Gunshots & Goalposts: The Story of Northern Irish Football by Benjamin Roberts

CAS Trust Member and author Paul Breen reviews a new book release by a fellow Charlton fan.

Did you hear the one about the Irishman who writes about Charlton, the Englishman who writes about Ireland, and the Scottish team whose colours have shaped such a large part of football history across the water? No, it’s not a joke told in The White Swan, or the Royal Oak in the hours before or after the latest Charlton game. It’s a real situation, and one where yet another author with Charlton Athletic connections has emerged in the football world.

Benjamin Roberts, better known as Ben, has put together the finest tapestry of these times in Northern Ireland since the country’s map of Game of Thrones’ locations went on display in The Ulster Museum. In telling The Story of Northern Irish Football, Ben makes a bold claim that his work lives up to. His book Gunshots & Goalposts: The Story of Northern Irish Football covers 140 years of football in the north of Ireland, starting in the decades before partition and running right up to the present era. To do so he has had to carry out comprehensive research and has managed this in such an effective manner, he deserves a PhD for his secondary research. But this isn’t written in a dry, academic style. It’s an engaging book packed full of interesting facts, wonderful stories, and information presented in the voices of those who have played, managed, and watched Northern Irish football for decades.

And now apologies in advance fellow fans and friends reading this review (even the wife and the in laws) – but when Ben sent me the copy and I read it, I refused to believe he was anything other than Irish, and most likely Northern Irish. There was no way, in my mind, that anyone from outside could have put together a work like this, and certainly not anybody English because there seems to be very little deep interest in Irish politics over here. So it was quite a surprise to learn that Ben was a fellow Charlton fan with a Northern Irish family background who is now living in East Sussex.

Maybe it is that distance which has allowed him to capture such an accurate and largely impartial picture of the way that both domestic and international football has developed across the sea. Ben has managed to capture a sense of the contradictions not just at the heart of Northern Irish football but also society. Simultaneously he finds a way of highlighting how the authorities have historically turned a blind eye to sectarianism in the Irish League, at the same time as showing the positive forces that have shaped some of the major figures in the game over there, from Billy Bingham to Georgie Best.

Thus, he does an excellent job of charting the role that the shipyards played in shaping the working class Protestant identity in Belfast, as they also did in the North East of England and in Glasgow. But at the same time he tells the fascinating but tragic story of Belfast Celtic and how they went out of existence because the police and authorities point-blank refused to protect their fans and players at games. Even by the 1990s and the time of the political ceasefires, it was commonly believed that no team would ever wear green and white hoops in the Irish League ever again such was the hostility to the Celtic name and the strain of politics and cultures they represented. You only have to look at recent events when Glasgow Celtic visited Belfast to play Linfield to see how deep sectarianism still runs in Northern Ireland.

Fortunately for a long time the sectarianism of the domestic game didn’t touch the international game, but then in the 1990s things changed and Ben very successfully captures a sense of why that happened. Ironically too, a lot of that was down to the animosity between Billy Bingham, a staunch Ulster Protestant, and Jack Charlton an Englishman whose only creed seemed to be making life difficult for the opposition team! That hostility is now passing once again amongst the present generation of football fans but Ben deals with contentious issues such as the playing of the national anthem and the reasons why young Catholics still opt to play for the Republic as adults, even though they often progress through Northern Ireland’s youth set up.

On the other hand he captures equally well the sense of pride that young men like Charlton’s own Josh Magennis, a Protestant, and Liam Boyce, a Catholic, feel in playing for their country and being friends on and off the pitch. Having interviewed Josh last Christmas, I can testify to the fact that he truly does represent a new generation for whom traditional politics means very little. By the end of the book, Ben creates that sense of hope for the reader though at the same time does show how a number of contentious issues remain unresolved as demographic change looms on the horizon.

However, this is not just another story of the sectarianism and religious bigotry that is so offputting to people here in England. This is actually a work that is very strong in characterisation, not just of the place but of the people. As I say, Ben’s research has been very thorough and this is a book that should take pride of place amongst the various forms of Charlton-related literature that you can find out there – from Charlie Connolly to Colin Cameron, with myself, Rick Everitt, David Ramzan, and many others in the mix as well, including a chap named Steve Clarke who is equally well known for his role as vice-chairman of a certain prestigious organisation within the Charlton family!

Even though there’s no direct Charlton connection in Ben Roberts’ book, I think there is one feature of it that is common to everything historically associated with Charlton. It’s a book that is very strong in giving a human touch to football and that’s one of the things I and others have always associated with Charlton. We are a club with a human touch, and supporting Charlton gives us a particular perspective on life I think. Benjamin Roberts’ new book fully captures the human side of Northern Irish football. It is currently available on Amazon in Kindle format and coming out in paperback form on September 25th, and can be accessed here.