“Ladies and gentlemen, we are privileged tonight to have in the audience two of Derry’s finest singing talents.”
Murmurs of approval from the Friday night crowd packed like sardines into the Molins Social Club on the outskirts of the city.
“They are currently in the middle of their European tour to promote their latest lp (long playing record for anyone under 30) which is climbing the UK charts and looks certain to give the talented duo their second number one album.”
Heads start to turn and everyone scans the huge stage to see if they can spot the local stars.
“The teenage duo have been described by Melody Maker as the next Simon and Garfunkel.
“I’m sure if you put your hands together they will come up on stage and give us one of their songs.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Fergal Coyle and Barry Chambers!”
Christ, that can’t be right I thought as time stood still, and the hordes centered in on us as we stood at the bar trying to look cool like Del Boy and Trigger in that famous Only Fools and Horses scene.
Fergal laughed. God, he had a great laugh. Big bellowing, and hearty. We were first cousins. Our mothers shopped together in Derry every Saturday for 50 plus years. If one bought a shirt or jumper then the other bought the same. When we went out we had to make sure we didn’t look like Jedward.
I was worried. While I was making the universal sign for no, he was waving to the crowd, acknowledging the frenzied applause, and striding like Mike Jagger towards the stage pulling me with him.
Fergal was strong. He’d worked with horses from a young age, and now at 17 also in a shirt factory. He was good looking, confident and could fight if the occasion arose. I, by contrast was incredibly thin, with bookish soft hands. But boy, could I run, had a great memory and could talk about any subject, especially with some Dutch courage – usually Smithwicks in those early years.
Fergal Coyle with his son Daniel
We were a good combination and had some great laughs and adventures over the years. So that’s how I ended up on stage, as Fergal continued to milk the crowd and get them even more worked up than they already were.
There was only one major problem looming. We weren’t Derry’s finest singing talents, nor indeed Ardmore’s or my household. We were more Tom and Jerry than Simon and Garfunkel, which was the duo’s original name. The guitarist asked us what we were going to sing. “
Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton in a key of C,” said Fergal. I tugged at his arm. Fergal, what the ****. Do you know the words? We can’t sing. They’ll lynch us. I began scouring the building for the nearest exits. He could fight it out, I was doing a runner.
The electric guitar kicks in and plays the most perfect introduction to the song. But not according to Fergal. He has the microphone and says, “Do you want to try that again? I don’t think you’ve got it quite right?
Take two. And then we sing. I wish I could tell you there was a happy ending, loads of applause like in the similar scene in a ‘Life Less Ordinary’ with Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz. Alas no, after a painful rendition in which every attempt by the band to drown us out only succeeded in us going higher and louder. I could never sing, but boy could I shout. I’ve never experienced so many people in one place being so quiet. Even at a funeral in church.
Fergal laughed. I laughed. We went to the bar. One more story to tell the grandchildren. We had been set up by a ‘friend’ who had given the fake news to the MC.
Fergal is most famous (infamous) for riding one of his horses into the local saloon, McCourts Bar in Ardmore. They have a little wooden dance floor which caused the horses hooves to do an impression of an Axel Rose dance, He hopped off and shouted, ”Two pints of Harp and a bale of hay for my good friend with the long face.”
He got barred. Only for a week though. Well five days to be exact. This was a Sunday and he was in again on the Friday. The horse was welcome back any time but had to take off his shoes first. Fergal’s sons are international horse jumpers, with Daniel once winning the Puissance at the Dublin Horse Show.
I was once banned for 99 years from the Beech Hill. For singing. It wasn’t that bad, honest. I was last there three years ago after we buried my mother in the adjacent graveyard. I sang again. I hadn’t improved but they didn’t ban me. They knew there were extenuating circumstances.
I mention the above as Wonderful Tonight came on the radio as I drove to Bonds Glen for the opening match of the North West season against Coleraine. It was a good omen.
I needed something positive after a throroughly miserable interpro experience last Thursday. I got it. I had a Carlsberg weekend. 2020 for me and many others has been a horrible experience. I haven’t see my wife and young daughter Caitlin who are back in Thailand in over a year.
She’s three and asked me last week why I didn’t come to visit her. I cried. Just got into bed fully clothed, pulled the sheets over my head and didn’t want to face the world. Eventually I had to go the toilet and decided I’d have a drink. A bottle of Jack Daniels lay unopened. One problem. No mixers. It’s okay I thought, small measures, plenty of ice.
It worked for the first one or two as I sang along to all the songs on Alexa that gave me happy memories. I felt great. Healing.
After my father died, I lived full-time with my mother to keep her company. She in her later years developed dementia. It was painful as you had to watch her disappear bit-by-bit. Barely recognisable from the incredible force of nature that she and many Irish mothers were in tough times as they raised large families in small houses.
There was one time of the week though that I got a part of her back. Sunday evenings when John Bennett on Radio Ulster played old songs. She would sing along in her beautiful voice, word perfect to every song.
When the programme broke at mid-point for the hourly news, I knew she would ask. “Son, why haven’t you married yet. I hope it isn’t because of me.” I would always answer, “I keep comparing them to you Kathleen and haven’t found any that measure up.” She would always laugh heartily and a Cheshire Cat smile would be on her face as her hands touched my cheek and said, “Thank you son. I'm scared. I don't know what's wrong with me.” Dementia is a horrible disease.
Next thing I remember from my one or two Jack Daniels was waking the next morning with an empty bottle and the hangover from hell. I had to get outdoors. One of my long walks around the hills of Ardmore and Curryfree would blow the cobwebs away. It did.
Bonds Glen is the North West equivalent of Oak Hill. Stunning views in the middle of nowhere between Ardmore and Donemana. I don’t have happy playing memories there. I can’t remember ever scoring any runs there. And I mean any.
I didn’t have much luck with the ball either but am certain I took more wickets than runs. I remember playing twice there in Midweek League and Cup games in late May 84 and 85. Fergal played too and did well in at least one of them, but we certainly lost the second.
Ian Moore shows me the old away changing room at Bonds Glen
I know that because groundsman Ian Moore showed me around the ground on Saturday and told me. He showed the old pavilion where I struggled to understand how a team could change in such a cramped space. It triggered the memories of Fergal and the two dates were those of the European Cup finals Liverpool played against Roma and Juventus – the latter the Heysel Stadium disaster that saw English sides banned from European competitions for years.
Bonds Glen looked like Lord’s. It felt better than Lord’s. The gloomy forecast had cleared and the sun was trying to break through. I talked with everybody and anybody. The cruellest aspect of lockdowns has been the absence of social interaction. The umpires were of similar vintage to me, Andy Stevenson and Ivor Dunn. They wanted to know how many times I’d run out Dessie Brolly who opened with me for years. “About as many runs as I got here,” my reply. Lots of laughter.
Everyone was happy. New coloured gear, umpires in red coats, old and young warming up. A minute’s silence for Roy Torrens and a lovely little speech by Andy. I went to the boundary edge and as the first ball was about to be delivered the sun broke through. It was warm. It was Roy saying, “No problem for you son.” I cried again. But a tear or two of joy.
Minute's silence for Roy Torrens
It was a great game. Two teenagers Sam Kincaid and Raymond Curry among their heroes. David Cooke at nearly 50 had top-scored for Coleraine. I could sympathise with his brother Gordon who got deposited into adjoining fields three times in an over by Mattie Barr. The same had happened to me in the mid-80's here. I knew I was in trouble when the guy came to the wicket without gloves. I didn't need Scott Irvine or an analyst to know there wouldn't be many leaves or forward defensives.The cows weren’t impressed. as the balls landed in the field like mortar shells.
As I drove back to Ardmore ‘Staying Alive’ by the Bee Gees came on the radio. I laughed. It’s a song that never fails to make me want to dance or sing. It lifts the mood. The CricketEurope Radio Results show went better than expected and got a good reaction.
Sunday morning and early afternoon had some really nasty showers and I thought my trip to Strabane for their game with Brigade would be off. However I arrived to find two teams and umpires mad keen to play. Another tonic.
Paddy Gillespie was the first person I met. He always calls me by my real first name. “Hello Eunan,” and laughs. Paddy has wintered well. He looks great as he enters his ninth decade. Beside him was his sidekick Joe Deans. He looked happy too. This was another good omen.
Paddy Gillespie and Joe Deans
There were family connections everywhere. Paddy’s four sons John, Michael, Mark and Peter were there helping with the ground. Two of his grandchildren were playing, Gary and Aaron, who was captain and busy using the super sopper. Joe’s grand-daughters were scoring the book and talking about the start of the Women’s season.
I haven’t put the tv on in nearly a month. I’ve never been a great fan. I’ve been an avid reader of books and always prefer the radio. The books have to be physically in my hand though. The family once bought me a Kindle. It’s still in a drawer somewhere, unused. I love scouring the second-hand book stores and charity shops. I love bargains. My tea last night was prawn starter, Mexican wrap with beans, strawberries and orange juice. All 75% off. It’s addictive.
A few years ago in Limavady I got two boxes of cricket books second-hand for a pittance. A man had died and his daughter had donated them. Among them was an autobiography of Jack Hobbs. He scored 199 centuries in all, 100 after the age of 40.
I was talking to Paddy and he asked, trying to remember who had achieved the feat of making all those hundreds after age 40.
“Jack Hobbs” I proudly announced. Paddy then demonstrated how Hobbs had adjusted his stance and footwork to be so successful in his later years. He had a trigger movement where his back foot went across slightly and deeper in the crease giving him a lot more time. Every day a school day.
There’s an excellent article on Hobbs here, including a line about Andy Ducat who was once recorded on the scorecard as, Absent Dead!
I almost cried again when I saw Peter with 124 Irish caps bowling to his young son Ruairi. I thought back to 2007 when I took photo of his brother John Gillespie bowling to his son Aaron. The circle of life and all that.
Peter Gillespie with his son and daughter
The game was another thriller, with teenager Kyle Magee’s six off the penultimate ball the defining moment. More cause for optimism. I sang teenage kicks in my head and thought about a headline.
Among the topics I discussed at matches of the last few days have been aside from the obvious Covid and cricket, have been Currency Conversion rates, Simmenthal cattle, Irish Army in Lebanon, European Super League and the greed of the big six, families, Surrey Loam clay, Finnish sniper Simo Häyhä who killed over 500 Germans in World War II, differential calculus and Dutch painters.
There was an email from Cricket Ireland a few weeks ago warning me (and others) of ‘engaging with the players’ at training sessions and matches. I pleaded guilty as charged. It made it sound as if ‘engaging’ was akin to shitting in their kit-bags. It’s what I do. I talk. I listen. I empathise. I laugh.
For 13 months of on and off lockdowns, often the only contact I had was chatting to the village idiots;Ardmore has a few and it’s not a big village on my daily walk - they probably had the same thought as they talked to me!
I looked forward to it. It’s good to talk, and indeed write. This column has been therapeutic. It will be the last of the season though. I’ve got it out of my system. I’ve a few more ideas and stories in mind but that will be for my Autumn album.
I’ve known most of these players’ parents and their grandparents. They trust me. The players in the interpros that I don’t know I want to know. I’m ringing and interviewing them. I want to know not just about their cricket, but their education, work and family. There will be no hatchet jobs. I’m for them. I want to see them being successful and having a senior career.
I know it’s a bugbear with me but Irish cricket is different to English cricket and ICC cricket. We shouldn’t be cutting and pasting regulations from their handbooks and taking it as our gospel or bible. We are different. That’s what a lot of people don’t get. We may speak the same language but we’re not the same. Thank God.
Those that do get us grow to love the country and we love them. It’s what makes us special. You sensed the joy recently when Kamal Merchant got Irish citizenship. It took years to achieve but he got there. I love the fact that Strabane and St Johnston have a range of nationalities in their teams – and now I can add Ardmore to that list. Welcome Tyron, Rachit and Dharam.
One of the Strabane trio Vlad Murthy was standing near Michael Gillespie when he started slagging me about my mop of grey hair.
"Well actually, I think his salt and pepper hair, makes him look very distinguished," said Vlad.
He's passed his media studies course with an A in my books. Once a player said something unkind to me. I gave photos of him being bowled free to every paper I had on my distribution list. Add photographers to policemen and traffic wardens of people not to cross.
For years I played with Karl Duncan, who was I think the only West Indian in Derry for decades. From Jamaica he came to work in Du Pont in 1978. He had a big Afro, drove a Kawasaki 750cc bike wearing a gold helmet and was quite a character at the Bleachgreen in the 70s and 80s.
He was fond of shall we say ‘mind altering substances’ on occasions, and I could write a book about the funny episodes that this caused. Usually on the occasions a cup was won. Luckily this was Ardmore. If it he had played with Donemana, they would have required Pablo Escobar to supply the fuel for the celebrations.
When I got home on Sunday night the cause for joy continued. My sisters had been and cleaned the house from top to bottom. Turns out a man’s idea of something being clean isn’t really. The house looked like a hotel. And a Sunday dinner with dessert was waiting for me in two tin-foiled plates. Family.
I got a call from my good friend Odran Flynn who has been struggling with his health this past year. Thankfully he has been given the all-clear from cancer, and is on the road back to recovery. My spirits lifted even further.
We need more like Odran.
As I sat doing all the wee jobs that editing a website as vibrant as this one, sure enough John Bennett came on again, and this time I smiled rather than cried.
“I eventually found someone who compared to you Kathleen. Her name is Ramphai and she’s intelligent, loving, kind, funny, patient and generous (albeit with my money).
“We named our daughter after you. She has bits of all of us. Her mother’s looks. My determination and sense of mischief. The best of both of us. You would love her. She’s going to be a handful.”
Caitlin Chambers on her first day of nursery school
I just hope she can sing better than me.
“It’s late in the evening, She’s wondering what clothes to wear. She puts on her make-up and brushes her long blonde hair….and when she asks me, do I look alright? I say my darling you look Wonderful Tonight.”