FOOTBALL COLUMN: Liam Beckett talks...

First Minister Arlene Foster
First Minister Arlene Foster

This is the latest in my series of Q & A sessions with some of our leading politicians with regard to their views on sport – in particular football.

This week I am delighted to feature our country’s new First Minister Arlene Foster.

Here’s what Arlene had to say...

LB: As a child or as a youth did you ever play ladies’ football, and if so did you ever play in a team?

AF: I would have to admit to not being the world’s biggest football expert, but like many people I get behind the Northern Ireland team, and particularly during the big games.

My son George, however, plays for Fivemiletown Under 14s.

I went to the Collegiate in Enniskillen which is an all girls school. The sporting focus there was hockey and I was the hockey captain – a right half.

LB: Do you have a favourite Irish League team and if so do you get much time to go along and support them?

AF: It probably won’t come as much of a surprise that my favourite Irish League team has to be Ballinamallard.

Whilst not getting the chance to attend too many local football matches now, I remember well standing on the sidelines of Lisnaskea Rovers games with my dad.

They may only have been playing the Fermanagh & Western League, but the passions and enthusiasm from the fans, were just as high as you’d see in any of the bigger leagues.

It was football, and in particular two Irish League teams that brought my parents together. My mum is originally from Sandy Row and a Linfield fan, whilst my dad was a fan of Distillery.

It was at a match between the two sides where they met, so I owe the Irish League a huge debt of gratitude for bringing a Fermanagh man and a Sandy Row woman together, and the rest is of course history.

Football has always been a big part of my family. As well as supporting Distillery, my dad was also a huge Man United fan as well as supporting Northern Ireland. The 1982 and 1986 campaigns were big events in my house and my sister’s wedding coincided with one of Northern Ireland’s games during the 1986 World Cup so you can imagine just how quickly people finished their meal and were rushing to the nearest television to watch the match.

LB: Do you have a favourite Irish League player or personality, either past or present?

AF: Someone like David Jeffrey has been a huge figure within the Irish League in recent years.

His track record as a leader is one that I wouldn’t mind being able to emulate in the political field!

LB: Do you have a favourite football team in either England, Scotland, or even European like Real Madrid, Barcelona etc. And if so for what particular reason.  

AF: Whilst I don’t have a particular favourite amongst these teams, my son does support Bayern Munich.

LB: How do you rate or quantify the success of Northern Ireland qualifying for the European Championship Finals in France this coming June for the 1st time ever in the history of our wee country?

AF: You do not even have to be an avid sports fan to appreciate the momentous achievement of Northern Ireland qualifying for our first European Championship, and the first major tournament in thirty years.

The scenes in Belfast back in October following the game against Greece will live long in everyone’s memory.

There was something particularly special to have some of our other sporting greats like Carl Frampton and Rory McIlroy there in the crowd too watching the team qualify and flying the flag for Northern Ireland.

Such success is good for more than just sport in Northern Ireland. It allows us to showcase the positive side of our country and I know just how important that is as we seek to attract investment, tourism and jobs. A feel good factor is something that money just can’t buy.

LB: Do you have an all time (again either past or present), favourite Northern Ireland player, and if so why?

AF: David Healy is a particularly special player for me, and it’s not just for his sporting achievements like ‘that’ goal against England.

After my son Ben was born he required some treatment in the Clarke Clinic at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Following this I decided to organise an event to raise funds for the Heartbeat and Tiny Life charities.

David very kindly gave great support to that event, even if it did require a phone call to his then manager Roy Hodgson from Dr Paisley to secure permission for him to break a travel ban on players which had looked like it might prevent him from being able to attend!

LB: Personally I feel we do have a great product here in NI with local football, but we desperately need major investment both in stadium upgrades and training facilities, would you agree and can we expect some soon?

AF: The transformation of Windsor Park is now nearing completion and it has made a huge difference to our national stadium. Undoubtedly improvements to other grounds across the Province would also make a difference, but with the financial pressures facing the Executive and many competing priorities there are obviously challenges.

LB: Now, as First Minister, and with the subsequent work load involved, do you hope or expect to get to France in June to support Northern Ireland at the Euro Finals?

AF: Yes, like a lot of other people across the country I intend to be in France to cheer on the team.

Since becoming First Minister I have often spoken about my desire to make everyone proud to say they come from Northern Ireland. I can’t claim credit for the success of our football team, but there is no doubt that their achievement in getting to France has boosted Northern Ireland. As a former Economy Minister, however, there are times I wonder just who is going to be left at home to keep the country running during June!

LB: Do you have any other favourite sports that really catch your imagination?

AF: I am a rugby fan, and can be found quite regularly at the Kingspan Stadium cheering on Ulster.

LB: Would you be a ‘feet up’ Match of the Day fan on a Saturday night it time permitted?  Finally, can you give a short summary on Sport in NI. AF: I’m definitely a ‘feet up’ person on a Saturday night, and invariably Match of the Day will be on the TV, but it won’t necessarily have been me who has put it on!

I’m a fan of Strictly, so I get to control the channel when its on though.

I keep a close eye on local sports, particularly because I know how much dedication and effort it takes to keep all those clubs across the country running. I think sport here is hugely important and sports clubs are the hub of many communities across the Province.

Getting young people involved in sport not only provides great health benefits but it also provides a way for young people to learn how to deal with competition and how to cope with both winning and losing.

(Summary): I am always intrigued by just how some of our leading politicians view sport, and indeed if they share my view that sport makes such a magnificent contribution to this wee country that we all love and adore.

Given the fact that Arlene Foster has just recently been elected leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland will undoubtedly have landed her with an incredible workload, so for Arlene to take the necessary time to commit to my column in such an enthusiastic fashion is very much appreciated.

What pleases me even more so is the fact that Arlene still intends to find the time to make the journey to France this coming June to cheer on Northern Ireland in the European Championship Finals.

Well done, and thanks for your contribution.