Category Archives: Sport

English have to grasp team sports are not about individuals

It is incredible. At the weekend, England, a relatively wealthy country of 53 million people, was comfortably beaten at cricket by Sri Lanka (a much poorer country of just 20 million) and at rugby by Ireland (a comparably wealthy one of just over 6 million). This came after further humblings at the Cricket World Cup by New Zealand (4 million) and Australia (23 million), all following in from elimination from football’s World Cup at the hands of Uruguay (3 million) and Costa Rica (6 million). Even the hockey team has mustered only one major success since 1988. Seriously?!

I cannot help but think the media’s reaction was informative. Bring back “KP” (Kevin Pietersen) into Eoin Morgan’s side and all will be well, apparently. Did anyone writing that stop to consider, just consider, that the very fact they were even debating whether or not a South African should play for an Irishman’s team is the basic problem?!

The point is twofold. First, England has a peculiar inability – at any team sport – to bring through talent to elite level. Second, the English seem to believe you succeed at team sports merely by changing around individuals.

The problem is that the culture of believing that teams are effectively just groups of individuals, and that scant thought should be given as to how those individuals best work together, is becoming ever more pervasive. The English media are also quick to pin team failures on one individual, but slow to recognise when that was obviously nonsense – how is the successful campaign to remove Alistair Cook as England’s one-day captain working out?

It is hard to get away from the fact this all derives from our general culture of thinking that there are easy solutions to complex things – we believe we can solve the entire financial crisis just by changing a few politicians in much the same way we believe the English cricket team would be world beaters with one change of personnel. The idea that this is a much broader problem, consisting not just of spending or personnel but also of efficiency and team-building, seems beyond our grasp.

Yet the New Zealanders, Australians and Sri Lankans (even, dare I say, the Irish) seem instantly aware that sporting success – even social success – come from working as an efficient and cohesive unit, not just tampering with the edges of the line-up on a near trial and error basis.

Those who drive public debate in England – managers, administrators, commentators and so on – now have a responsibility to recognise there is something fundamentally wrong when a country of such vast population and resources fails so comprehensively at team sports time after time. Public debate has to shift away from individual performances here and there, and on to the business of building teams as efficient units which operate cohesively. Otherwise, this same story will be repeated for generations.

Chelsea’s fundamental problem with racism and xenophobia

It was 1 September, 1997 – the early days of multi-channel television and the (dial-up) Internet. I was sorry to hear Lady Diana had died during the wee hours, but never one for celebrity it was not something I dwelled on. I switched to German satellite TV, only to find that it too had handed over all its channels to coverage of the incident.

So I went to the Arsenal FC web site “chat room” to talk about something else, but in vain – I was by a stream of highly sympathetic messages about what had occurred. People from Beijing, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Copenhagen and elsewhere were queuing to pay their respects. Many paid specific respects to England/UK given that she was from the same country as Arsenal, but generally it was accepted that the world had lost someone special. It was all done in a spirit of generosity, and was in its way quite touching.

The only other club which had anything similar in those early days was Chelsea FC, so I headed over there really out of interest to see if something similar had occurred. Oh dear.

A Swedish supporter paying respects was told in response: “Get lost, she was British. Ours. Nothing to do with you”.

One message from Waterford was met with the retort: “Get lost. Your lot killed Mountbatten”.

Except, er, they didn’t write “Get lost”.

This was but one example of many – from a Tottenham Hotspur supporter’s letter this week to a FourFourTwo article a decade ago – which indicated there is something different about a very significant number of Chelsea FC supporters. This does not apply to all of them, of course; but the level of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semiticism – or general “fear of other” – experienced when coming into contact with Chelsea supporters is vastly disproportionate.

We know this in Northern Ireland, with our own battles trying to overcome the innate “fear of other”. Indeed, it was sadly predictable that one of the three supporters identified in connection with last week’s incident was from Northern Ireland. What we know beyond all dispute is it is not good enough to think you can overcome it by applying a penalty to a few who happen to get caught or happen to display this fear at a particular extreme; nor is it remotely reasonable to dismiss it as a “few bad eggs”.

No one doubts the sincerity with which its manager and lead executives have approached last week’s incident, but the truth is Chelsea FC has a particular problem. It needs to start by admitting it.

2015 Preview – Sport

I appear on UTV to review the year this evening, but of course previews are much more fun because we can look back and laugh at them later! Over the next three days I intend to look at sport, politics and the economy for 2015.

2014 was a great year for Northern Irish sport. The football team is in a strong position to qualify for Euro 2016; Rory won a couple of majors; there was boxing glory at amateur and professional level topped by Carl Frampton, as he took a Titanic fight to win the World Championship; and there was Kelly Gallagher’s magical gold medal. I expect more of the same in 2015; Rory and indeed GMac will be there or thereabouts at most majors; I think Northern Ireland will qualify for Euro 2016 (indeed there’s a possibility of a British Isles grand slam); and there will no doubt be other breakthroughs.

More generally, it is an odd-numbered year thus global events are less numerous. I expect the All Blacks to win a first Rugby World Cup away from home; Real Madrid to become the first team to retain the Champions’ League; and Chelsea to fend off Manchester City to win the Premier League reasonably comfortably. Closer to home, unfortunately Ulster will continue to struggle; Linfield will likely win the Premiership; and Armagh will probably prove the best hope of bringing the Sam back across the border.

What say you, dear readers?!

Premier League, Government Finance and the Motivation to Innovate

This excellent article over on ESPN offers an explanation of the decline in performance of Premier League teams and a comparison to the downfall of Serie A 15 years ago.

Put simply, the story goes like this. Italy’s senior football league, ‘Serie A’, emerged as the strongest in Europe in the late 1980s and remained so through to the late 1990s. Because it was the strongest league, it attracted the strongest players, and was thus home to the richest owners, and also the richest TV deals, and so became without question the richest league. How on earth, therefore, could this ongoing spiral of signing ever better players with ever more money be brought to an end? When the clubs forgot to innovate, and other clubs in other countries did. Spurred on by better nutrition and better tactics, England’s ‘Premier League’ overhauled ‘Serie A’ as the richest and best league by the mid-2000s. The cycle has repeated itself, and the Premier League is now on the downward curve familiar to most Italian football fans.

Spain’s ‘La Liga’, with slightly less money, has already taken over from the Premier League as the leading league in terms of continental performance; Germany’s ‘Bundesliga’ will almost certainly also do so and move into second place this season, despite vastly fewer resources at its clubs’ disposal. How can this happen? Again, it is to do with innovation, and specifically the motivation to innovate.

When Italy’s clubs were the richest in Europe and attracted the world’s best players, they saw no further need to innovate. Nutritionally and tactically they fell behind teams from comparably sized countries. Initially, they were able to stay ahead through pure spending, but soon that did not work either. The key point is this: not only did teams from England, Spain and Germany have reason to innovate, teams from Italy didn’t – they (the players, the agents, the owners etc) were guaranteed big bucks anyway. Guaranteed, that is, in the short term – but in the longer term, hamstrung by spending too much money on ageing players or ‘big names’ long past their sell-by date, Italy’s clubs began to collapse in on themselves amid scandal and corruption, and soon fell behind the other three big leagues. Now we find the precise same thing with the Premier League, whose clubs spent more than any other league’s this summer (excluding the madly exceptional ‘Clasico’ clubs in Spain), yet have mustered only five wins out of 16 in Europe’s senior competition. They are spending, but they have lost the motivation to innovate which is leaving them clearly behind their Continental rivals.

So it is with Government. In a recent interview with the Welsh Health Minister, a BBC correspondent spent the entire duration of the discussion talking solely in terms of the amount of money being spent on the Welsh NHS. There was absolutely no discussion about how that money was being spent, or if it could be spent better (or worse, for that matter). The way we talk about politics and government finance, it is as if ‘more spending’ automatically means ‘better service’. In fact, it can mean the precise opposite – if the ‘big spending’ removes the motivation to innovate.

Northern Ireland, unfortunately, is a classic example. Faced with rises in Health spending which are below the requirement to keep up in percentage terms with increasing demand, the Service’s first act was to close an Multiple Sclerosis respite unit. This was a callous and outrageous act, from a Service which has, per capita, 42% more administrators than is the case in England. The first act should have been to cut the administrators, not the vital services.

Unfortunately, Northern Ireland’s public service has, by and large, lost the motivation to innovate, guaranteed (as it has been since 1998) ever increasing resources simply to keep doing the same thing. As a result, with some exceptions (e.g. in primary education), management techniques, government structures, bureaucratic systems and everything else are now decades out of date. Other countries are able to achieve the same or more with far fewer resources, because they have improved management, streamlined structures and reformed systems.

That we have a bloated political culture with no motivation to innovate either doesn’t help, of course. The latest farce was the failure to agree to put through the Housing & Regeneration Bill in time to transfer functions to local Councils when the new Councils come into being – a political mess which came about despite civil servants working hard to ensure the timescale was met. We also have the nonsense of moving a Department to Ballykelly for no particular reason; the failure to deliver a proper Education & Skills Authority; the outrageous waste of millions on a road (the A5) which was never, ever going to be built; as well as the planning nonsense at the Maze and Sprucefield. A proper, evidence-based set of priorities both at political and governance level with learning and information shared properly across all departments – which would have required innovative methods of collecting, assessing and distributing that evidence – would have seen none of these shambles taking place.

We are not alone. France and Italy offer two further examples of the classic ‘bloated bureaucracy’ unwilling to contemplate change because, for too long, money has been guaranteed regardless of the fact is has removed the vital motivation to innovate.

Public spending in Northern Ireland will now be reduced, fairly sharply. Again, a truly innovative public sector would already have prepared for this (and would already have innovated in anticipation of having to do more with less). In the short term, there will be outright cuts in services (which, note well, there absolutely wouldn’t need to be if there had been proper preparation for them) and these will have ghastly knock-on effects – not just on service users but on small businesses and even individual households.

We can only hope that, in the long term, cutbacks and reductions in the public sector will see some motivation to innovate appear within government, just as it did in those leagues with had to catch up with the Italians despite far more limited resources. Football fans, like the electorate, always just demand ‘more spending’ – and, like the electorate, they’re ignoring the fact that ‘more spending’ is no substitute for proper innovation and simply doing things better than the opposition within the resources you already have!

Ryder Cups and Killer Instincts

This is a most bizarre table.

European (EU) score first Matches won Overall
Year Venue Win Fourballs Foursomes Singles Match Score Holes +/-
1979

1981

1983

1985

1987

1989

1991

1993

1995

1997

1999

2002

2004

2006

2008

2010

2012

2014

USA

England

USA

England

USA

England

USA

England

USA

Spain

USA

England

USA

Ireland

USA

Wales

USA

Scotland

US

US

US

EU

EU

Tie

US

US

EU

EU

US

EU

EU

EU

US

EU

EU

EU

3-5

3-4

3-3

4-2

6-2

6-2

5-1

3-4

2-6

5-2

4-1

4-3

4-2

4-2

2-3

4-2

3-5

2-4

4-3

2-6

4-4

4-4

4-3

2-4

2-6

5-3

5-3

4-2

4-3

3-4

6-2

3-1

2-3

4-3

3-5

6-0

3-8

3-7

4-5

7-4

3-6

5-7

4-5

3-6

7-4

3-7

3-8

5-2

7-4

8-3

4-7

4-6

8-3

5-4

11-17

9-18

13-14

16-11

15-13

14-14

13-14

13-15

14-13

14-13

13-14

15-12

18-9

18-9

11-16

14-13

14-13

16-11

-18

-26

-6

+15

-2

-5

-8

-4

-3

-6

-16

+18

+13

+23

-13

+2

-17

+16

EU leads overall wins 10-7 67-52 68-57 81-96 216-205 -37

Also replicated here for easier reading, it shows a quite bizarre thing – although Europe leads in Cup wins comfortably, and in match wins marginally, it is actually behind in holes won since 1979.

I choose 1979 because that is both when Continental Europeans began competing in the Ryder Cup and when the matches switched to their current format – eight fourball matches (all players play and the best score win the hole for his team), eight foursomes (pairs play a single ball, using alternate shots), and twelve singles.

Yet even if we take the time after 1985, when the United States lost a Ryder Cup for the first time in 28 years, we see a remarkable thing. In 14 tournaments since then, the United States has won just four and lost nine – but has actually won two more holes during that period! In fact, Americans are only behind by one hole overall over the past three Ryder Cups – an astonishingly balanced record – yet have lost all three.

The last Ryder Cup in the United States, the so-called ‘Miracle of Medinah’, was the ultimate example of this. The Americans actually won more holes in 2012 than in any Ryder Cup since 1981 – and lost! What was remarkable about it was that a staggering 13 of the 28 matches (i.e. almost half) made it to the final green – of those, the Europeans won nine, lost just three and halved one. Of the remaining 15 matches which didn’t make it that far, Europeans won only five (and even three of those on the 17th!) and lost ten. Europe won the final hole decisively more than three quarters of the time (even the half was a comeback from one-down) – having otherwise been comprehensively outplayed by historical standards.

I am not totally clear what this demonstrates – but I suspect it is something to do with the value of teamwork and a killer instinct. What has happened – consistently – is that Americans have won the matches they have won by big margins, but when the margins have become tight the Europeans tend to have come out on top.

US must win Ryder Cup

Europe is getting just a bit cocky about its favourites tag for this week’s Ryder Cup. Here’s why a bet on the Americans may not be a bad thing.

Firstly, the “Miracle at Medinah” was something of a fluke. In fact, in 2012, the Americans won 17 more holes than the Europeans. Excluding the 18th, they actually won 25 more – nearly one per match. American wins were all 5&4, 4&2 and such like – whereas the Europeans won not a single match before the 17th. The Americans played the better golf but crumbled right at the end if it came to it.

Secondly, the Ryder Cup needs an American win. If Europe wins, that’ll be 6 of the last 7 and 8 of the last 10 (and five in a row at home). That is no longer competitive – it is almost a return to the days of the Americans beating the British Isles all the time.

2014 was the first ever year that Europeans won 3 out of the 4 majors. It would be good for golf, however, if the late honours in the year went back across the Atlantic.

Fetishisation of spending the root of all our ills

This is, perhaps, the single greatest article I’ve ever read about sport, or perhaps even anything!

Nominally, the article notes that “Transfer Deadline Day” has become a huge footballing event in its own right (rivalling Cup Finals and such like), even though actually all it is is the day which determines how much money various teams have spent. Supporters watch events unfold as if merely buying a player whose wages would pay for 140 nurses is the cure of all their ills. It is ludicrous. In fact it’s a moral crime, and not a victimless crime at that.

The article nailed my discomfort at “Transfer Deadline Day” perfectly. It was a discomfort I had never previously been able to nail (and thus never previously been able to put into writing). Yet I cannot help but feel it is the same discomfort I feel at Christmas.

For, when you think about it, Christmas is an awful lot like “Transfer Deadline Day”. Ultimately the objective is for people, predominantly children, to compare notes on how much their parents have spent, not unlike supporters comparing notes on how much their clubs have spent. Crudely, it is as if by buying loads of “stuff” we can deliver stability, love and affection; the same way that buying a £50 million player is supposed to guarantee trophies. In the same way managers don’t want to let supporters down by buying no one (even if there’s no one worth buying really), parents don’t like to let children down by not spending hundreds of pounds on a raft of Christmas presents (even if the child already has every X-box, iPhone and lego set going). The very term used in the article, the “fetishisation of spending”, sums it all up. It’s morally corrupt and it is the fundamental cause of all our economic (and arguably social) ills.

Again, the article on “Transfer Deadline Day” makes the point that clubs are recklessly spending our money – the money we spend at the turnstiles, on the shirts, or on the TV subscriptions (at least I have abandoned the latter in disgust, though not yet the first two I confess); and the money we lavish on the advertisers who keep it all going (not least at Christmas). Likewise at Christmas, the billions spent are mostly wasted – a huge proportion on “stuff” children never needed and never subsequently touch – when they could be put to far better use in our health service, in our schools or in assisting job creation. But let’s be clear: we choose this madness!

It is a madness which is grossly unfair too, of course. Clubs such as Leeds have gone bust trying to keep up with Manchester United despite lacking its resources; much more seriously, thousands of families across the British Isles go bust every year buying “stuff” for Christmas trying to keep up with people who earn considerably more than they do. Yet again, those at the poorer end of the spectrum suffer most.

It would be interesting to set up a movement, as happens in one edition of Family Guy of all things, to buy just one Christmas present per person. This would have the benefit of limiting peer pressure and ensuring people could remain within their means without feeling that they are somehow letting their children down. Who knows, it may even lead us recognise that there is more to Christmas, and indeed life, than “getting stuff”!

What we do about football is where I have no ideas – but it is a somewhat lesser concern, and we could start by remembering that too!

Frampton a real role model

FramptonWhat a magnificent image… a world champion and family man. And he’s from inner-city Belfast.

I must say I prefer my boxing amateur, but nothing takes away from this fabulous story of a local fighter from a tough background who earned – and earned is the word – support from the entire community.

It is yet further proof that we can be the best when we put our mind to it. That includes people from the inner city, who are no worse than the rest of us. They all now have a contemporary role model to prove it. They have a hard-working family man of immense dignity, immense civility, and immense humility. He just happens to be the best in the world at what he does.

Best of all was the fact Carl Frampton’s daughter was at the fight because they “couldn’t find a baby sitter”! What could be more fabulously, positively, hilariously Belfast than that?!

What are golf’s “major” championships?

At the conclusion of the final major championship of the year in men’s golf, it seems reasonable to ask – what is a major championship?

The four major championships – chronologically each year the Masters Tournament, the US Open Championship, the Open Championship and the PGA Championship – are regarded as the pinnacle of the game, with golfers often assessed predominantly by how many of them they win (or at least challenge in).

However, the key point is that, historically, the current four majors were not so regarded. There is a tendency to judge past greats – such as Gene Sarazen or Ben Hogan – by the number of current major championships they won. This does not do justice to the fact that, when they played, what constituted a “major championship” was somewhat different. In fact, the term itself was scarcely used!

In 2014, the current major championships are officially recognised. Each carries more ranking points than any other tournament, and each is recognised by all the game’s main professional tours. However, this is comparatively recent.

The story starts in 1930, perhaps, with Bobby Jones’ completion of the quadruple – the Amateur Championship, the Open Championship, the US Amateur Championship and the US Open Championship all in one year. This was remarkable as it involved significant trans-Atlantic travel at his own expense – and he won not a penny for his endeavours. Thus, he soon quit the game but left a further indelible mark by founding the Masters Tournament in 1934, which immediately attracted all the game’s best professionals due to its prestigious founder.

By the late 1950s, the United States was the only country which could support a fully professional tour. Its best players generally regarded the Masters Tournament and the US Open (the oldest tournament played in the Americas) as the most prestigious events to win, but they had no formal status. The Western Open, the North and South Open and the PGA Championship were also deemed notably prestigious. However, top American professionals had begun not to bother crossing the Atlantic to play even the Open Championship (the oldest tournament of all) because the purse was much lower and thus only the winner could expect to cover the cost of the trip. Additionally, the Open was played under different rules (even the balls were a different size) and, in any case, often clashed with the PGA Championship. As a consequence, the Open became more of a Commonwealth title, typically won by golfers from South Africa or Australasia (Max Faulkner’s win at Portrush in 1951 was the last by a Briton until 1969).

This changed dramatically in 1960 when Arnold Palmer, the “Tiger” or “Rory” of his era, won both the Masters and US Open. He opted to cross the Atlantic to play the Open, declaring that he had to win the “British Open” (as the Americans called it) and the PGA Championship to match Bobby Jones and complete what he called a “modern Grand Slam” (a term actually borrowed from the card game Bridge). The challenge thus accepted, he missed out on that year’s Open by one stroke (but won it the subsequent two years), and never in fact won the PGA.

It is reasonable to credit Palmer with saving the Open Championship’s prestige, and also with establishing the PGA Championship as the fourth title required for a “Grand Slam”. However, it was still some time before the term “major” was used for a tournament which would contribute to a Grand Slam, and still longer before the game’s authorities formalised this status. It remained the case that majors taking place in the United States were always won by Americans – post-War until 1979 only South Africa’s Gary Player and England’s Tony Jacklin won majors as foreigners in the United States. The (“British”) Open was more competitive, often won by Australians and even by Argentinean Roberto di Vicenzo (as well as, as it happened, by Player and Jacklin).

Tony Jacklin turned into something of a pivotal figure. He won the Open in 1969 and the US Open at a canter in 1970. He was involved in “the Concession”, securing a half against the legendary Jack Nicklaus to ensure the Ryder Cup (then played between the United States and the British Isles) was halved in 1969 – one of only two occasions post-War until the extension of the matches to include continental Europe that the Americans didn’t win. Jacklin repeatedly challenged for majors over the next few years until a crushing blow at the 1972 (where his three-putt on the 17th matched by Mexican-American Lee Trevino’s holing of a bunker shot allowed the latter to win) destroyed him psychologically as a player aged just 28. He was to return, however…

Enter, in 1979, a young man named Severiano Ballesteros. It seems unbelievable now, but no Continental European had played Ryder Cup until he and Ignacio Garrido did in 1979; no Continental European had won a major until he won the Open that same year; and no European of any description had won the Masters Tournament until he did so the following year. He won both tournaments again in the early 1980s before West German Bernard Langer won the Masters too in 1985. Both were pillars in the European team which finally won a Ryder Cup that same year, and then condemned the Americans to their first ever home defeat two years later – the team captain was a certain Tony Jacklin. The Continental challenge saw the emergence of more competitive British players too – Anglo-Scot Sandy Lyle won the Open in 1985 and Englishman Nick Faldo repeated the feat two years later. Major tournaments were now established as global events (the only tournaments which attracted all the best players from all over the world) – but still lacked official standing as such. Challenged on what constituted the difference between a “major” and any other tournament, Lyle responded simply “About 100 years”.

It was Lyle whose famous fairway bunker shot to eight feet secured the UK its first ever Masters win in 1988 – it then won four in a row, as it happened. The authorities had to respond to all of this, installing “Official World Golf Rankings” in 1986 and then securing recognition of “majors” by all main tours over the next decade – meaning that money earned at a major counted towards any Tour’s total, not just the one which happened to host it.

Majors are no longer the only tournaments which attract the best players from all over the world. Four “World Golf Championship” (WGC) events – the Championship, the Matchplay, the Invitational and the Champions Event – now also do, and this is also reflected in rankings points (they count for more than a regular event but less than a “major”). The US Tour’s predominant tournament, known as The Players’ Championship, attracts a similar field and similar rankings points (sometimes even earning reference as the “unofficial fifth major”). The European Tour’s own PGA Championship is also worth extra rankings points, although rarely attracts quite the same strength of field.

For all that, the pre-eminent position of “majors” was well established by 2008, almost half a century on from Palmer’s intervention. Yet in all that time, despite dominating the Ryder Cup, only one European had won the US Open and none the PGA Championship. Enter the Irish, with Southerner Padraig Harrington winning the 2008 PGA and Northerner Graeme McDowell winning the 2010 US Open. Fellow Northerner Rory McIlroy of course trumped them by winning both over the next two years; German Martin Kaymer has also won both, and Englishman Justin Rose also added a US Open in 2013. This is an astonishingly sudden European breakthrough.

Majors have also now become truly global. In recent years Koreans, New Zealanders, Canadians, Argentineans and Germans have won them beyond the traditional powers; and Frenchmen, Japanese, Spaniards, Swedes and Danes have come second. Americans now on average win fewer than every other one – a remarkable decline over 35 years, but unquestionably good for the game in terms of global interest and participation.

What now? It is likely that the majors will maintain their prestige for some time, not least because they complement each other so neatly and all have their own quirks. The Masters Tournament (referred to outside North America sometimes as the “US Masters”) is a purely invitational tournament always played at the same course, famed also for its traditions concerning its champions (not least the “Green Jacket”). The US Open is what it says it is, an open tournament of 120 years’ standing which allows qualification as well as invitation and also has significant Amateur involvement; it is played on courses which punish wayward play and reward precision, and winning scores are frequently high (not infrequently over par). The (“British”) Open is the oldest of them all, also allowing qualification as well as invitation with the most globally spread field of all; it is played on links courses, alternating between England and Scotland (and, now, Northern Ireland) with wildly variable weather accounting for wildly variable scores. The PGA Championship (sometimes known as the “US PGA”) is universally regarded as the least prestigious of the four, yet is for professionals only and thus can frequently ensure that it has the toughest field in terms of the current rankings; courses are usually set less tough than the US Open favouring distance and resulting, generally, in lower scores (often double figures under par over the four rounds is required to win).

The ultimate challenge is to win a major on both sides of the Atlantic – thus on inland courses in the United States where the ball can be played high and positioned through draw/fade and spin, and on links courses in the British Isles where the ball must be kept low to avoid the wind but thus often needs to be run up to the hole than hoisted towards it. Only the very best players achieve this (and some of the very best still don’t).

So those are the major championships – and why!

NI needs to drop “loser” mentality

Northern Ireland’s Commonwealth Games results were average; in fact, in sports not beginning with ‘b’, they were frankly poor. They compared markedly badly, even per capita, with Scotland’s and, particularly, Wales’. Other than in boxing, things haven’t improved much since the severe embarrassment of just two medals in Melbourne eight years ago, and we do need to assess why.

Boxing, of course, saved the day – Northern Ireland’s nine medals in boxing were comfortably more than any other country’s (although others won more golds). And boxing also probably provides the answer – summed up by team captain Paddy Barnes, who said effectively that the boxers simply felt they were better than anyone else (in marked contrast to both the past in boxing and the present in any other sport played at the Games).

I wouldn’t be foolish enough to argue with Paddy Barnes about anything (!), but I also happen to believe he’s right. There remains a mentality that we are innately inferior; that any medal, even at Commonwealth level, is to be regarded as a surprise; and that somehow we are fundamentally a bunch of losers. Thank heavens Paddy Barnes doesn’t think that way!

We can easily name three other Northern Irishmen who don’t think that way – Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, through whom Northern Ireland has mustered more major champions in the past four and a bit years than any other European country has managed in the past forty and a bit. In golf, even more so than in amateur boxing, we are genuinely world class. So why should we not expect to be in other sports?

Indeed, why should we not expect to be in other things, generally? It’s time to follow Paddy Barnes, expect victory, and stop thinking everyone else is automatically better. In other words, it’s time we stopped being and accepting losers.

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