Northern Irish football has a history every bit as complicated as the socio-political context that surrounds it. Back in late 2014 I wrote an article for The Football Pink issue 6 in which I talked about Irish Football’s Long Divorce, as the island’s football federation split into two. Just like the partition of Ireland in 1921, the split was messy but involved a great deal less bloodshed. It did though leave bad blood between the two federations and created a situation where the Irish League came to mirror the state that it represented. To British Unionists this is ‘a great wee country’ that is an integral part of Britain, but to Irish nationalists it’s a state that few fully identify with.

Therefore it is a brave man that sets out on an expedition to write GUNSHOTS & GOALPOSTS: The Story of Northern Irish Football – currently available on Amazon Kindle and due for paperback release with Avenue Books on 25th September 2017. A few months back when I got hold of a copy for review, my first impression was that this is a work that deserves a wider audience but probably won’t get that if it is written by an Irish nationalist. That is still the harsh reality of media reportage on the Northern Irish situation.

It was a great surprise to learn that this very thorough history of football in the north of Ireland has been written by an Englishman and fellow Charlton Athletic supporter. Ben Roberts has strong family connections to what he describes as Ulster, and some of his ancestors have also played the game competitively there. Tied into that is a connection to the shipyards, which in turn have helped shape the domestic game in Northern Ireland. Just as in London, where Arsenal, Millwall, Charlton and West Ham all sprung from dockside industries in their different ways, the shipyards played a major part in the evolution of the Northern Irish game.

It was from the shipyards that Glentoran, one of Belfast’s three historically biggest clubs, forged their cultural and sporting identity. As Ben points out, if you’re a working class Protestant from the east of the city, you’ll support Glentoran. If you’re a working class Protestant from other parts such as the infamous Shankill Road, you’ll support Linfield. Then, across in the north of the city, Catholics support Cliftonville and Protestants mostly Crusaders. But surely as everyone knows, about 45% of Northern Ireland and around 50% of Belfast’s population is Catholic, so why the absence of Catholic clubs, and why did I make reference to three big clubs?

Cliftonville, for example, are the oldest football club in Ireland but their support base has never matched that of Protestantism’s Big Two. So who are the third of Belfast’s big clubs and where have they been hiding from European competition when the likes of Linfield have been capturing the wrong sort of headlines with such recent PR disasters as the Champions League game against Glasgow Celtic? The answer lies in the cause of that trouble – the historical antagonism of supporters of Belfast’s big two Protestant clubs to the existence of any team in Northern Ireland that chooses to wear the green and white hoops of Celtic. It has been hard enough for Derry City to survive in Irish football and they play in candy stripes! But Belfast’s biggest Catholic club and potentially Northern Ireland’s biggest in different circumstances have not kicked a ball in competitive football for decades, and may never again unless somebody decides to resurrect their name from the ashes of history.

The story of Belfast Celtic is a tragic one, as has been told before on this site and others. This club left the Irish League in 1949 because the authorities could not, or perhaps would not, protect their players and supporters during games against the big Protestant clubs. The background to this and the massive impact that it had on Belfast society, way beyond the context of football, is succinctly captured in Gunshots & Goalposts. Indeed, the pitch battles between Belfast Celtic and their rivals lie at the heart of the narrative, and go a long way to explaining the reason why the Irish League, for a long time, was effectively a Protestant League for Protestant teams.

However, it is important to say that this book does not simply rehash sorry tales of the past or play the old, if very justified, record of Irish nationalist grievances. Rather, Ben Roberts tries to strike a good balance in telling a very complicated story which, when viewed from outside, is one that does not depict the Northern Irish state in quite the same light as it sees itself. Yet, at the same time, there are a lot of positive stories that come out of this book about Northern Irish football and the Northern Irish character. This after all is a state that has a population of just half a million more than Birmingham. Imagine a domestic league and national team built from England’s second largest city and you get a sense of why Northern Ireland’s Unionists see themselves as being part of ‘a great wee country.’

It has to be acknowledged that Belfast and Derry grew to the cities they are today because of British influence and industry. A strong work ethic has shaped the Ulster Protestant character, and much like communities in the North East of England, many of the descendants of yesterday’s ship-builders and linen makers are now reduced to unemployment or menial office work. Football then serves as the last bastion of working class loyalist identity, and there is a real force to the manner in which Ben gets this point across, using the voices of authentic figures that all football fans will recognise. Amongst the most noted of these is Billy Bingham, a man who built one of the greatest teams Northern Ireland has ever known, on a par with the Jack Charlton era in the Republic of Ireland, and then destroyed community relations with one stupid orchestration of loyalist fans at Windsor Park singing anti-Irish songs.

It is through the era of Bingham vs. Charlton that the story shifts from domestic football to the international scene, and shows how so much work is still to be done in terms of creating a Northern Ireland team that all sections of the society there can support. Ben Roberts again touches on the human side of this division by focusing on such stories as that of Neil Lennon, the Glasgow Celtic star forced out of the national game by loyalist death threats.

Again, that could have been used by some historians to simply illustrate the belief that Northern Irish football will always be a cold house for Catholics. Instead though, Ben manages to show how this acted as a spark for change and led to the Irish Football Association actively trying to encourage more Catholics to support the team, and appointing a manager, Michael O’Neill, who also happened to be a Catholic. The IFA and Northern Ireland Supporters’ Groups have gone out of their way to make Catholic players welcome in Windsor Park, home of the national team and Linfield FC. At the same time, the IFA and manager Michael O’Neill have had to contend with the reality of losing lots of young players to the Republic of Ireland, with James McClean being the most famous example. Some of these guys come up through the ranks of the Northern Irish set up and then jump ship as adults often citing the British identity of the ‘national team’ as the reason for doing so. Overwhelmingly, Catholics in Northern Ireland still see themselves as Irish, first and foremost, and don’t want to line up for the British national anthem at the start of games. Some, in comments provided by Ben Roberts, admit to just putting their heads down and getting on with it. But surely the point of representing your country is to be able to hold your head high.

Interestingly then, Ben notes that the national anthem is one issue that needs addressing before any real progress can be made in terms of giving the Northern Irish team an identity that both communities can feel attachment to. Right now, many Irish nationalists feel that the use of symbols and the playing of an anthem that represents one community alienates them from what is supposed to be everyone’s team. Unionists would argue that even if they changed the anthem and had the Northern Ireland team wear green and white hoops it still wouldn’t guarantee Catholic support. The Republic of Ireland will always be the team and even the state Irish nationalists identify more strongly with. This book recognises that and perhaps even sympathises with that. On the whole, it’s this grasp of deeper issues that gives Ben’s work such a depth of complexity. Overall this book is a very worthwhile read and guide in terms of understanding Northern Irish football.

In this age of Brexit and the DUP governmental partnership, maybe it’s all the more important that people in England understand Northern Ireland. Of course, there’s also a lot more to this book than serious issues. Some of the stories and anecdotes are very funny, and Ben always gives the deep issues a human touch, such as when he discusses the banter between players on the way to Northern Irish games. He also provides deep insight and knowledge of things that I, growing up over there, didn’t even know. For example, in one of his stories about a Clogher Valley Railway Cup competition, he’s giving me new information about the very place where I spent my childhood days. For somebody from across the water, that is a great achievement and on the whole Ben has put together the finest tapestry of history associated with Northern Ireland in recent times since the addition of a Game of Thrones mosaic to the walls of the Ulster Museum.

You can buy Gunshots & Goalposts: The Story of Northern Irish Football by Ben Roberts from Amazon by clicking HERE