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County Down
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One Shot More...Part 23

Monday 29th June 2020

One Shot More...Part 23

Pictured: Sydney Elliott: Long serving Hon. Sec. and player of repute

Comber in 1969

Would you believe that the North Down Rural District Council recommended NO WAITING on either side of Castle Street and High Street and more than a generation later we’re still waiting?

The constant improvements to our roads and housing conditions kept the planners busy and the introduction of the new Strangford Ferry was a welcome boost to the tourism industry and to the locals who had to make regular crossings from Portaferry.

Major JD Chichester Clarke visited Newtownards at a time when 110 ‘B’ Specials resigned and Private Robert Smyth, an 18 year-old member of the 3rd Battalion of the UDR, received a military funeral after he had been murdered near Castlewellan.

Noel Orr took over as headmaster at Regent House with ‘cricket coach’ part of his CV but, like his predecessor James Macdonald, the chances of finding time to actually coach cricket were very limited.

The 2nd Comber Girls ‘Brigade celebrated with a 21st birthday party and celebrations extended to the sporting community, as the Rifle Club undertook a major building programme and, with continued success, took six first places in the Ulster Rifle Association’s Open Full Bore Rifle meeting at Ballykinler.

Ards Football Club held the might of Roma to a scoreless draw at the Oval and then beat Distillery in the Irish Cup final, with all four goals coming from Greyabbey’s Billy McAvoy, a Cliftonville Cricket Club supporter in later years.

Ards Rugby Club won the Towns’ Cup and was soon to celebrate the opening of Hamilton Park with a new clubhouse and three new pitches, while North Down Hockey Club climbed back into senior hockey after topping the Qualifying League.

The Annual Sportsman’s Service was held in St Mary’s Parish Church with Michael Crooks, one of North of Ireland’s finest cricketers, a special guest and at which the Rector Hamilton Leckey spoke of the sad loss of James Macdonald.

Comber played its part in the ‘Ulster 71’ Festival; the hockey club played a President’s XI, a junior table tennis championship took place and Comber Rec. played Glentoran in one of a number of football features. There was also a round the houses pram race and an Army Cadet display. The culmination to a busy week was a youth parade and service in the Andrews Memorial Hall.

 The Spinning Mill continued to be the town’s major employer, but it was a tough industry and many people commuted to Belfast and Newtownards for work. Comber was a busy little town but it had retained much of its village character. However, all that was about to change in the 1970s when the Troubles were at their worst and more and more people fled the city for a quieter environment.

 

Ulster in the Seventies

The carefree Sixties gave way to a more sinister movement in Ulster when republican supporters infiltrated peaceful Civil Rights marches and within a few years Belfast, Londonderry, Newry and Dungannon were known worldwide for some of the more barbarous acts of inhumanity imaginable. Normal everyday life was changed for the next 30 years and when the army came in to support the beleaguered police force, the civil atrocities got worse not better.

The Ulster economy suffered badly and the social life of the province was almost brought to a standstill, as no one travelled after dark unless with good cause.

In the midst of this unparalleled violence, some sporting moments united a divided community and when Mary Peters won the pentathlon gold medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics everyone celebrated a true sporting hero. But it was a rare glimpse of hope and, just as quickly, it was back to violence the day after.

Dame Mary Peters, gold medallist in Munich 1972

Direct rule from Westminster was inevitable but the cricket spin-off was a series of cricketing Secretaries of State at Stormont in Willie Whitelaw, Tom King and Nicholas Scott.

The decent people of Ulster got on with their lives despite the conflict and sport set a shining example in its resilience and never-say-die attitude to the terrorists. Every sport suffered, and sadly many sportsmen and women lost their lives in senseless killings and bombings, but life went on because everyone believed it would end.

Unfortunately, nobody knew it would take another three decades and more than 4,000 people would lose their lives on the way.

Cricket in the Troubles

Cricket suffered badly during the Troubles. Visiting teams from ‘across the water’ stopped coming and games were called off when travelling to potentially hazardous areas. The whole culture of cricket changed and the much-enjoyed after-match analysis in the bar, so much a part of the enjoyment of the game, no longer happened, as teams wanted to make the homeward journey in daylight.

Club pavilions and grounds were regularly vandalised, bombed or burnt out and innocent individuals assaulted or, in the case of several of our cricketers, killed while in the course of their daily work.

The administrators of Irish cricket, and particularly those in the NCU and North West, dealt with many sensitive issues and did it with understanding and compassion. Despite the security issues the inter-provincial Guinness Cup fixtures were fulfilled and the Combined Services played Ireland at Beechgrove in 1970, the last of the big matches in Londonderry during the Seventies.

Scotland played at Ormeau in 1970 but it would be eight more years before Ireland would play in Belfast.

The administrators switched the NCU and North West cup finals to more country venues at Downpatrick and Eglinton after arson and bombing attacks at Ormeau and Beechgrove.

During this time Queen’s University, Post Office, Lurgan, Portadown, Sion Mills, City of Derry, Brigade, Cliftonville and Instonians suffered greatly when the Troubles escalated and the Belfast Cricket League, a long-standing institution catering for many small and enthusiastic Belfast clubs, folded in 1972 after 70 years in existence.

Unique amongst clubs was the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the RUC, which amazingly survived through the dark days of the Seventies.

Many cricketers and their families were caught up in the Troubles but, thankfully, North Down, due principally to its rural location, remained free from the worst of the civil unrest.

In the midst of this civil mayhem the NCU settled a 50 year-old dispute between the seniors and the juniors and amalgamated both committees in 1975. Our own Jim Barry was the last chairman of the Junior Committee and then became a divisional chairman for many years after the restructure.

Waringstown was the club of the period winning eight of  the 11 Senior Challenge Cup finals and the same number of Senior League titles, sharing the league twice in 1970 and 1971.

Ups and Downs at The Green

The Sixties ended on a sad note with the deaths of James Macdonald and Gerry Spence, but there was hope on the horizon as many younger members joined the club during the Seventies and North Down started to come alive.

Jim Barry was a ‘no frills’ straightforward chairman who led a vibrant committee with plenty of experience.  It included Raymond Crosby, Willie Dempster, Robert Rowan and JLO Andrews as club trustees, Willie Watt, a former 1st XI captain, Robert Foley and James Burgess represented the supporters and business interests, while Billy Artt, Jimmy Boucher, Adrian Thompson, Sydney Elliott, Roy Thompson, Wesley Graham and Alan Reid were experienced cricketers sprinkled throughout the teams.  Youth had its representation through Hammie Mills and Ian Shields, while the Reverend Hamilton Leckey was the quiet, counselling voice of reason when required!

1970 1st XI

Back Willie Dempster, Geoffrey Dempster, George Norris, Willie Wilson, Walter Wishart, Roy Thompson

Front: Paul Gilliland, Billy Artt, Malciolm Campbell, Ian Shields,

1979 League Champions

Back: John Patton (Scorer), Brian Patton, Ken Campbell, Brian Johnston, Lawrence Hunter, Denis Artt, Eddie Doherty (President)

Front: Ian Shields, Robin Haire, Jimmy Galeay, Syd Elliott (Captain), Jim Barry (Chairman),  Geoffrey Dempster, Jack McMillan, Garson Mowat

Roy Thompson’s crucial period as secretary, from the mid-sixties to 1973, saw the club begin to blossom. He was actively involved in promoting the club at every level and played for both the first and second elevens as a batsman and wicketkeeper.  He was a natural motivator and brought enthusiasm and energy to his various roles, encouraging and supporting the hard work being carried out with the boys’ teams and bringing teams like the Pedagogues to Comber for midweek cricket.

Roy Thompson - key figure in the resurrection of the club

The treasurer in the early roller coaster years was the versatile Adrian Thompson, a high order 1st XI batsman, a useful medium pace bowler and a capable stand-in wicketkeeper, before Raymond Crosby took over the treasurer duties in 1972.

Adrian Thompson - talented natural sportsman

North Down 1st XI had done enough in 1968 by finishing second to return to senior cricket, albeit Senior League Two the following year and for the first time in a decade there was real optimism at The Green.

Despite a preliminary round exit from the Challenge Cup in 1969, to Cliftonville by 61 runs, morale was good with the enthusiastic and capable Billy Artt as captain. Billy had the experienced Walter Wishart and Willie Dempster to call on plus the youth of George Norris and Adrian Thompson in the bowling department. A fine all round sportsman in his own right he was a dashing motivating skipper who led by example, scoring plenty of runs. His opening partner was the prolific Malcolm Campbell and the promise of Paul Gilliland and Ian Shields gave grounds for great optimism.

 

George Norris, Paul Gilliland, Geoffrey Dempster and Billy Artt

Paul, cousin of John Gilliland, was a fine player with pure natural ability whose short stay at the club in the early Seventies produced some spectacular innings, including a polished 71 against Donacloney and a great century against Muckamore.

Unbeknown at the time, a decade of triumphs and disasters lay ahead, but the club officials handled challenging situations on and off the field with tact and surety that only experience brings.

North Down 1st XI had done enough in 1968 by finishing second to return to senior cricket, albeit Senior League Two the following year and for the first time in a decade there was real optimism at The Green.

Despite a preliminary round exit from the Challenge Cup in 1969, to Cliftonville by 61 runs, morale was good with the enthusiastic and capable Billy Artt as captain. Billy had the experienced Walter Wishart and Willie Dempster to call on plus the youth of George Norris and Adrian Thompson in the bowling department. A fine all round sportsman in his own right he was a dashing motivating skipper who led by example, scoring plenty of runs. His opening partner was the prolific Malcolm Campbell and the promise of Paul Gilliland and Ian Shields gave grounds for great optimism.

Paul, cousin of John Gilliland, was a fine player with pure natural ability whose short stay at the club in the early Seventies produced some spectacular innings, including a polished 71 against Donacloney and a great century against Muckamore.

Unbeknown at the time, a decade of triumphs and disasters lay ahead, but the club officials handled challenging situations on and off the field with tact and surety that only experience brings.

But the 1972 season saw the team struggle in the big league, and it was a big league in every way consisting of 16 teams. Wins against Downpatrick, Donacloney, RUC and Laurelvale gave the team 13th place. 

In another NCU reshuffle in 1973 the league was split into three sections, with North Down in Section 2 and our team was amongst the pacemakers for most of the season.  The crucial tie was against nearest rivals Donacloney at the Green on 25th August and what a thriller it turned out to be.  Batting first, the home side were decimated by an outstanding bowling performance from Michael Lumb who took eight wickets for 32 runs to leave North Down 77 all out with only Geoffrey Dempster and Lawrence Hunter scoring in the twenties.

Donacloney had scored 33 before they lost their first wicket and then Hunter and Wishart took control with four for 23 and four for 19 respectively. The figures tell only part of the story, as the game was interspersed with good and dropped catches, run outs and near misses, and panic batting aplenty.  The unsung hero was Walter Montgomery who, although taking no wickets, bowled five overs for three runs at the crucial stage, enabling a dramatic one run win that guaranteed promotion.

The 1st XI was a well-balanced side.  Lawrence Hunter, Walter Wishart, Miller O’Prey, Adrian Thompson, Ronnie Elliott and Don Shields were augmented in the bowling by Walter Montgomery with his left-arm spinners.  Denis Artt had moved from Collegians to The Green and was arguably the best wicketkeeper in the country at this time.  His brilliance behind the stumps enhanced all the bowlers’ performances and he was a useful contributor with the bat although the bulk of the runs came from Malcolm Campbell, Billy Artt, Ian Shields and Geoffrey Dempster.

From the relative obscurity of Loopvale in the Belfast Cricket League, Billy Dale had gone to Civil Service but in 1974 he came to The Green thus beginning a long and distinguished cricketing career that saw him play through the not so good times, to later win senior league and cup honours.

 

It was still a struggle in the premier league although a sixth position retained premier status. However, that was to change in the most dramatic of fashions in 1975 when Woodvale’s Ken Kirkpatrick pulled Lawrence Hunter’s last ball past a well-patrolled boundary, to send North Down back into Section Two. It was a bitter pill to swallow and highlighted our plight of being too good for Section Two but not good enough to stay in Section One. We all knew something was missing but didn’t know what!

Another change of captaincy saw Hunter faced with the same highs and lows that Billy Artt and Ian Shields had had to deal with in previous years. A disappointing third place behind Ballymena and Instonians in 1976 was followed by another title in 1977, losing only two of the 14 fixtures. 

At Laurelvale in June, a young left arm bowler took two for 21 in his four overs and began a career that would be difficult to match in the annals of the club. Robin Haire’s emergence was certainly one of the reasons why Hunter felt that the side was ready to compete and remain in the top league. 

The first three games in 1978 set the tone.  Walter Wishart’s six for 42 was matched by Simon Corlett’s six for 49 at Ormeau and North Down lost by 16 runs.  At the Lawn, Waringstown were 68 for six chasing 109 when the rain intervened and in another nail-biter at Comber the following Saturday, Woodvale won off the penultimate ball.  With only one victory against RUC to show for a lot of effort, another bitter relegation pill was swallowed at the end of the season.

At that time the club was experiencing a great surge in popularity, mostly built around a strong social scene centred on the clubhouse. The committee had new faces and new ideas and these were starting to bring success down the club. In a short time they were to have a profound influence on the 1st XI.

The astute Sydney Elliott accepted the leadership in 1979 in another bid to win promotion, but diplomatic activities behind the scene were already taking place amongst some of the club’s administrators who realised that some new initiative was needed to give the team a competitive edge and end the up and down culture that had plagued the club for most of the Seventies.

Elliott’s team won the league with another 100% performance, but on the negative side was Ken Campbell’s departure to golf and fast bowler Brian Johnston’s departure to new pastures.  Both served the club well and deserved their winners’ medals.

It was a new era and new names were becoming established, occasional players in the team. They included John Gilliland, Clarence Hiles, Jimmy Galway, Garson Mowat, Stephen Barry, Peter Orr, Jack McMillan and Sammy Wilson.

Shades of things to come and maybe better days ahead?

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