| 15°C Belfast

We will be back: Northern Ireland's sports stars sound defiant message in midst of coronavirus crisis

 

Close

Northern Ireland's sporting heroes have joined together to give fans hope of a return to action.

Northern Ireland's sporting heroes have joined together to give fans hope of a return to action.

Northern Ireland's sporting heroes have joined together to give fans hope of a return to action.

Two World wars, the Troubles, two outbreaks of agricultural Foot and Mouth disease and Mother Nature at her vengeful worst all failed to halt Northern Ireland sport completely.

And yet a poxy little virus, so miniscule it can only be viewed through an electron microscope, has laid bare our playing fields, training grounds, arenas and motorsport tracks.

In 40 years chronicling sport for this newspaper, I have never seen the like.

But for horse racing continuing behind closed doors at Down Royal on St Patrick's Day and with the Ulster National still scheduled to run at Downpatrick on Sunday, it would be a total shutdown and that cannot be far away with the racing industry needing to square the circle of potential job losses and financial difficulties against the public health risk of carrying on.

Leagues and other organised sport were shelved during the two world wars as sportsmen enlisted in the Army and sportswomen helped keep essential services and industry running.

But they still played sport while they waited to enter the theatre of war, football especially.

Army teams were formed and challenge matches arranged, many involving Irish League players and some of the top English first division players of the day, who were based here with their regiments.

Ron Greenwood, who went on to star for Chelsea and later manage West Ham and England, famously guested for Belfast Celtic while serving here with the Royal Air Force during the second world war.

Sport also took a battering from the Troubles, in the Seventies especially, with teams and competitors from overseas reluctant to travel here.

Irish League football was a particular casualty. From playing in front of 10 and sometimes 20 thousand crowds in its Sixties heyday, fans were reluctant to venture far from home as murder and mayhem stalked the streets.

Clubs and players even became targets, Derry City being forced out of the league and Distillery firebombed out of their Grosvenor Park home in Belfast, where the Westlink now runs.

And yet, sport carried on, providing a semblance of normality in the most abnormal times. We even produced an Olympic gold medallist in the first Lady of Northern Ireland sport, Mary Peters.

But we have never faced an isolation such as this.

Not even during the Foot and Mouth outbreaks of the Sixties and in more recent memory of 2001.

Sport in rural areas was cancelled, yes, most notably the 2001 North West 200 motorcycle races.

And therein lies the glimmer of hope and encouragement from the current sporting lockdown.

Announcing the postponement of this year's event in May, race chief Mervyn Whyte, the firefighter extraordinary of Norther Ireland sport, evoked the spirit of 2001 that saw the North West return, revamped and stronger the following year and he vowed the same will happen again.

Collectively, we are a resilient people.

In recent days, I have seen commentators draw analogies with the Troubles and how we got through those worst of times. We got through because it is not in our DNA to give in. If there is to be a comparison with the Troubles, with regard to the coronavirus crisis, it is that we just want to see it over.

And until it can be scientifically and medically defeated, we will fight it with thran.

Just read the messages from our top sportspeople below. Defeatism is not in their vocabulary.

Their defiance is loud and clear. WE WILL BE BACK.

Steven Davis (Northern Ireland football captain)

With news that Northern Ireland’s upcoming play-off game has been postponed, I wanted to send a message to you all.

These are exceptional times we are living in and we all have to help each other out as much as possible and do all we can. The most important thing is we stay safe and hopefully we will see you all in June. Take care.

Steven Davis

 

Lady Mary Peters (Olympic gold medallist)

I am following the official advice to self isolate at home as I approach my 81st year but I continue to exercise and my advice to people is to make sure you do, also. It is important to keep our hearts and lungs working to their full capacity. This time has brought home to me what it must have like for people in wartime, the fear and isolation. As an Olympian, I recognise the threat to the Games from coronavirus and my heart goes out to the many young people we have supported through my Trust who are now facing uncertainty after their years of hard work and preparation for this moment. But my message to them, and everyone affected by this unprecedented situation is keep fit, keep healthy and keep smiling. All the major events on hold will happen. Don’t give up.

Close

Lady Mary Peters at home

Lady Mary Peters at home

Kevin Scott / Belfast Telegraph

Lady Mary Peters at home

 

Carl Frampton (former world boxing champion)

The coronavirus crisis has caused a lot of uncertainty around my upcoming fight against Jamel Herring but it is not the most important thing right now. When this has passed, we will get it sealed and have the fight. It’s good to have the fight agreed but there are more important things than boxing. People’s health is more important than me and Herring having a fight, so it’s important we do this right. Then we can get back to sport again.

Close

Fight on: Carl Frampton will face Jamel Herring but the details of when and where are as yet uncertain.

Fight on: Carl Frampton will face Jamel Herring but the details of when and where are as yet uncertain.

Fight on: Carl Frampton will face Jamel Herring but the details of when and where are as yet uncertain.

 

Ronan Gallagher (Fermanagh selector and principal of St John’s, Middletown)

My big worry about not having sport is about what other outlets or social distractions there are for others. That’s what sport is, ours in Gaelic football and for other people, it is horse riding, ju-jitsu, whatever it is. From the football point of view, if we got through to the tail-end of the summer, which is what people are predicting, imagine an open draw of an All-Ireland, ran over five, six weeks. There would be some excitement around it, some attendance at it.  If we had a window for an open draw All-Ireland, it would be unbelievable for everybody. Six weeks of bliss for people.

Close

Ronan Gallagher

Ronan Gallagher

�INPHO/Tommy Dickson

Ronan Gallagher

 

John Cooney (Ulster and Ireland)

It’s incredibly uncertain times for people at the moment but it’s hugely important that we all stay positive. It’s a word that’s thrown about a lot and it’s obviously easier said than done but there’s certain things that I like to do to help through times of adversity. One would be to remember that there’s always someone in a worse position. When you think of the amazing work that’s being done by doctors and nurses at the minute, some of whom can’t even get home to see their families or are quarantined, it’s a lot tougher for them than it is for us. We hope everyone is well and look forward to seeing you soon.

John Cooney

 

Leah McCourt (MMA champion)

If I have learned one thing in my life, it is that sometimes elevation requires isolation.  These are uncertain times but with hope, faith and belief, we will overcome this together.  I am looking for opportunities within this unique time and not excuses, to develop myself both mentally and psychically by studying tape, road work, sprinting, shadow boxing, bag work, reading, quality family time and taking the opportunity to step back, breathe and appreciate each day.  My eyes are firmly fixed on Bellator London on May 16.

Leah McCourt

 

Katie Mullan (Ireland hockey international)

I suppose there is a worry that the Olympics might not take place but all we can do is to take the advice we have been given by Sport Ireland and the Irish Olympic authorities. We are still sticking to our plan, which has changed recently as we are exercising social distancing. That means we have to be self-driven and training in makeshift gyms at our homes and doing a bit of running outside but,  as a very motivated group, that’s not a problem.

Katie Mullan

 

Andrew Waterworth (Linfield)

It’s a very tough time for all of us and sport is secondary when people’s lives are being affected in this terrible way. Our hearts go out to anyone fighting this and hopefully they can stay strong. Our health is at the forefront of everything we do in our lives. My wife, Lisa, works in the NHS and I would like to send my love, admiration and respect to all those who are on the frontline fighting for us. Football is the beautiful game and we do miss it. Stay safe and we will be back!

Close

Andy Waterworth

Andy Waterworth

�INPHO/William Cherry

Andy Waterworth

 

Ashley Hutton (Northern Ireland footballer)

It’s only right that sporting fixtures have been cancelled. As a player, it’s difficult to know how to prepare for the immediate future. We had been due to play Belarus in a Euro qualifier next month and our own domestic Women’s Premiership is scheduled to kick-off at the end of April, but we don’t know when we will be playing again. Kenny Shiels is keeping in contact with us to make sure we’re staying motivated and focused. I don’t think that will be a problem for us because we know that we are in the best position to qualify for a major finals that we’ve ever been in, so that will keep the motivation within the squad until we are ready to play again.

Close

Ashley Hutton

Ashley Hutton

Ashley Hutton

 

Belfast Telegraph