Ritchie Kelly, March 2013
If there is one local sport where for years the participants felt hard done by in terms of international recognition it was cricket.
The summer game has been played competitively in the North West since the late 1800's but only in relatively modern times have the top cricketers from this area gained regular international recognition.
One could argue forcibly that the horizons broadened considerably for players in the North West Union area from 1966 onwards with the introduction of the Guinness Cup. Suddenly Irish cricket had a new dimension, a way of determining those who were good enough to play for their country. Not surprisingly it was an innovation that was gleefully seized upon by the North West. It was a chance at last to prove directly to the Belfast and Dublin officials that in this small, mainly rural, generally working class environment there existed a standard of play that was the equal of anything prevailing elsewhere.
Previously there were trial games of a sort but the Guinness Cup allowed the local union's top players to compete directly in hard nosed competition against those who previously gobbled up, unopposed, the Ireland places. Players in the north-west corner of the island could now put forward an argument for international selection where it couldn't be disputed - on the field of play.
Before the introduction of the Guinness Cup only exceptional North West Union cricketers were considered good enough to play for Ireland.
Consequently it was not hard to understand why the North West Union team embraced the new competition so wholeheartedly. It was the kind of challenge they'd been waiting on for three quarters of a century. Not surprisingly they were determined to make an impact. They had a point to prove and with one of the greatest Irish spin bowlers of all time, Scott Huey, shrewdly captaining the side, they did just that.
The North West Union team had something else going for them. Theirs was an established entity, a small close-knit community. It followed that the team ethic would be strong. The local union line up was in effect a club side. The other teams appeared often to contain players whose primary aim was their own performance; the welfare of the team took second place. That was not the case with the North West team. And there was another factor - the forceful, the attacking nature of cricket in this area.
The Guinness Cup competition involved six teams across the island and it afforded the selectors an in-depth view of the best talent in Irish cricket in a fiercely competitive environment. .
What followed shocked the Belfast and Dublin unions.
Under Scott Huey's shrewd leadership and backboned by hugely talented operators like Ossie Colhoun, Aubrey Finlay, Roy Torrens and Brendan Donaghey the North West won the initial tournament with a series of commanding displays that the other representative sides simply couldn't match.
In the years that followed it was clear there were indeed many outstanding players on the North West Union's patch and henceforth the Ireland selectors would find it difficult to ignore them.
The Guinness Cup had been the brainchild of Brian Kernan of Pembroke.
Hitherto, only outrageously talented performers - to name but a few - like Scott Huey, Aubrey Finlay, EDR Shearer, Ossie Colhoun and Andy McFarlane, the best all rounder of his era, had got a regular run on Ireland's international teams.
Scott Huey said the tournament did a lot to promote cricket in the north west of Ireland. He added: "We got very little publicity until the arrival of the Guinness Cup. And that changed everything not only in the north west but nationally as well. It put the North West Union firmly in the limelight."
" Andy McFarlane for instance should have got a lot more caps because he was an outstanding player. But the way things evolved he wasn't in the frame."
So it wasn't hard to see that there was almost a grudge element in the way the North West team went about the initial Guinness Cup. And the opening game in the 1966 campaign underlined their fighting spirit. It was at Sydney Parade in Dublin against South Leinster.
The North West Union could only muster 120. That they managed even that modest score was due to a sixth wicket stand by Cyril Ward and Jack Curry which yielded 56 runs in 37 minutes and then came some hard hitting from Marshall Williamson.
The score certainly didn't look enough when with only 68 runs needed for victory South Leinster still had eight wickets intact. But then outstanding work with the ball by Roy Torrens and Scott Huey swung the game towards the North West: Torrens took 7 for 36.
That opening game of the Guinness Cup had unveiled a new talent. Scott Huey remembered how well Roy Torrens bowled against South Leinster. "Roy was just starting out but he was a very aggressive bowler…. a very, very good bowler. We were in trouble. I think Roy took seven wickets. It was an unexpected win but we then went on to win the Guinness Cup that year."
And the veteran Huey and the raw newcomer Torrens were to outwit quite a few more batsmen that season. The North West quickly made it three victories in succession thanks principally to Huey.
At the Recreation Park in Strabane North Leinster sent the North West back for a disappointing score of 128.
It was a small total to defend but Roy Torrens gained two early wickets, the second a ball that came back to send J.D. Caprani on the long walk having scored just 8 and North Leinster were 28 for 2.
Then Scott Huey came on and as one of the newspapers put it, "the fireworks started."
From 48 for 3 North Leinster slumped to 73 all out. Huey's spellbinding sojourn resulted in 6 for 19 off 9.4 overs (4 were maidens).
Among the North West victories was a convincing win over Ulster Town. Batting with confidence at Beechgrove the home side scored 139 for 4 to get home by six wickets. Clark Nicholl struck a lively 50 not out.
Irish cricket history was made at Sion Mills on Saturday 13 August 1966 when the North West became the first All-Ireland champions. The local union scored 210 for 7 declared against Munster and the southerners clung on for the draw - 137 for 9. The news from elsewhere that the Ulster Town game had been washed out meant that the local boys could have afforded a defeat and still been champions.
Put into bat the top four North West batsmen made the most of the opportunity - Cyril Ward 45, Clark Nicholl 33, Brendan Donaghy 70 and Aubrey Finlay 36.
Afterwards EDR Shearer, president of the Irish Cricket Union, handed over the Guinness Cup and the Waterford Glass trophies. . The victory proved conclusively that the standard of play in the North West Union area was sound - of sufficient quality indeed to produce players good enough to play for Ireland.
Looking back years afterwards the first Guinness Cup winning captain Scott Huey recalled that the North West were very much the outsiders. And certainly no one believed they were good enough to win the title outright.
"We were very much the underdogs," Huey said.
"We had a fairly good batting side but the strength of the team was in the bowling."
But much better was to follow. The year that really made the local union the envy of the Irish cricket was 1969 when not alone did Scott Huey's talented side win the Guinness Cup again but the North West's up and coming youngsters proved that they too were the best in Ireland by lifting the inaugural under-19 Jeyes All Ireland Cup.
During that memorable summer Saturday 9 August 1969 was a pivotal day. On that occasion the North West went joint top of the Guinness Cup table with an easy victory over South Leinster at Sion Mills. The home team declared on 217 for 8 and then shot South Leinster out for 58. Billy Miller was the top North West scorer with a fiery 54 not out. Tommy Harpur got 41 and Cyril Ward 32. The North West's best bowler was Scott Huey 4 for 13 and Raymond Moan, about to leave for a weeklong coaching stint at Lords, collected three wickets for 18 runs.
Then in mid-September the North West made sure of another Guinness Cup win when they beat the holders North Leinster at Sion Mills by eight wickets in a game that lasted only three hours. The visitors simply had no answer to the North West's spin attack and they were all out in less than two hours for 55.
The 18 year-old Sion Mills spinner, Raymond Moan, was the architect of their downfall with an analysis of 6 for 26. And the veteran skipper Scott Huey took 3 for 9.
The north West team fielded brilliantly with Ron Collins taking five close-to-the-wicket catches.
Meanwhile the North West's under-19 cricketers had been winning against all comers. The double was now a distinct possibility.
By the end of July the local youngsters were still unbeaten in the All Ireland Jeyes Cup. A look at the team announced in the Derry Journal for the crunch game against South Leinster at the Recreation Park in Strabane on 30 July gave a hint of the emerging quality.
The line-up was: Ian Rankin(capt), Ivan Lapsley (St Johnston), Billy McSparron (Brigade), Ivan Cochrane, Roy McBrine ( Donemana), Shaun Bradley, Ken Craig (Eglinton), William Wilson (Creevedonnell), Noel McMichael (Limavady), Raymond Moan, Tommy Harpur (Sion Mills). Twelfth man: Leslie Kerr (Strabane).
The North West boys went on to win not just that game but also the tournament overall without losing a single match. Again like their senior counterparts in the Guinness Cup they had won an All Ireland competition in its inaugural year. John McGowan, Ken McCormack, Dessie Harper and Tommy Allen were in charge of the team.
Ken McCormack said that every member of the team went on to play senior cricket and some were already doing so at the time of the All Ireland victory in 1969.
He added: "This success was before any structured coaching here so the team was a credit to boys cricket in the north west of Ireland.
The outstanding performance came from Raymond Moan who scored 100 not out against Munster and then took 6 for 9.
Other outstanding North West players were Ian Rankin, Shaun Bradley, who was unlucky to be out for 99 against Ulster Town, Tommy Harpur, Roy McBrine and Ivan Cochrane. Moan won a bat for the only century of the competition and the others won gloves for scores over 50. Ivan Cochrane was the top batsman with an average of 48.75, Tommy Harpur was third 43.00, Raymond Moan fourth 42.50, Shaun Bradley sixth with 38.00, Roy McBrine eleventh with 27.25 and Ian Rankin twelfth with 22.20.
Moan was top of the bowling averages with 32 wickets at a cost of 7.3 runs a wicket.
It was an extraordinary period of triumph for cricketers domiciled in the north west of the island. It proved conclusively for the first time that cricket in the North West Union area was as good as anything being played elsewhere in Ireland.
There was in one way a sad aspect to it: by confirming the standard of play in the North West Union it helped highlight the injustices suffered by those fine cricketers from years long gone, who were good enough, but never got an opportunity to play for Ireland. What a galling experience to have to stand by and watch inferior players from Belfast, Dublin and Cork gaining international selection because of where they lived and who they played for.
And Scott Huey led the side brilliantly but he tended to underplay his own role.
"It was an easy side to captain because they were very keen. It was a very happy side - almost like a club team. The camaraderie was tremendous."
Huey is being exceptionally modest in making this assertion. The reality is that he was a brilliant captain. George Brolly a member of the 1966 side gave a lot of credit to Huey's leadership. He said: "If they failed to win Huey sought opinions from everyone as to how he might have done things differently in order to get the right result. He was ahead of his time in the analysis of games and team meetings."
And following that memorable first All Ireland victory in 1966 the North West has gone on to fare exceptionally well.
They've won the inter-pro series more times than anyone else: eight championships and two shared is a distinguished haul for an area that Dublin and Belfast tended to regard as country cousins.
Arguably the 1990's is the era the North West made its biggest ever impact. Evidence of that is seen at inter-pro level where a hat-trick of successes marked local cricket's overall supremacy on the island. For three successive seasons 1992 to 1994 the inter-pro title came north and in the Irish Senior Cup the cricketers from the North West corner of the island showed their command of the one day game with five successive cup victories in the period 1996 to 2000. Exceptional stuff.
J.Clarence Hiles in his brilliant book A History of Senior Cricket in Ulster puts forward a compelling argument to regard the 1990's as a truly golden age for North West Union cricket.
Clarence wrote: "The sentimentalists may reminisce on the great days of, Shearer, McFarlane, McGarvey, Taylor and Jeffrey, perhaps even the Huey, Flood, Colhoun, Donaghy, Finlay and Torrens era but all their wonderful achievements paled beside those of Curry, Smyth, Thompson, Rutherford, and the McBrine twins. In so many ways the modern North West players rewrote the script."
"Looking back through North West cricket archives there was the great Sion Mills team of the twenties, City of Derry and Strabane in the thirties, several fine Donemana and Sion teams in the post war-era, but none matches the success of Donemana and Limavady in the nineties."
"Perhaps the comparisons are academic, as the modern game changed so dramatically, so much so that by 1999 virtually all the old batting records had been captured by the modern players."
And to back up Clarence Hiles argument Desmond (Dekker) Curry's prodigious feat in scoring 1900 runs in a single season (1999) during this period is surely proof that the sport had truly moved on to a new era. Curry's average that season was 70.50 and just for good measure he captured 57 wickets as well.
One factor is certain the advent of national competitions - at club and inter-pro level - afforded the North West Union players the opportunity to make a strong case for cricket in the North West. For too long Dublin and Belfast had hogged the limelight, gobbling up international places often at the expense of outstanding players in the North West.
That day has gone.