The Best ever

George Best was the Belfast boy with magic feet. Best by name, best by nature, his artistry on the football field was simply mesmerising.

The first celebrity footballer, the subject of songs, plays and films, this global sporting icon was arguably the greatest footballer of all time. To this day he still stands head and shoulders above most of the rest.

In six magical seasons with Manchester United, Best scored 179 goals, including six in one game, and won the European Cup and two First Division titles. He played 37 times for Northern Ireland, practically beating Scotland on his own on one memorable occasion.

Born in east Belfast, as a boy Best played football on the fields in the centre of Cregagh housing estate. They are still there, and the George Best Trail can help you discover his early influences and how he honed his talent. The house he grew up in can also be rented out on a self-catering basis.

Northern Ireland came to a standstill at Best’s funeral in 2005, with tens of thousands lining the streets to pay homage to their homespun footballing hero.

Jumping to jockey greatness

The greatest jump jockey of all time, AP McCoy rode over 4,300 winners in a career that saw him re-write racing’s history books.

In a physically punishing sport, the level of sustained success McCoy attained was previously considered impossible. Only one other jockey has ridden more than 2,000 winners and no other jockey has ridden 3,000. It is unlikely his 4,000 + feat will ever be repeated.

McCoy became Champion Jockey 20 times in a row, every year he had been a professional. He won the Grand National once, the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, and the Champion Hurdle three times, to name just a few of his big race wins.

Hailing from Moneyglass in County Antrim, the racing superstar was renowned for his drive, determination and desire to win. In 2010, he was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, becoming the first ever jockey to win the award, and in 2016 he was knighted, only the second jockey ever to receive the title.

King of the road

The name of Joey Dunlop is among the most revered in world motorsport, and as one of Northern Ireland’s favourite sons he remains a folk hero in his homeland.

One of the most exciting motorcycle riders the sport has ever seen, Dunlop drew huge crowds to the race tracks, where his triumphs included five consecutive Formula 1 World Championships, 26 Isle of Man TTs, 13 North West 200 wins and 24 Ulster Grand Prix victories.

He earned an MBE for his motorcycle racing and an OBE in recognition of his charity work for children in Eastern Europe.

Joey tragically lost his life while racing in Estonia in 2000. At his funeral in Ballymoney, an estimated 60,000 people from across the world came to pay their respects.

Joey's brother, Robert, also won Ulster, Irish and British motorcycle championships, including five wins at the Isle of Man TT, nine at the Ulster Grand Prix and 15 at the North West 200.

Robert too was tragically killed, during a qualifying session for the North West 200 in 2008. His son Michael insisted on riding in the same race only two days later. In one of the most thrilling and emotionally charged moments in Irish sporting history, Michael won the race for his dad.

The Dunlop legacy can be explored in Ballymoney through memorial gardens dedicated to the racing legends, and Joey’s Bar, a mecca for motorcycle pilgrims, especially when the North West 200 is on. 

 

Major golfing greats

 

A huge amount of Northern Ireland’s sporting pride come in golf, where our record is the envy of the world.

Seven major titles have been brought back home to date, an astonishing record for such a small country.

Global sporting superstar and four-time major winner Rory McIlroy leads the major-winning pack. In 2014 he won The Open Championship, sealing his place in history alongside Jack Nicklaus and Tiger woods as the only players to win their third major by the age of 25.

Rory’s is celebrated at his home course of Holywood Golf Club, where a special area displays lots of his golfing memorabilia, early photographs and even a replica of the US Open and USPGA trophies. If he’s home, you might see him pottering around the club house or the Holywood’s cafés and gym.

Revered Northern Ireland golfing son, Darren Clarke, has many pro tour wins to his name including The Open in 2011. Clarke, who also captained Europe's Ryder Cup team in 2016, nurtured his talent at Dungannon Golf Club, an excellent parkland course, where the ninth hole is named after him.

Winner of the 2010 US Open, Portrush man Graeme McDowell is affectionately known as ‘G-Mac’. He learned to play on the Valley Course at Rathmore, the club that shares the world-famous links of Royal Portrush, venue for The Open in 2019. G-Mac famously held his nerve in the final match to secure the Ryder Cup for Europe in 2010.

The first Northern Irishman to win a major was the late, great Fred Daly. He won The Open in 1947 while a pro at Balmoral Golf Club, one of Belfast’s top parkland courses. The club still runs an annual pro-am in his honour. 

Read more about Northern Ireland's golfing legends and the courses where they honed their talents here

The golden girl

Mary Peters became the darling of Northern Ireland forever after clinching a gold medal in the women's pentathlon from the 1972 Olympic Games, held in Munich.

It was the last attempt for the 33-year-old to grab gold at a major championship. In doing so she narrowly beat the hotly-tipped German favourite and set a new world record.

An open-top lorry ferried Mary, now dubbed ‘the golden girl’, through the rapturous streets of Belfast on her return. She was appointed an MBE that year, a CBE in 1990 and a Dame in 2000.

The athletics venue in the outskirts of Belfast is called the Mary Peters Track in her honour. 

Top-flight football managers

They may all be cut from the same cloth of small Northern Ireland towns, yet Michael O'Neill, Martin O’Neill, Brendan Rodgers and Neill Lennon are showing they are a cut above in the upper echelons of the beautiful game.

Portadown-born Michael O'Neill is manager of the Northern Ireland international team. The County Armagh man inspired the team to 2016 UEFA European Championship qualification for the first time ever, then took them on to the knock-out stages.

O'Neill played for number of clubs in England, Scotland and the US, achieving 31 caps for Northern Ireland. Before becoming the team’s manager, he led Shamrock Rovers to two League of Ireland titles and the Setanta Cup.

Be among the famous green and white army at Windsor Park on match day to feel the unbelievable mood his team generates in the stadium.

Carnlough might have shone in HBO blockbuster Game of Thrones, but the real local star is Brendan Rodgers. After taking Swansea into the Premiership the County Antrim man moved to the Liverpool manager's job, taking the team to the brink of the title in 2014. He now manages Scottish Premiership team, Celtic FC.

Martin O’Neill hails from Kilrea in County Londonderry and first made his name as a player with Nottingham Forest. He was also capped 64 times for the Northern Ireland team. O’Neill moved into management in 1987, successfully guiding several top English teams and Scottish champions Celtic.

His success brought him to the attention of the Republic of Ireland team and he became their manager in 2013. He led them to qualify for the 2016 UEFA European Championship and to a memorable win over world champions Germany.

Lurgan son Neil Lennon now manages Scottish Premiership side Hibernians. He previously enjoyed significant success as a player with several English clubs and with Scottish side Celtic as both player and manager. He led Celtic to three Scottish league championships, two Scottish Cups and qualification for the group stage of the Champions League twice.

Knock-out boxers

The achievements of Northern Ireland’s boxers rank among the very best in the world and their exploits and courage have fostered immense local pride.

Carl Frampton
Carl ‘The Jackal’ Frampton is one of the world’s leading professional boxers. Since turning pro in 2009, he quickly climbed the ranks to make history as the first Northern Irish fighter to win a world title in two weight divisions.

From Belfast’s Tigers Bay and endearingly down to earth, Frampton started boxing at the age of nine and was spotted by Irish boxing legend Barry McGuigan, who has guided and mentored him through his professional career.

He was awarded an MBE in 2016 for services to boxing and the community.

Wayne McCullough

Wayne McCullough, one of the most successful Irish boxers of all time, was dubbed ‘Pocket Rocket’ because of his incredible work rate.

A gifted amateur, the Belfast-born warrior won gold at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and a silver at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Under the wing of legendary American trainer Eddie Futch, just two and half years into his pro career McCullough won the WBC World Championship – beating the incumbent in his own backyard in Nagoya, Japan.

Never knocked down or stopped by a fighter as a professional, McCullough had one of the best chins in boxing.

Barry McGuigan

Charismatic fighter Barry McGuigan was from the border town of Clones in County Monaghan who delivered one of the most memorable nights in British boxing history.

On a hot summer’s night in June 1985, over 26,000 fans packed out a London football stadium to see McGuigan capture world title glory. He beat the titleholder of seven year’s standing to take the crown of WBA Featherweight Champion on points over 15 rounds.

The ‘Clones Cyclone’ was seen not just as a supreme fighter but a popular figure who united Northern Ireland's communities. He was voted the BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 1985, and 20 years later received another world accolade when he was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame.

Peter the great

One of the most decorated players in GAA history, they call Peter Canavan the greatest forward of his generation, if not the greatest footballer.

He captained the Tyrone team that won their first ever All-Ireland championship in September 2003, the realisation of a dream cherished by generations of Red Hand followers. Canavan was the championship's top scorer with 1-48.

In a glittering senior career, he played 16 years on the inter-county scene, winning two All-Ireland titles, four Ulster Championships, two League titles and six GAA all-star awards, more than any other Ulster player and joint third overall. 

Swimming sensation

 

Bethany Firth. Photo credit to ParalympicsGB 

Swimming sensation Bethany Firth was Northern Ireland’s hero of the 2016 Rio Paralympics.

The Seaforde, County Down girl became Britain's most decorated athlete in Rio, bringing home three gold medals and one silver, clocking up two world and a Paralympic record in the process.

The 20-year-old won gold in the 100m backstroke, 200m freestyle and 200m individual medley. Silver came in the 100m breaststroke.

Firth, who competes in the S14 classes for competitors with an intellectual impairment, became the only the fifth female Paralympian to claim a trio of gold medals at a single games. No male Paralympian has ever achieved this distinction.

Renowned rugby men

Photo credit: John Dickson at Dickson Digital.

Northern Ireland’s rugby players perform at the very top of the sport, with Ulster, with Ireland, with the British and Irish Lions and with the vocal support from loyal and passionate fans.

Belfast rocks when Ulster are playing at the Kingspan Stadium and local support for the team are key ingredients in the make-up of Northern Ireland.

Modern players
Top figures of the game today include Darren Cave, Chris Henry, Tommy Bowe, Paddy Jackson, Andrew Trimble and Ireland captain Rory Best.

But the talisman for rugby-mad Ulster and Ireland fans is Rory Best, one of just five men to achieve 100 caps for his country and widely regarded as one of the most athletic and inspiring forwards at international level. The County Armagh man’s achievements include leading Ireland to a historic first win over New Zealand. He was part of the Irish teams that won the 2007 Triple Crown and the 2009 Six Nations Championship.

Wing man Andrew Trimble has played over 200 times for Ulster and was named co- captain of the team in 2016. Trimble made his international debut in 2005 and has 69 caps for Ireland.

Past heroes

Rugby greats of yesteryear include three Northern Ireland-born figures who have been inducted into the World Rugby Hall of Fame.

Ulster, Ireland and Lions legend Jack Kyle was a wizard on the pitch. He was to Irish rugby what George Best was to football. The Belfast-born fly-half won 46 caps for Ireland and six for the British and Irish Lions. He forged a formidable reputation as a playmaker of substance and style. Kyle was awarded the OBE in 1959.

The name of Mike Gibson will always be near the top when rugby's finest ever are discussed. Gibson was the most capped player in the world – 69 for Ireland and 12 for the British and Irish Lions – when he retired in 1979 after a 15-year international career. A versatile player, he represented his country in four different positions.

The legendary Willie John McBride played as a lock for Ireland and the British and Irish Lions and completed 63 Tests for Ireland including 11 as captain. The highlight of his achievements was captaining the Lions on their famous unbeaten tour against South Africa in 1974, while leading Ireland to victory in the Five Nations Championship the same year.

Greatest female cyclist

Wendy Houvenaghel, Northern Ireland's greatest female cyclist only took up the sport aged 27. The achievements of the County Londonderry-born cyclist as an international athlete have been immense.

She began her competitive career in 2002 riding road time-trials and within a year became British time-trial champion. She went on to win three World Championships competing for Great Britain in the team pursuit event on the track, then on to silver medals at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi in the individual pursuit. She was also a multiple European and national champion. 

Snooker stars

Legendary snooker player Alex Higgins is widely acknowledged as the man who raised the visibility and popularity of the modern game. His quick, impulsive style of play and his entertaining flamboyance lit up TV screens in the 1970s and 80s. The Belfast man won the World Championship in 1972 aged 22, then returned to the limelight with a second victory in 1982.

One of the most instantly recognised faces in the game, Dennis Taylor will forever be remembered for his epic 1985 World Championship win against Steve Davis. A nervy ‘black ball fight’, it was watched by some 18 million people on TV well after midnight. Taylor is now one of the leading commentators on snooker for BBC Sport. 

Fab footballers

Northern Ireland has produced a long list of some truly fantastic footballers over the years.

Whether it has been the Premier League, Champions League, the Euros or the World Cup, they have graced the highest levels of professional football.

Goalkeepers

Legendary keeper Pat Jennings spent 14 seasons at Tottenham Hotspur before moving to Arsenal for a further eight seasons. He won the FA cup with both. With one-handed saves as his trademark, he played 119 times for Northern Ireland.

Harry Gregg signed for Manchester United for a world record fee in 1957. He was voted goalkeeper of the tournament in the 1958 World Cup, but will forever be remembered for his heroics in Munich, when he helped pull his United teammates from the plane wreckage.

Defenders

Northern Ireland international Jonny Evans made his debut with Manchester United in 2007 and went on to win three Premier League titles, two League Cups and the Club World Cup in eight years at Old Trafford. He now plays for Premiership side West Bromwich Albion.

Aaron Hughes is the most capped outfield player in Northern Ireland footballing history. Currently playing with Scottish Premiership outfit, Heart of Midlothian, he has had a fine career with Newcastle, Aston Villa and Fulham.

The regular right-back of the great Northern Ireland side of the early 80s, Jimmy Nicholl enjoyed a successful career playing clubs such as Manchester United, West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Rangers and Toronto Blizzard. He is now the assistant Northern Ireland manager.


Midfield maestros


Paddy McNair signed for Manchester United in 2011 and made his professional debut for them in the Premier League in 2014. He went on to join Sunderland in 2016.

Clever attacking midfielder Sammy McIlroy was a key player for Northern Ireland under Billy Bingham. He was the last ever signing by legendary Manchester United manager Matt Busby. He scored on his debut against Manchester City.

Midfield genius Danny Blanchflower was pivotal to Tottenham Hotspur’s double-winning side of 1960-61 and central to Northern Ireland’s 1958 World Cup finals performance. He’s regarded as one of Northern Ireland’s greatest players.

Strikers

David Healy scored 36 goals for Northern Ireland, the all-time leading goal scorer record by a considerable distance. His single goal gave Northern Ireland a famous victory over England in 2005. In 2006 an equally famous hat-trick toppled Spain.

Norman Whiteside still holds records as the youngest player to take part in a World Cup, the youngest to score in a League Cup and FA Cup final, and the youngest player to score a senior goal for Manchester United.

Gerry Armstrong was the scorer of probably the most famous goal in Northern Ireland’s history – against Spain in the 1982 World Cup. Over his career he played for Tottenham Hotspur, Watford and Real Mallorca.

One of the great characters of the game, Derek Dougan made a big impact with Wolverhampton Wanderers and other leading English clubs. His goal scoring feats included 222 league goals from 546 games. He was a pall bearer at the funeral of one of his old friends, George Best.

Billy Bingham is probably more well-known as the Northern Ireland manager who guided the side to the World Cup finals in 1982 and 1986. But as a player he won the First Division in 1962-63 with Everton and played in the 1958 World Cup, where Northern Ireland made the quarter-finals. 

Top sporting things to see and do

  • Follow the George Best Trail through the football legend’s humble beginnings in east Belfast
  • Experience the sport of kings at Northern Ireland’s two racecourses, Downpatrick and Down Royal
  • Join the green and white army for the match day party at Windsor Park internationals
  • Spend festival week amid the Northwest 200 motorcycle action
  • Sing your heart out in the electric atmosphere of an Ulster rugby match at Kingspan Stadium
  • Play a round of golf on courses where major winners honed their craft
  • Wonder at Ireland’s ancient sports at a passion-filled GAA game
  • Ride the Gran Fondo and get your photo taken with the Giro d’Italia trophy.

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