cultural perspective to recognise the achievements of Northern Ireland people in the past.

"It also has the ability to bring people together from different backgrounds and communities to celebrate GAA, boxing, football or whatever.

"And, perhaps most importantly, it could inspire our future generations.

"It would celebrate the past to inspire for the future.

"We are a small province, but we have world champions, Olympic champions, people who have been and are number one in their chosen sport and successful in their chosen walks of life.

"I think having a sports museum wouldn't just be inspirational but would bring a new type of person into a museum, who may not necessarily go there, and be educational in all sorts of ways as well."

On potential Government funding, Carr added: "We understand that at the moment that a lot of the departmental spending has been cut back 10% and there is a lot of pressure on budgets and public expenditure. We recognise this is a very difficult time in the public sector with all the cuts.

"That said, we think it is something that could be incorporated, perhaps within the museum structure."

The association is currently in discussions about having a temporary base, which could see it set up at the Ulster Museum or the Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra.

Fair enough. But somebody, somewhere, preferably in Stormont, should make this a permanent deal.

Northern Ireland people love their sport and their sports stars. An Ulster Sports Museum would prove that.

Like the best line from that old baseball movie Field Of Dreams said: "If you build it, they will come."

  • Steven Beacom is the Belfast Telegraph's sports editor

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