The Quite Big Interview - Jim Boyce

JIM Boyce, the charismatic former president of the Irish Football Association, was born on March 21, 1944. He grew up on the Oldpark Road in north Belfast. His parents, Hetty and Jim, owned a butcher's shop in Sandy Row. He has one sister called Linda.

After leaving Belfast High School he worked for the Nationwide Building Society, where he met his wife Hazel. In 1967 he joined Sun Life Assurance, becoming manager eight years later. He worked there for another 25 years, before taking early retirement.

Jim's love of football began at seven years of age when he became a ball boy at local club Cliftonville. He became a fanatic since those first matches and has been heavily involved in and committed to football over the past 58 years. He has brought some of the most glamorous football teams in the world to Northern Ireland, including France after the 1998 World Cup.

In 1978 Jim was appointed vice-chairman of Cliftonville, a position he held for 10-and-a-half years. He was then chairman of the club from 1988 to 1998. In his last season Cliftonville won the Irish League title for the first time in over 70 years. He is now an honorary vice-president of Cliftonville Football Club.

Jim was appointed to the Irish Football Association council in 1982. He then served on various committees for both the Irish League and the Irish Football Association before being appointed as vice-president of the association in June 1994. He was then elected as president of the Irish Football Association in May 1995 and held the position for 12 memorable years before stepping down in June 2007. He has continued to be a faithful ambassador for Northern Ireland and has been awarded with the exclusive title and position of Irish Football Association honorary life president. In 2011 he will become FIFA's British vice-president.

Cricket is another of Jim's passions. He captained Belfast High School cricket team, and then Belfast High School Old Boys for many years. He became Ballymena captain in 1974.

He was a member of the Northern Cricket Union for 41 years and recently was made an honorary life member. He was also in the Irish Cricket Union executive committee for 18 of those years and was manager of the Ireland under-19 team in Denmark in 1981, Holland in 1983 and Bermuda in 1985.

Jim lives in Greenisland with his wife Hazel. He has two daughters, Joanne and Lisa, and recently became a grandfather to Sophia.

What is your earliest memory of childhood and what sort of childhood did you have?

I suffered badly from asthma as a child – that stayed with me until I was about 14. I remember having many, many nights with asthma attacks. Other than that, probably my first memory is that holiday in Blackpool (see photograph) when I was five.

I remember growing up on the Oldpark Road and having a lot of friends. The other memory was getting the 11-plus and obviously being ecstatic when I found out I was going to grammar school.

I had a very happy childhood. I owe an awful lot to both my parents who brought me up exceptionally well. We were a very close-knit family and I hope that upbringing from my parents has held me in good stead today through my own marriage.

What subjects were you top and bottom of in the class in?

I always seemed to get good marks for English. I did reasonably well in maths. I had no interest in geography or languages. But if I had realised what was going to happen to me in later life I certainly would have paid more attention to languages – especially French. That is a big regret. I have been very fortunate during my lifetime to see places that I would never have dreamt of seeing. There are only four countries in the whole of Europe that I have not visited (Albania, the Faroe Islands, Georgia and Kazakhstan).

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I remember when I was leaving Belfast High School the headmaster saying to me: 'Jim, the one thing you have is the gift of the gab'. I would have loved a job in media but I probably had the next-best thing because I had a job where I was continually meeting the public. In my sporting life that has meant a lot to me as well, because I have made many friends throughout the world.

You have had a life-long love affair with Cliftonville Football Club, tell us about that?

For about 20 years I never missed a Cliftonville football match. I remember them being beaten 10-0 and 11-0, because for most of those years Cliftonville finished bottom of the Irish League and had to seek re-election every year. So, I can't say it was for being successful – it wasn't. Cliftonville was my club. I lived near the ground and I hope I'll be there until the day I die.

To this day, no matter where I am I always check the results and I always try to get home from wherever I am to go to the game.

Cliftonville are through to the final of the Irish Cup. They have not won it in a long time. What would it mean to you if they lifted the cup this season?

It would be tremendous for the club. To win the final would mean a lot financially. It would also mean another stint in Europe. We are the only Irish League club at the minute that have appeared in all of the European competitions – the Inter Toto Cup, the UEFA Cup and the Champions' League. I don't think another club has played in all three of these competitions.

Your cricketing career was interrupted in the 1970s when you were involved in a bomb explosion?

Belfast High School Old Boys were breaking up in 1970 and I joined Ballymena. I was very badly injured at the end of 1971. On my second wedding anniversary I was involved in a bomb explosion in Bedford House, where I worked. I walked through the front door and a car bomb went off. My leg was broken in three places and I was in plaster for 10 months. When the plaster came off my leg was shrivelled up, but I was determined that I was going to play cricket again.

I owe a debt of gratitude to Freddie Jardine, 85, who was the physio at Cliftonville Football Club then and is still there to this day. After church on a Sunday morning or when the team trained, Freddie would have worked with my leg. I missed the whole of the 1972 season but I was able to play cricket again in 1973 and I became captain of Ballymena in 1974 when we were in the third division. I was captain for four years and Ballymena came up all the leagues. For the first time in our history we got into Section One and in 1974 we were still the only Section Three team that reached a Northern Cricket Union final.

If you had to choose between cricket and football, which would you opt for?

They are very much equal loves, but many times when I'm at home watching the television and the cricket and football are on, I would turn over to cricket. TV has added a lot to football, but personally I think at times, there's over-coverage. It's reached saturation point. But without football, I would never have had the opportunity of doing what I have done.

Who is the greatest footballer you have met in person?

I suppose that it would have to be Pele. But I was also very honoured when I was asked to become a trustee of the George Best Foundation and obviously from a local point of view I still feel that George Best was possibly, probably, the greatest player ever to come out of Northern Ireland. But I would have to say that I think Pat Jennings wasn't very far behind in his goalkeeping.

What do you think of the salaries that professional footballers are paid?

I think the Premier League is the best league in the world, but I think the salaries at the moment are totally obscene.

What English team do you support?

I don't. When I was training for my job I had to spend nine months in Liverpool and I got home every three weeks. One Saturday I would have gone to Anfield and the other Saturday I would have gone to Goodison. I thought the atmosphere at Anfield was incredible and I suppose because I had such an enjoyable time there, I suppose that I would still like to see Liverpool playing well. But I couldn't honestly say I've a passion for any particular team.

What do you think of the current Northern Ireland team?

I think they have a lot of very, very good players. It is also very nice that there are some very good young players coming through. One of my biggest disappointments was when Lawrie Sanchez decided to leave and join Fulham. I honestly believe that had he stayed we would have had a wonderful chance of reaching the European finals. The defeats in Latvia and Iceland were obviously very costly, but I am delighted to see Nigel Worthington now appears to have got the team playing well again and it would be wonderful for all the supporters and all the people of Northern Ireland, and myself included, if we could reach the World Cup finals. But I have to be very realistic. We have three games to go. I think there is an awful lot of hype being built up at the moment regarding this because there are four countries still in very serious contention and Northern Ireland do not have a great away record, so to achieve it I think we need to win two of our last three games at least.

Where do you think the national stadium should be built?

I believe Northern Ireland needs a new stadium where we can be very proud to bring people to. I never really got involved in the debate as to where it should be. I think it would have been a wonderful thing for Northern Ireland if a stadium had been built where all three sports could have played together. Obviously that is now not going to happen, but I do hope that the best decision is reached.

The one thing that has disappointed me about the delay is that I have a letter from FIFA and the Brazilian president, saying that had the stadium come to be they would have come to Northern Ireland and opened it. To bring Brazil anywhere would cost in excess of 1 million and with what we have at the moment we simply could not attract these big countries because they do command a large fee. I still feel that Northern Ireland needs a stadium with capacity for 22-25,000 to attract these type of countries. We cannot afford to pay their fees with crowds of 12-13,000.

What's the best goal you have ever seen?

The most memorable goal is probably a better way to put it. I was very fortunate to be in Valencia in 1982 when the streets were lined with thousands of Spaniards for the Spain v Northern Ireland game. Probably the most memorable moment was the goal that Gerry Armstrong scored to take Northern Ireland to the quarter-finals of the World Cup.

There was one other very memorable moment and that was at Wembley. This wasn't a goal, but we played England at Wembley in 1985 and we needed to draw to go to the finals in Mexico and with two minutes to go – and this is vividly in my memory because I was sitting behind the goals – there was this magnificent save by Pat Jennings. Had we lost that night we were out of the World Cup and he pulled off what I consider to be an absolutely phenomenal save and we then went to Mexico.

Locally, the goal that Tony Bell scored for Cliftonville to win the Irish Cup in 1979 will also be in my memory forever.

If you could put together your 'dream team' – 11 players, dead or alive – who would be in it?

Pat Jennings, George Best, Pele, Michel Platini, Franz Beckenbauer, Bobby Charlton, Ronaldo, Ferenc Puskas, Maradonna, Bobby Moore and Johann Cruyff.

Who do you think was the greatest manager of all time?

Sir Alex Ferguson. What that man has achieved will never be achieved again.

What is your favourite Northern Ireland strip of all time?

I'm a traditionalist and like the shirts that we are currently wearing which is green, white and green and for a change strip white, green, white.

There have been other shirts, but personally I believe we should play in our national team colours.

What have been the highs of your career?

The highs included becoming president of the Irish Football Association, which was a great honour to hold for 12 years, both at home and abroad. Although I am no longer president I consider it a great honour to have been made the honorary life president of the Irish Football Association and I understand that while I am alive that honour will not be bestowed on anyone else.

As to the future, it was also a great honour when two years ago it was decided, that if God spares me, in two years' time I will become the British vice-president of FIFA for a four-year term.

I have been fortunate in that I have represented FIFA on their disciplinary committee for 10 years. I've been a match commissioner for both FIFA and UEFA and still currently am. I've also been vice-chairman and chairman of the UEFA Under-21 youth committee.

And the lows?

On a local level, many of the political situations that football unfortunately got caught up in over the years of the Troubles.

The other disappointment I have is that after serving for 12 years with the IFA I felt a little bit betrayed by what happened at the AGM. As I have said many times, if people had come to my face and had said to me: 'Jim, we feel that after 12 years it's time for a change', I would have made that very easy for them. Although people never said anything adverse about me, I still was very hurt that night at the way it was done. But that's over. It's part of my past.

With hindsight what do you think about the decision to bring in Howard Wells as chief executive of the IFA?

David Bowen did an excellent job as the secretary of the Irish Football Association. The Government put a gun to the heads of people in the IFA saying that 8 million for football would only be available under certain conditions and one of them was that the IFA advertised a position of chief executive, which they had never had before.

Despite my best efforts this was a decision of the IFA to accept the Government conditions. Personally, I worked with Howard Wells for two-and-a-half years while he was there and I feel that he did many good things for the IFA. We had our differences of opinion at times, but I was the sort of person who tried to sort out differences of opinion in a private manner and what has happened since I left the presidency of the IFA I do not wish to comment on because I have no part in what is now a legal case.

What is your favourite book?

I am not a reader of books. I read a lot of travel, cricket and football magazines. I don't have the patience to sit down and read books.

Do you remember the first record you ever bought?

It was Pat Boon singing Love letters In The Sand. Three years ago my wife and I went to see him playing in the National Concert Hall in Dublin. He was brilliant.

During my childhood, and still to this day, I was a great fan of the Irish showbands – people like Dickie Rock and Red Hurley. I could listen to that music all day.

When were you happiest?

It would have to be my wedding day. I am delighted to say that after 40 years we have two lovely children and we've now got a grandchild. I wouldn't change my wife for anything. I've been very lucky that we have had a very happy marriage.

And saddest?

First of all the death of my mum in 1989 and then the death of my dad in 1997.

Pet hates?

Political bickering, bigotry and sectarianism. I think people should realise that they only have one chance in life. To have seen the destruction, the murders and the people who have lost their lives over many years is something that I condemn outright.