Belfast Telegraph

Martin McGuinness: a man for all seasons and all sports

By Steven Beacom

It was a warm May morning in 2012 and Martin McGuinness wouldn't let me out of his office. The then Deputy First Minister, who yesterday passed away aged 66, kept talking and talking. He was in his element as he discussed one of his great passions: Sport. From pride in his hometown club Derry City to his fascination with cricket, there was no stopping him.

Our chat went on so long, I was worried I would miss another interview I had scheduled that afternoon.

"Listen, Martin," I told him. "I've got to go, I have to meet Lisa Kearney who is going to the London Olympics."

"Lisa Kearney? The judo star from west Belfast?" was his instant reply.

"She has done brilliantly to make it to the Olympics. Of course, go, but you have to tell Lisa I was asking after her and that I wish her all the best."

Lisa was gobsmacked and genuinely touched that one of the most influential figures in the country knew who she was, let alone wanted her to do well at the greatest show on earth.

That was Martin McGuinness and sport though. His knowledge was exceptional and enthusiasm oozed out of him when conversing about it.

I'd interviewed First Minister Peter Robinson a few days before on the same topic. He told me if he could be any sports star in the world it would be Gareth Bale, who was shining for Tottenham at the time. The sporting life of Martin McGuinness was even more eye-opening.

As a boy, McGuinness played Gaelic games and football. He spoke about being a goalkeeper and told how from the age of eight he started supporting Manchester United and hero-worshipped legendary Northern Ireland No.1 Harry Gregg.

I sensed he idolised his older brother Tom, an outstanding GAA player for Derry, and younger brother Paul, who once played for a League of Ireland Select side against Diego Maradona, even more.

"Paul and Tom were the sportspeople of the family. I played but I certainly wasn't as good as either of them, though as a goalkeeper I did win the double with Arntz Belting Company in Derry," he said, smiling at the memory of it.

Mention footballers he admired and the list went on and on from George Best to Roy Keane and Martin O'Neill to James McClean plus numerous stars of yesteryear who wore the colours of his beloved Candystripes.

Pride of place in his office was a framed picture of Henry Downey holding aloft the Sam Maguire trophy after Derry's 1993 All-Ireland victory. Reflecting on that historic triumph, it was the only time during the course of the interview that the Sinn Fein politician paused for thought.

"That's my favourite sporting moment. I was there with my two sons who were very young at the time. I held one of them in my arms the whole way through the final," he said.

McGuinness revelled in big sporting occasions, like his first Ulster rugby match, the 1999 European Cup final victory in Dublin.

He recalled: "I had spoken to Gerry Adams a few weeks before the final and said to him we should go down to that match and he said okay, so we went down to Government Buildings and they ferried us to Lansdowne Road.

"I'll never forget getting off the bus, there was a crowd of about 30 young Ulster fans and one guy shouted over 'Martin, Gerry, thanks for coming'. That said it all to me. It was a great occasion."

Another memorable day was his return to Windsor Park to watch Derry City play Linfield almost 50 years on from his previous visit.

He said: "My first visit was when Derry beat Glentoran in the 1964 (Irish) Cup final. I was 13 and I went with my younger brother Paul and my father. We came on the train.

"My father was the quietest most civil being you could ever meet. He was a foundry worker and he had a cloth cap and at the end of the game he threw his cap in the air because Derry had won.

"Nearly 50 years on I went back and it was great. I was treated very well and was very warmly received which I appreciated."

In 2012, McGuinness spoke about how much he enjoyed spending time with sports people and discovering what made them tick. In the years that followed I saw him at various events quizzing the likes of Northern Ireland manager Michael O'Neill and his Republic counterpart Martin O'Neill, whose teams he cheered on at the Euro 2016 finals, boxing stars Carl Frampton, Michael Conlan and Paddy Barnes and iconic jump jockey Tony McCoy.

Probably best known is a get together on the Stormont lawns with a young Rory McIlroy, when, with Peter Robinson beside him, the Derry native was given a golfing lesson by Holywood's finest which hilariously didn't go according to plan.

Then there was cricket, the quintessentially English game, which McGuinness savoured.

"My love of it comes from the fact that I'm a strategic thinker," he said. "I play chess and I liken cricket to chess because there are so many different permutations with the way the fielders are set out to try and corner the batsman.

"I admire Shane Warne, Freddie Flintoff and Ian Botham. I like the ability of batsmen who stand at the crease for hours. That takes incredible concentration, commitment and strength of character."

Many things have been said about Martin McGuinness since he died. Five years on from one of the longest and most engaging interviews I ever conducted, what I can say without fear of contradiction is that he truly loved his sport.

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