Football in the Compounds: Reminiscences of a Hankie Ball Player

Beano Niblock with a piece from Long Kesh Inside Out about jail soccer. Beano Niblock is a former loyalist prisoner who is now a playwright, poet and blogger.
There was no Queens Park Strangers.  Certainly no Borrussia Munching Barnbrack.  And definitely no Real Madrid Street.  What we did have was Compound 21  … or 16 ... or 18B … and the immortals — at least in their own minds – 19A.  In Magilligan, because compounds were given letters instead of numerals we had, on occasions AA playing against CB ... or HB up against FA .  The Crumlin Road set-up was different again - less formalised football meant no leagues against other wings.  So it may have been landing against landing or just 2 teams made up from within whatever particular Wing being occupied at any one time.  In the early days football was a very haphazard affair.

You got it infrequently and there was little or no organisation involved.  Basically two teams were picked to play and it was more about getting out of the compound  ... sometimes in order to visit someone else at the wire.  There were always good players of course.  Some would have been known from outside before their incarceration.  As time moved on and football did become an important factor in jail life then of course it became more serious.  Too serious at times.
If someone was in remand who had a reputation of being a good footballer there was an effort from the different camps within the Kesh-or Magilligan-to get him in to a certain compound.  Now and again a mix would have been put in though and someone who was rumoured to be the next Charlie George and eagerly waited on turned out to be more like Charlie Drake when it came to football.  It was around 1976 that the soccer became a big thing in Long Kesh.  This was the year of the first inter-compound football tournament.
In Magilligan a similar venture had been in place from late 75.  Four Loyalist compounds -2 UDA and 2 UVF - formed 8 teams and played a league.  It was ultra competitive and had a record number of sending-offs.  The four elected sports reps - 1 from each compound, myself included-took up the refereeing duties and this was a job in itself.  A bookie - in fact a number of them was in place in Magilligan - and this too made for some very combative and spirited encounters.  If I’m not mistaken the A team from Compound A - UVF - won that first tournament, finishing ahead of E compound's first team - UDA - and they had a number of good players in the team.
Some of those who spring to mind from the victorious A team were Bobby Rodgers, Victor Thompson, Rab McIntyre - who had been for trials at Old Trafford - and Davy Barr who had been with a number of Irish League clubs including Portadown.  The other cages held other good players: Shane Hamilton (Chico ) and Guffer Liggett out of E, Danny Black and a couple of Rathcoole guys from Compound C and Jim Rossborough – a rumbustious and marauding centre forward out of H.  If this inaugural tournament was a success the initial one in the confines of Long Kesh was less so.
After many months of wrangling between the jail authorities and the representatives from the compounds the go ahead was given to commence.  Barely minutes into the first game in which the pre tournament favourites were playing each other - 19 against 16 — UVF against UDA — a deliberate tackle broke a player's leg and the game was hastily abandoned — as was the league. 
Although inter compound football continued in Magilligan until it’s closure in October 1977 it would be a long time before the idea was resurrected in Long Kesh.  In Magillgan in particular — perhaps because many of the matches were being bet on — there was a great interest from outsiders.  It wasn’t unusual to see the pitch ringed with a large number of screws — who of course would have had their own bets running — or indeed the IRA prisoners — lined along either D compound wire or along the fence of the other pitch - F.
Eventually it did kick off again and although there was the usual problems it never got out of control and by and large it was quite successful.  Spectator numbers were limited in an attempt to quell potential trouble and the notion that the next major incident could stop the mixed soccer for good seemed to work.
The truth is there was only a few inter compound leagues or cups in total and dwindling numbers — people getting out and the advent of the H Blocks which stopped others coming to the cages - meant that no longer could compounds field 2 teams.  By the time the mid eighties came around each compound was dependent on recruiting other players from different compounds to make the numbers up, otherwise the football would have ceased completely.
I played football behind many walls and wires in a “career” that stretched from 1973 until early 1990.  Many a professional would have been proud of that or the fact that conservatively those of us who served a heavy sentence and played an average of 2 games a week — every week-would have racked up around 1500 appearances!!  Some going on all weather pitches — and many of us still have the scars and bumps-bruises and limps to show for it.  There was many hankie ball players but very few prima donnas in those days.  The stick would have been too much to take. 
Magilligan led in many ways by supplying us with good quality kits and on occasions the proper balls.  For a long while Long Kesh trailed behind in this department and many of the kits were threadbare .. hand me downs and distinctly second rate.  Boots were almost nonexistent for many years and unless you had your own sent in you were reduced to playing in trainers—old fashioned gutties—or at the start of proceedings just whatever you had.  Eventually, after many years the jail started supplying cheap Mitre boots and these became like gold dust.  They also went missing quite a bit so became much sought and looked after items. They also at one time supplied a brand of “trainer” that I believe were manufactured in D Wing in the Crum, and these were deadly.  They were the nearest thing you could get to a steel toe capped trainer and a hefty boot on the shin with one was sure to put you out of action for the next few matches.
Despite all these obvious drawbacks - manufactured or otherwise - many’s a good player graced the — well not turf — but the hard core of Long Kesh.  It is impossible to remember let alone mention them all but there are quite a few stick out in my mind.  Everyone will have a particular favourite and always with good reason.  There was the stylish players — the ball players — the Hardmen — the psycho’s who thought nothing of slide tackling on the gravel — or the goalkeepers who had to be mad to dive full length on basically concrete.  Then there was the dribblers — the selfish players — one’s it was rumoured you would need a Board paper to receive a pass from — the dry weather players — the ones who were legends in their own mind.  There was huffers-and puffers and slabbers and wasters.  There was strokers and jokers and big girls blouses.  There was dead eye dicks and those who couldn’t hit a cow on the arse with a banjo.  But to all those who crossed the line thanks for all the memories. 
I recently conducted a wee straw poll.  Contacted between thirty and forty ex prisoners — those fortunate enough to still be alive — and asked a simple question: “Who was the best player you seen in prison”  To me the result wasn’t surprising.  I knew a lot of different names would crop up - and they did.  I knew a couple of names would appear near the top — and they did. Not surprisingly.  In the end only a vote or two separated two great footballers.  I was lucky enough to play with-and against-both.  One for far longer than I would have liked ... but that’s life.
The person who finished top of the pile in this particular poll was Geordie McKimm.  Geordie was only there for a couple of years but whilst he was he stood out head and shoulders.  In modern day football he would be called a box to box man — he was a fantastic passer of the ball ... great vision and could basically do what he wanted with the ball.  He was only a young man-20/21 and extremely fit.  A worthy winner I feel. 
Only a vote or two behind was Jimbo Tipping.  Jim was a Shankill Road man and had passed through Magilligan before arriving in Compound 19.  It’s no exaggeration to say that Jimbo was one of the best strikers of the ball I have ever seen.  When he hit them they stayed hit.  In the end it was hard to get goalkeepers for the other team when Jimbo was playing!!  Jim was strong — six foot plus — and a great header of the ball.  He had a superb all round game and for want of a better word was extremely “competitive”.  These two were comfortably clear of the rest of the field in the poll.
There were many other mentions but I would prefer to do is pick the eleven players who I think would make up the best team ... going by the many hundreds of players I played with or against during my time behind the wire.  It is a personal opinion and is not definitive – neither right or wrong.  I stand to be challenged and would welcome some debate on it.  So here goes.  11 men ... no subs.
Eddie Martin. Former goalkeeping apprentice at Notts County and went on to play for 5 Irish League club as a striker.
Rab. McCreery.  Glentoran legend.  His brother Paul was also a smashing player, but no room for him in this team.
Clifford Healey.  Powerful centre half ... very aggressive and unbeatable in the air.
Victor Thompson.  Assured and steady ... could play as stopper or sweeper.
Cliff Whiteside.  Classy full back-great left foot and impossible to get past.
Bobby Rodgers.  Two footed—Good in the air for a small man-and great goal scorer.
Jimbo Tipping.
Geordie McKimm.
Shane Hamilton.  Hard to get the ball off ... good passer and fantastic ball skills.
Colin McCurdy.  Colin went on to play for Linfield, Fulham and Northern Ireland.  Great athlete and super finisher.
Sammy Frickleton.  Sammy was a Scotsman I remember from the Crum. He had played for Ballymena before imprisonment and went on to play for East Fife and Sligo Rovers — despite having a large King Billy tattoo on his chest!!
  • The poll also included some ex Block men and the names put forward there included Noel Large and the aforementioned Guffer Liggett.



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