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From McIlroy, Best and Dunlop to Ballyclare's bobsleigh world champion: New book picks out 100 Ulster Sporting Legends


Joey Dunlop, Rory McIlroy and George Best are on the podium in Steven Beacom's new book.

Joey Dunlop, Rory McIlroy and George Best are on the podium in Steven Beacom's new book.

Joey Dunlop, Rory McIlroy and George Best are on the podium in Steven Beacom's new book.

Have you ever heard the one about Ballyclare's world bobsleigh champion?

The curious tale of Robin Dixon's Winter Olympics gold medal in 1964 and his world title a year later is one of the lesser-known stories of Northern Irish sporting heroism.

Dixon's feat is good enough to qualify him as one of Steven Beacom's '100 Ulster Sporting Legends', taking his place alongside world famous stars like Rory McIlroy and George Best.

That medley of household names woven amongst lesser-lights is all part of the fascination of our wee country's rich sporting heritage - the odds-defying story of each one given its place in the sun in the pages of the former Belfast Telegraph sports editor's collectable new book.

"Northern Ireland has been through some terrible times, but what has given people light amid the darkness has been sport," the author explained. "So this book is an opportunity to pay tribute to those sports stars who have provided such joy at times when it has been greatly needed."

For a tiny country that makes up less than 0.03% of the global population, Northern Ireland hasn't half punched above its weight.

In fact, there was certainly no struggle to reach the tonne. On the contrary, it was a headache to whittle an initial 232 candidates with 'legendary' credentials down to the final 100.

With that came tough calls and more than a few controversial casualties.

"I felt worst about leaving out Jonny Evans," admits Beacom. "He has been such a great servant for Northern Ireland. If I was doing this book a couple of years down the line, I think Jonny might well be in it by then because he's got more to give to Northern Ireland and club football.

"At the same time, all of the footballers in the book are very deserving of inclusion.

"What I found amazing, even as somebody who has been involved in Northern Irish sport throughout my life, was the sheer number of sporting greats we have produced."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, football is the best represented sport in the book with 15 players, boxing next up at 13 entrants.

"The interesting thing about the footballers is that Northern Ireland have produced three goalkeepers widely considered to be the best in the world in Elisha Scott, Harry Gregg and Pat Jennings. That just shows the pedigree of stars we're talking about," continued Beacom.


Belfast Celtic and Liverpool legend Elisha Scott

Belfast Celtic and Liverpool legend Elisha Scott

Belfast Celtic and Liverpool legend Elisha Scott


"Boxing is another sport we should all be grateful for, and what the likes of Carl Frampton and Dave Boy McAuley have achieved as professionals.

"Then our Olympic medalists were included time after time, including plenty of success in the boxing ring.

"I do think that if you win an Olympic medal, it puts you on a different plane.

"In rugby, the British and Irish Lions is the sport's most iconic team. Of all their 835 players, the number one is our own Willie John McBride.

"Then you have the golfers. For Northern Ireland to have four Major champions (Fred Daly, Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell) is extraordinary when you consider other nations. Italy only has one Major winner, Germany has two, Spain has three and Northern Ireland has four. It's incredible.

"And of course there's the success we have had in motorcycling, from the Dunlop family to Jonathan Rea's status as the greatest rider in World Superbike history."


Jonathan Rea at home with his family after winning his sixth world title in a row

Jonathan Rea at home with his family after winning his sixth world title in a row

Jonathan Rea at home with his family after winning his sixth world title in a row


Even with all of those to fit in, it's not all big names and glamorous successes.

Rather, the likes of the left-out Jonny Evans makes room for a range of stars representing as many as 27 different sports, with the likes of squash, kick-boxing and, of course, bobsleigh at the narrow end of the fame spectrum.

"It's brilliant to write about the likes of George Best and Rory McIlroy, but what I also found really pleasing was the opportunity to write about people who aren't so well known and give them their place in the sun because they so richly deserve it.

"You think of someone like John Reid, the jockey. Because of how good Tony McCoy was and Richard Dunwoody, sometimes it's forgotten that John Reid is one of the best flat jockeys of all time.

"Then there's Madeleine Perry, for another example. She was one of the greatest squash players of all time and probably deserved to be recognised more than she was. She had the unfortunate incident where she was attacked and somehow found the strength to come back and play better than ever. What an amazing sportswoman she is.

"Or there's Isobel Woods as well. Back in the 1950s, she was an iconic cyclist, breaking all sorts of records. Not enough people know who Isobel Woods is."

The book doesn't seek to pit Isobel and the rest of the top 100 against one another for ranking positions. Rather, it's an unnumbered celebration.

Nonetheless, it does, of course, invite the question of who is at the very top. And Beacom does offer a tentative top 15 in the closing pages, but the beauty of sport is it's all about opinion - even those are subject to change.

"There are some days I still shuffle the order in my head," he laughs. "I went for Joey Dunlop third, George Best second and Rory McIlroy first. Even when I look back now it staggers me how great Joey was. He was a five-time world champion, the King of the Roads at the Isle of Man TT and, as a man, he did so much for people across the globe.

"Football is the biggest sport in the world and it's humbling to think that at one time George Best from Belfast was the greatest player on the planet - the original superstar.

"If George was around today, he would be the biggest sports star in the world because of his talent and ability and also his personality and his story. He'd be trending on social media all day, every day!

"But I think a golf Major is one of the toughest things to win in sport. The depth of talent and the number of people who can win is bigger in golf than in most other sports.

"Rory has won four Majors and every other big tournament there is as well. When he's at his best, it's like watching Federer play tennis or Messi playing football."

He's not the only one who has come from the streets of Northern Ireland to the top of the sporting world.

Now Steven Beacom's top 100 will be remembered forever, as we look ahead to the next group of odds-defying, divide-bridging, joy-giving sports stars from our little speck on the globe.

They're just unlikely to be a bobsleigh team.

  • Steven Beacom's book '100 Ulster Sporting Legends' is available to buy from book stores across Northern Ireland, Tesco Superstores or on the publisher's website www.cottage-publications.com and is priced £10.

Belfast Telegraph