Belfast Telegraph

I'd love to be Gareth Bale, says First Minister Peter Robinson

Steven Beacom talks to Peter Robinson about his sporting life

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

PR: I played football, hockey, rugby, table tennis and in the summer months did athletics, but not cricket strangely enough.

SB: Were you any good?

PR: Well, I was in teams, put it that way. At school level I was captain of the hockey team. Football in those days we organised outside of schools because football wasn't one of the team sports that our schools played. That was a big mistake in my view, but I did play for teams outside of school. I wasn't at the Wayne Rooney level, but I enjoyed it which was the main thing.

SB: So, you where a striker then?

PR: I played on the wing in football and at centre-half in hockey and I played a series of different positions in rugby. I wasn't terribly good at it — I didn't have the weight in those days to make me a good rugby player.

SB: Who were your sporting heroes growing up?

PR: Danny Blanchflower was my hero, hence from my earliest days I supported Tottenham Hotspur.

SB: Who were your favourite teams growing up?

PR: Glentoran and Spurs. I still go over to Spurs matches. One of my sons supports Chelsea and I've been over to a number of their games. I like to see Chelsea win and I'll certainly be cheering them on in the Champions League final. Martin McGuinness, who is a Manchester United supporter, accuses me of having alternative football teams when it suits me. My first love is Spurs and I quite like to see Chelsea win as well unless of course they are playing Spurs.

SB: Who are your sporting heroes now?

PR: I like what our golfers have done. I think there is massive potential with Rory McIlroy. A lot of golfers you can see when they address the ball it is going through their mind what they are doing, but with Rory McIlroy it is natural. He hits the ball and he doesn't have to think about it. He knows the shot he is going to make and he does it in a very natural way as if the club was just an extension of his body. He is going to perform so well in the years ahead.

SB: And he famously gave you and Martin McGuinness a lesson, didn't he?

PR: (Laughing) I did a very careful little chip shot, but the Deputy First Minister took a full swing at it and nearly took out one of the members of his staff. Now everywhere we go and we talk about golf Martin tells people he taught Rory everything he knows!

SB: What sporting event would you like to attend?

PR: I'm planning to attend the Ulster v Leinster European Cup final which I'm really looking forward to. The one I'd really like to attend in the future would be Northern Ireland in the final of the World Cup.

SB: We might wait a while to see that one.

PR: (Laughing) You never know. Northern Ireland has done better than any other country of its size on the world stage, so we can hope.

SB: People will know you as a follower of Glentoran. What's your thoughts on the Glens at the moment with all their financial problems?

PR: Well, talking about Northern Ireland getting to a World Cup final, of course Glentoran were the first UK team to win a European tournament when they won the Vienna Cup in 1914. From Glentoran's point of view now the way the deck is stacked towards Windsor Park makes it hard for them and others to compete. There isn't a level playing field. We're attempting to insure that Glentoran get through their current financial difficulties and get to a sound basis with a sustainable programme. It will take them a while to get that economic stability, but if they get there a team can be built around that.

SB: You say it's not a level playing field. So, in your view have the Irish FA work to do in that regard?

PR: I don't think even if they work they will be able to level the playing field significantly. Deals have been done. I applaud the board of directors at Linfield Football Club. They have done the jobs they are supposed to have done. They have got themselves a good deal (in terms of the international stadium with the IFA) but it makes it hard for other teams to compete. Also people just aren't going to football matches here like they used to. When I first started going to games at the Oval you were talking about maybe 10,000 to

15,000 people attending a normal match. Now it would take a Glentoran v Linfield match to get into the significant thousands. Back in those days people stood at grounds. Seating has become much more fashionable and health and safety has further reduced the numbers allowed into the grounds.

SB: There's no problems getting people in to Ravenhill these days. What about the Ulster Rugby team this season. It's been brilliant, hasn't it?

PR: Yes, I've been at about eight or nine matches and four or five as First Minister and I've never seen them lose.

SB to the First Minister's aides: Get this man over to Twickenham.

PR: I think we're on our way on that one. I like a team that really scraps for victory and in many cases passion is just as important as skill. This present Ulster team has got both qualities.

SB: You mentioned Rory McIlroy earlier. We also have Darren Clarke and Graeme McDowell winning majors and of course the Irish Open is coming to Portrush. What's your thoughts on all that?

PR: That's going to be really good for Northern Ireland, not just from a sporting point of view, but also from a tourist and economic point of view. We go round the world trying to encourage people to come to Northern Ireland for business and you have no idea how popular the sport of golf is with business people. A lot of people will be encouraged to come to Northern Ireland for the Irish Open. We are punching well above our weight in golf. We have three top tier golfers who can compete anywhere in the world and you'll notice that there are a few coming in behind them who have real potential for the future as well.

SB: Will you go to the Olympics in London and what are you looking forward to most?

PR: I won't be there because I'm away during that period but I do enjoy the Olympics, mostly the track events. I suspect I'll see most of the key events. Outside of the track I have an interest where there are UK athletes involved, be it in the boxing ring or wherever.

SB: I spoke to Sir Steve Redgrave recently and said if Dame Mary Peters had an athletics track built and named after her following her fantastic gold medal in 1972, then surely if our rowers Alan Campbell, Richard Chambers and Peter Chambers strike gold in London, they should have rivers named after them. You could sort that out, couldn't you?

PR: (Smiling) I suppose it's easier to build a new track as opposed to a new river.

SB: How did you enjoy your first GAA game? (The First Minister attended a Dr McKenna Cup match between Derry and Tyrone in Armagh in January)

PR: I probably didn't pick the best game to go to in that there was a sending off very early on and that sort of tilted the game very seriously in one direction. I don't know if I offended my hosts by saying that I could see about four or five different sports all amalgamated into the one, there was football, a bit of rugby, a bit of volleyball and basketball. (Laughing he added) And boxing and kick-boxing too! It was good though and I did enjoy it. I've seen bits and pieces of it on TV in the past. It's a fast game and I think I caught on to rules reasonably well. (Smiling he continued) I couldn't understand why the whistle wasn't being blown for the handballs, but apart from that!

SB: What's your favourite sporting memory?

PR: It's hard to go past Mary Peters winning gold in the 1972 Olympics. It was such a fantastic achievement over a range of events. There's been so many. I could give you one for nearly every sport. In rugby terms for instance the last European Cup victory in 1999 or should I say the next one. In football there were many Glentoran victories in Cup finals that I attended. I literally would have gone to every match before I got encumbered by office. I went along recently to a Spurs game and I met up with Pat Jennings and we watched Spurs beat Newcastle which was great. Pat's a really nice guy.

SB: Which sports star in the world would you like to be?

PR: I'll brush aside the desire to have the wages of someone like Ronaldo, but it's going to be a footballer because that would be my favourite sport. (Pause for thought) Probably someone like Gareth Bale at Tottenham. We are going to see a lot more of him. He has great potential and I love to see him running with the ball. He's very hard to catch. Yes, Gareth Bale would be good.

SB: Finally how important do you believe is sport to Northern Ireland?

PR: I think because we are so much better at it than our numbers should entitle us to it is an important part of people's lives and it does bring a great sense of pride to people. For instance people who never play golf would be rooting for Rory McIlroy and watch him until all sorts of hours in the morning wherever he is playing around the world. It's that thing ‘We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland' and there is fantastic backing from here for our sports stars no matter what their background is or what they are competing in. Sport can give a lift to people's spirits.

In today's print edition - Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness tells Steven Beacom about the sportsmen and women he admires most

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