Belfast Telegraph

Martin McGuinness: I brought Ulster luck in the '99 Euro final

Steven Beacom talks to Martin McGuinness about his sporting influences and heroes

SB: When you were growing up what sports did you play?

MM: The main sport was gaelic football and a bit of hurling. Soccer also. I was a goalkeeper.

SB: Were you any good?

MM: I was sandwiched between two very good sports people. My older brother Tom and younger brother Paul. I think Tom was the only player from the city that got on the Derry senior gaelic football team in 30 years.

He was a midfielder and won an All-Ireland under-21 medal and I think he won three or four Ulster championship medals for Derry. He was a great all-round sportsman, a great swimmer, great runner and he still runs and is the same weight as he was when he was playing gaelic football.

As for Paul he was a great gaelic football player and great soccer player. He played for Derry City and Finn Harps. Paul had a bad experience though at school when the Christian Brothers forced him to take a decision — he had to play either gaelic football or soccer and he decided to play soccer.

He was as good a gaelic player as Tom so the GAA lost out big time as a result of the attitude of the Christian Brothers. Paul in his later career, when he played for Finn Harps, was selected to play for a League of Ireland team in Argentina.

He played against Diego Maradona, who was 17 and came on at half time. Daniel Passarella, who captained the Argentina team to World Cup glory in 1978, also played that day and Paul got his jersey at the end of the match.

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

SB: Which teams do |you support?

MM: Derry GAA teams, Derry City and Manchester United. I started supporting United in 1958. I was eight years of age — the year of the Munich air crash.

I took an interest in the news reporting of the crash and given what they had gone through and the fact they had lost eight fantastic players and others who were there with the team from that moment, like many others, I became a United fan.

SB: Who were your sporting heroes growing up?

The Deputy First Minister points to a picture in his office of Derry GAA captain Henry Downey holding the Sam Maguire trophy aloft after the county's All-Ireland triumph in 1993.

MM then adds: Harry Gregg was a big hero of mine. That other great goalkeeper Lev Yashin too. And George Best — what a footballer. Absolutely fantastic. There has been a long tradition of footballers from the island of Ireland playing for Man United. They always seem to have one or two players from either the north or south, people like Roy Keane, Kevin Moran, Jimmy Nicholl, Frank Stapleton, Sammy McIlroy, Johnny Giles and Jackie Blanchflower.

You take great pride in people from our own part of the world reaching high levels, just like when Darron Gibson, a Derry man, ended up playing for Man United. And young James McClean, also from Derry, now playing for Sunderland.

Throughout the conversation, the Deputy First Minister returns to the subject of his sporting heroes. At different times, MM adds: I've always been a huge supporter of Derry City. Growing up Derry had Jimmy McGeough, Dougie Wood, Billy Cathcart and Joey Wilson.

All those guys were my sporting heroes. Jimbo Crossan and Jobby Crossan were others. The Brandywell was only minutes from where we lived. These were people we could see and reach out and touch.

Also the Derry GAA team that won the All-Ireland was full of heroes for me like Henry and Seamus Downey, Brian McGilligan, Anthony Tohill, Johnny McGurk, Tony Scullion and Kieran McKeever.

SB: Who are your sporting heroes now?

MM: Someone like James McClean, who came from the Creggan estate in Derry, played for Derry City and went to Sunderland.

James was like many other young people in the city and probably wouldn't have had tuppence in his pocket. He didn't make it on to the first team at Sunderland under Steve Bruce initially, but Martin O'Neill came in and James got his opportunity and hasn't looked back since.

I think it shows enormous character for a young fella like that to do what he is doing. Martin O'Neill is another man that I really admire.

SB: James has taken some criticism for declaring for the Republic rather than Northern Ireland. What's your thoughts on that?

MM: I have a very broad-minded view on this. If a young fella decides to opt for the north or the south, I don't think anyone should interfere politically with their choices.

If they believe their career is best served by whatever team they play for, we should support them.

Why should we be down on young people who take a decision to play for the north or south? We should admire what they are doing and let them get on with it.

My own view speaking personally, and I know George Best and Derek Dougan wanted this, is that there should be an All-Ireland football team.

It is not a political thing, it would give us the best possible chance of getting results as you could choose from 32 counties rather than have two separate teams.

SB: What about Derry City?

MM: They are doing fantastically well. To get back into the League of Ireland after what was a dismal period in their history when they were relegated and do it with a batch of young players, basically all coming from the north west, was great.

Declan Devine is the manager. Declan was married to my daughter and we are still good friends and she is good friends with him and we like to see him doing well. I'll be supporting him and the team in the Setanta Cup final.

SB: You went to Windsor Park to watch Derry City play Linfield earlier this year.

MM: That wasn't my first visit to Windsor Park though. 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 from Derry.

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.

SB: What was it like going back?

MM: It was nearly 50 years on and it was great.

I was treated very well and was very warmly received which I appreciated.

What I did notice was the poor state of the ground and how much our decision on helping to improve Windsor Park, Casement Park and Ravenhill was long overdue.

I am a firm believer that unless you provide top class sporting facilities it is very hard to get families and young people interested.

You don't want dark and gloomy places that don't inspire them.

That's why I admire the great work the GAA has done with facilities around the country. It's been incredible for an amateur organisation.

SB: Which sporting event would you like to attend?

MM: My favourite is the All-Ireland final. More immediately though I'm looking forward to going to the Setanta Cup final at the Oval between Derry City and Crusaders, Harry Gregg's testimonial at Windsor Park and the Heineken Cup final between Ulster and Leinster. I didn't think Ulster played that well in the semi-final which I attended, but I comforted myself thinking they might play extraordinarily well in the final. I'm looking forward to an Ulster win.

SB: The Ulster Rugby team is a great success story, isn't it?

MM: It's amazing that we will see an event that is the equivalent of the Champions League in soccer where two teams from the island of Ireland will compete against each other in the final.

It will be a phenomenal occasion and one that the Ulster and Leinster supporters can take great pride in. Obviously being an Ulsterman, I'm hoping Ulster can prevail. I brought them luck the last time when they won the 1999 final against Colomiers. That was the first rugby match I ever went to.

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.

SB: Our golfers Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell aren't doing too badly either and of course the Irish Open is coming to Portrush.

MM: Isn't it fantastic what's happening?

Here we are a small speck of dust on the planet and we have produced some of the best golfers in the world in Rory, Darren and Graeme. And Padraig Harrington too who led the way in terms of winning majors. The fact the Irish Open is coming to Portrush is obviously a huge boost. Whenever Peter and I travel around the world, we see that people are golf mad. I'm not golf mad and don't play but am a mad supporter of our golfers.

I then say I saw his and the First Minister's golfing lesson with Rory on the Stormont lawns and he jokes that McIlroy took up the McGuinness stance to play a shot in a recent tournament.

SB: Are you looking forward to the Olympics?

MM: The Olympics and Tour de France have been tainted down the years with drug scandals but I still love the Olympics.

The vast bulk of athletes are doing their best and aren't into drugs. It's great when the cheats are caught.

It's fantastic that the Olympics are in London, so close to us and that the Olympic flame will be coming here and we'll all have a possibility to participate to some degree.

The fact that the Chinese gymnasts are coming to Lisburn, Cuban boxers are coming here and other teams, as well, to train before London is great too. It's very exciting. The sports I love seeing in the Olympics are the long distance and middle distance track events and I'll be keen to watch Usain Bolt in the 100metres.

SB: You have a love of cricket. How did that come about?

MM: I've never been to a cricket match in the north-west. I only really see it on television.

My love of it comes from the fact that I'm a very strategic thinker.

I play chess and sometimes I liken the game of cricket to a game of chess because there are so many different permutations with the way that 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 on end. That takes incredible concentration, commitment and strength of character.

SB: What's your favourite sporting memory?

MM: It has to be Derry winning our one and only All-Ireland in 1993. 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 match.

I didn't want either of them to miss what was a golden opportunity to see Derry winning the All-Ireland against Cork. The semi-final win against Dublin was great as well.

SB: Which sports star would you like to be?

MM: As a former goalkeeper, not that great of course, I wouldn't mind being Ireland's Shay Given going to the European Championships. That would be good.

SB: Finally how important is sport to Northern Ireland?

MM: To see young people playing their cricket, soccer, gaelic games or whatever is great. It's good for them.

The people who take the training, mostly in a voluntary capacity, are modern day heroes of our society.

Also on a world stage to see our sports stars do well is a real boost for everyone, so it's hugely important.

In today's print edition - Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness tell Steven Beacom about their mutual admiration for Harry Gregg

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